“Most people are in favor of change, as long as they can continue to do things the same as they always have.”

-Bill Phillips

What you are going to learn:

  1. Why Habits are so powerful and potentially dangerous
  2. The four components of the habit loop
  3. How a better understanding of habits can help us improve them
  4. Why it is a mistake to blame our willpower

Change is difficult, but we are all capable of change. Our lives are continually changing, learning to drive, marriage, babies, new job responsibilities, and new technological tools. Initiation is the most challenging phase because it is mentally exhausting. Learning a new skill requires our cerebral cortex to do the heavy lifting, but as the new task becomes routine, the more resilient basal ganglia take over. The action becomes easier and easier. Our conscious brain goes on autopilot, and our actions flow. You undoubtedly experienced this when you were learning to drive. In the beginning, it required your total concentration, but now you can drive, adjust the cabin temperature, tune the radio, and carry on a conversation.

In the early 1990s, MIT Researchers studying the brain activity of rats navigating a maze made a surprising discovery. As the rats memorized the maze, they zipped through it faster and faster, but their brain activity quieted. During the initial phase of the experiment, when the rats were learning the maze, their brains were exploding with activity, but during the later stages of the experiment, their minds were only active at the beginning and end of each trial.

This is because learning a new routine requires both the prefrontal cortex and the basal ganglia to work. The cerebral cortex is guiding the action, while the basal ganglia are learning the pattern. Once the routine has been performed enough times, the basal ganglia can perform the routine without any guidance from the prefrontal cortex. Our basal ganglia convert the sequences of actions into automated routines. This is known as chunking. These routines are stored in our basal ganglia, waiting for a cue in the environment to be initiated.

Rat Maze Habit Loop

Every habit has a Cue, a Routine, and a Reward. Our mind identifies the Cue, a physical, mental, or emotional trigger; then, it executes a conditioned Routine to receive a Reward. In this case, the rat encounters the Cue; it hears a click and sees the maze partition disappear. The Cue initiates the Routine, and the rat runs through the maze in a memorized sequence of turns. At the end of the Routine, the rat receives his chocolate Reward.

Our brain relies on routines to conserve mental energy, but it needs to decide which Routine to perform. The initial spike in brain activity is the rat determining which Routine to do. Once the rat chooses a Routine, its decision centers quiet, and their basal ganglia take over, quickly navigating the maze unfettered by conscious thought. When the rat sees the Reward at the end of the exercise, the brain jolts itself awake. It makes sure that the pattern unfolded as anticipated.

Change is possible, but it begins with mindfulness. The biggest challenge we face is not repeating what we have been conditioned to do. At least half of our daily actions are habits. To free up cognitive bandwidth, our conscious mind pawns off repetitive tasks. This system relieves our conscious mind from having to make countless decisions. This arrangement allows us to avoid decision fatigue and mental exhaustion. The downside is that we aren’t mindful of our habits. Bad habits are dangerous because they are reflexive. We aren’t thinking – we’re reacting.

Basic Habit LoopHabits follow a four-step process. First, there is a Cue that stimulates a Craving. Second, the Craving compels us to perform a conditioned Routine. Finally, there is a Reward that satisfies our Craving and reinforces the Habit. The more pleasurable the Reward, the more likely we are to repeat the behavior. This explains the pattern of brain activity the researchers observed, and it helps explain why habits are so valuable and potentially dangerous.

Ann Graybiel, one of the scientists who oversaw many of the basal ganglia experiments, said, “Habits never really disappear. They’re encoded into the structures of our brain, and that’s a huge advantage for us because it would be awful if we had to relearn how to drive after every vacation. The problem is that your brain can’t tell the difference between bad and good habits, and so if you have a bad one, it’s always lurking there, waiting for the right cues and rewards.”[i]

“If a learned pattern remains in the brain after the behavior is extinguished, maybe that’s why it’s so difficult to change a habit. It is as though somehow, the brain retains a memory of the habit context, and this pattern can be triggered if the right habit cues come back.” Graybiel added, “This situation is familiar to anyone who is trying to lose weight or to control a well-engrained habit. Just the sight of a piece of chocolate cake can reset all those good intentions.”[ii]

Unfortunately, bad habits are the easiest to restart because they provide immediate gratification. While we have evolved as a species, our reward system hasn’t. It still heavily favors immediate gratification. Habits are dangerous because they live in our most primitive brain centers, where urges overrule logic and reason. Where goals don’t extend past a few minutes. It’s the reason we sacrifice our long-term goals for instant gratification. We must recognize when we aren’t making a deliberate decision.

