How long does it typically take you before you break your New Year’s resolution? Do you even remember what you promised yourself you would change way back in January? As many of us know, it isn’t uncommon for people to give up quickly; only a small number of us are actually able to keep our resolutions, with 8% of people achieving their New Year’s goals. Unfortunately, breaking bad habits is hard to do.
Fortunately for us, there is a helpful framework that can make it easier to understand how habits are formed and how to change them. Charles Duhigg, the author of “The Power of Habit” refers to this framework as the habit loop, which involves a trigger, a routine, and a reward.
You drive by an ice cream store (Trigger). This is the reminder that triggers the behavior. It’s possible that you didn’t plan on going there, but it’s hot outside and you think that it’s not so bad to just have one ice cream scoop.
You eat the ice cream (Routine). This is the actual behavior.
You satisfy your craving (Reward). This is the feeling of satisfaction after eating ice cream.
If the reward is positive, you may find yourself repeating the same behavior again. As the trigger and reward continue to pair enough times, the habit is formed. Every habit follows this pattern.
So how does this framework help you change your habits? The trick is to remember that you can never get rid of a bad habit; you replace the routine, but keep the same trigger and reward.
Step 1: Keep it Simple Changing some habits can be very difficult and can take much practice. Instead of trying to change something major (like losing 30 lbs.) and then giving up when you don’t see an immediate change, start with something more manageable where you can create small wins (like eating less ice cream!).
Step 2: Identify the Trigger and Reward You can’t change a specific habit unless you know what is triggering and rewarding your behavior. Experiment with exploring what reward you are actually seeking. In the ice cream example, were you seeking the satisfaction of something yummy? To quench your thirst? To take a break from your busy day?
What about your trigger? It’s important to pay close attention to the situation surrounding the moment you first noticed your craving. This will help you understand what exactly is triggering your behavior. Was it the time of day? Seeing the ice cream shop? Not drinking enough water? The temperature?
Step 3: Introduce a Replacement Habit Once you have identified what is triggering and rewarding your habit, you can begin to introduce new behaviors that will respond to the same trigger and give you the same reward. For example, if your trigger was the time of day and the reward was taking a break from your busy schedule, then try scheduling an alternate behavior, such as going for a walk or calling a friend at the time of day where you usually get triggered.
Step 4: Enlist Others Often we try to change our habits without letting anyone else know about it. We may be embarrassed to tell people about our ‘bad’ habits because of fear of judgement. However, think about the tremendous influence that people can have on your behavior. Changing habits is much more effective when you have a social support system. Rather than thinking of others as being judgmental, think of them as your supporters. Let your friends, co-workers, and family members know what you are trying to accomplish so they can help you stick to your new goal.
Step 5: Practice! Studies show that on average it takes 66 days to form a new habit. Perseverance and continued practice are essential! Most people will fail many times before they are successful. Don’t give up if you make mistakes or fail. Forgive yourself and continue to practice. The more you do it, the more natural it will become.
Remember that all of our habits have a trigger and a reward, and to be able to change your habit, you must find out what these are. If you want to change a habit, you can’t simply extinguish it, you need to replace it with something new. Research shows that on average it takes 66 days for a new habit to stick. So, make sure to enlist your friends and family and continue to practice. You will likely make mistakes and fail along the way, but plan for those mistakes, and get back on track. The only way that you’ll be able to shed that old habit is with hard work!