“If there is a secret for greater self-control, the science points to one thing: The Power of Paying Attention. It’s training the mind to recognize when you’re making a choice, rather than running on autopilot.”

– Kelly McGonigal.

I am as vulnerable to bad habits as anyone. I typically drink two to three cups of coffee each day. Just like millions of other people, the COVID-19 pandemic turned my daily routine upside-down. Working from home meant I no longer had a clearly defined work schedule. To make things worse, some contractors were let go, and their workloads were added to mine. Tired and stressed by the extra work and uncertainty, I doubled my caffeine consumption. Not only was I drinking more, but I was also drinking later into the afternoon. As a result, my sleep started to suffer. Poor sleep only added to my stress and my yearning for coffee. Like most bad habits, it created a vicious cycle that only intensified my desire for coffee.

At the core of each habit is a neurological loop consisting of four components: Cue, Craving, Routine, and Reward. The Cue, in this case, was me feeling tired and stressed. My Routine was drinking a delicious cup of coffee. The Reward was a reduced feeling of fatigue and renewed focus.

When you try to break a bad habit, it is always a great idea to let supportive friends and family know what you are trying to do. They will provide a layer of accountability and encouragement and often help you formulate a plan. We lack objectivity when we are solving the problems we created for ourselves. My beautiful wife asked me why I drank so much coffee. I told her that it helped me focus, and sipping on a hot beverage while working made it more enjoyable. She suggested that I stop drinking coffee after 1 PM, replacing it with decaffeinated coffee or tea. The caffeine-free beverages would give me the same sensation I was craving without the caffeine that was causing my sleepless nights. Substitution is a very effective way of breaking a bad habit. Typically, the Cue, in this example, stress, and fatigue, isn’t something we can change, but my response can be. We cannot eliminate every cue, but we can change how we will react to them.

“The Golden Rule of Habit Change: You can’t extinguish a bad habit; you can only change it.”

– Charles Duhigg

The most effective substitutions are those that provide similar rewards. In this example, the decaffeinated coffee provided the sensation I was craving without negative consequences. If you don’t have someone to help you solve your problem, think on paper. Jot down the Cue, Routine, Craving, and Reward associated with the bad habit. Then find a new Routine that can scratch the same itch.

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”

– Socrates

Shaping your environment is another technique you can use. In this example, removing coffee from our home would have eliminated the temptation to drink it. I didn’t choose that option, but I always had decaffeinated tea and coffee in my kitchen as a healthy alternative. Perhaps you want to replace the habit of staying up late watching Netflix with nightly reading. You could set up an ideal reading area. A comfortable spot with adequate lighting, a great book, a bookmarker, a highlighter, and a journal to capture key concepts or ideas inspired by your reading. Programing your router to turn off each evening would eliminate the temptation to stay up late watching TV, and it would act as a prompt to read.

With a bit of imagination, you should be able to figure out how you can interrupt and replace any of your bad habits. If you are committed, you’ll develop an implementation plan and apply what you have learned until it becomes second nature. After all, knowledge doesn’t change our lives; action does, especially, repeated actions, like habits.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”

– Albert Einstein

Elephant - Rider - PathTHE ELEPHANT & THE RIDER

Thus far, I have provided you with the mechanics of breaking a bad habit, but I haven’t addressed the Elephant in the room. In the New York Times bestselling book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, the authors describe the struggle we all face when “we want to change” our habits. The battle is between the logic-driven part of our brain, the Rider, and the emotion-driven part of our mind, the Elephant.[iv] The Rider is weak and prone to overthinking things, becoming overwhelmed by decision fatigue and analysis paralysis. The Elephant is his opposite, powerful and instinctive, fueled by emotions and primal urges. The Elephant can easily overwhelm the Rider, especially when he is indecisive. The Path they travel is the external environment. The Rider can influence the Elephant’s behavior by shaping the Path, but he cannot overcome him through brute force.

The environment is the invisible hand that shapes our habits.  Unfortunately, most of us live in an environment that someone else created, but we don’t have to. We can design our environment to avoid temptation, ambiguity and establish conspicuous cues to prompt good habits. The Rider cannot afford to hesitate, or he will lose control. Our impulsive Elephant will take over, and he’ll sacrifice what we want MOST for what we want NOW.

 “The weakness of the Elephant, our emotional and instinctive side, is clear: It’s lazy and skittish, often looking for the quick payoff (ice cream cone) over the long-term payoff (being thin). When change efforts fail, it’s usually the Elephant’s fault, since the kinds of change we want typically involve short-term sacrifices for long-term payoffs.

― Chip Heath, Switch

We can override our Elephant’s urges through willpower, but it is a losing strategy. It will deplete our willpower and leave us more susceptible to the next temptation. It is much more effective to shape the Path and pre-decide what we will do. We still need to motivate our Elephant. Keeping a habit tracker is going to help you inspire your Elephant. He will be motivated by your consistency. He will want to keep your unbroken streak alive. Each time you put an X in your habit tracker, he will get a shot of dopamine. It will make the new habit more rewarding. It is very satisfying, like crossing off an item on our to-do list.  [Download our FREE Habit Tracker}

The most effective way to remove one habit is with another habit; “un clavo saca otro clavo,” one nail drives out another.” Cues in our environment trigger a response. We need to pre-decide what our new response will be. Our Rider cannot hesitate. He must give your Elephant a new way forward. You cannot simply tell your Elephant not to do something. We need to have an alternative action ready to go. When we attempt to suppress a thought, we make things worse. We begin to fixate on it instead. Psychologists call this Ironic Theory.

A classic example is asking someone not to think of a white bear. They immediately find it difficult to think of anything else. Their mind keeps checking in to ensure they are not thinking about it, ironically causing them to fixate on it. Instead of telling yourself not to do something, give yourself something else to focus on, like a new habit. Shaping the Path and having an alternative routine is crucial to interrupting a bad habit. If we are uncertain or cannot perform the new behavior, we will regress to our old familiar one. Ideally, the new Routine will provide some of the same benefits that the old Routine provided.

The change strategies are designed to increase your awareness of the cues that initiate your bad habits, develop triggers for good habits, and shape your environment to make good habits easier and bad habits more difficult. The efficacy of these strategies has been proven in clinical studies, but no approach will work unless you do the work. Unless you change something you do every day, you will not achieve a different result. Everyone struggles with willpower, and everyone develops bad habits. Our reward system favors bad habits. If we don’t design our environment correctly, bad habits are going to win. Good habits require effort – bad habits don’t.

Willpower is an ineffective change strategy. Shaping the Path, on the other hand, works amazingly well. When we shape our environment correctly, we discourage bad habits. The more committed we are to shaping our environment, the less willpower we’ll need.

Willpower is the scapegoat of the uncommitted. If you examine disciplined people’s environments, you will discover they engineered it to eliminate the need for willpower. They don’t have more willpower than the rest of us. They shape the Path so that the Rider can guide the Elephant along a route free of temptation and ambiguity.

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[i] Charles, Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Random House Trade Paperbacks (January 7, 2014).

[ii] Cathryn M. Delude, “Brain researchers explain why old habits die hard”, News Office Correspondent October 19, 2005.

[iii] Charles, Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Random House Trade Paperbacks (January 7, 2014).

[iv] Chip Heath, and Dan Heath, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, Crown Business; 1st edition (February 16, 2010).

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