One of my core beliefs about self-improvement is that the best way to change your behavior is not through picturesque motivational posters but through tapping into the most basic and primal instincts of your brain. A lot of our behavior is instinctual and unconscious – a habit. So in order to develop better habits in your twenties, you must first understand The Habit Cycle.
Consider the number of times a day your fingers automatically take you to Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram with you deliberately deciding to spend your time there. Mindfulness and learning to consciously chose how you spend your time is absolutely an important skill, however, if we know that a lot of our everyday behavior is driven by our dumb monkey brains chasing dopamine hits, why not hack that to build healthy, long-term habits?
The Habit Cycle
There has been a lot of research into how and why people build habits because humans are, at our core, creatures of routine and therefore every human that ever has, or ever will exist, has a set of habits that shape their daily lives.
My favorite model for building habits is called the Habit Cycle (or sometimes the Habit Loop) and was originally introduced by Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit. Now, confession time, I have not read the book itself. My excuse is that, like many of you, I have an ever-growing reading list that I will likely never finish. Therefore, I will be presenting the ideas from this book as taught to me by two of my favorite self-improvement content creators on the internet, Thomas Frank and Improvement Pill.
So, now that you’ve slogged through this whole preamble, let’s get to the meat of the thing: what is the Habit Cycle and how does it work?
The habit cycle is a three-step process that makes up every single habit you have, from checking your email to brushing your teeth to smoking a cigarette. The three steps are
- The Cue
- The Routine
- The Reward
Let’s break these down individually using the simple example of brushing your teeth, a habit all of us (hopefully) have successfully developed. Once you understand what you are doing unconsciously, you can change things up a bit and trick that monkey brain into finding good habits just as rewarding as bad habits.
The Cue is when your brain gets told that it is time to perform the actions that comprise the habit (this is called the Routine, but we’re not there yet, do skip ahead!) There are five categories of common cues:
- Emotional State
- Actions of Others
- Preceding Action
For our example, unless you are an absolute madwoman, I’m guessing you brush your teeth in the morning and the evening. Therefore it is likely that your cue for that habit is a particular time of day. However, I always brush my teeth in the morning immediately after getting out of the shower, so at this point, my cue is likely a Preceding Action cue.
Understanding and being able to recognize your cues is super important for two reasons:
First off, when you are adding new habits to your life, you want to attach them to things that you can count on consistently happening, therefore, choosing an Emotional State cue or Actions of Others cue is a bad idea, because you can’t really count on when those will happen. The most effective way to introduce a new habit is to pick one of the existing habits that you absolutely do every day (think SUPER basic: waking up, brushing your teeth, eating) and tie the new habit to this existing action. Thomas Frank says that when he wanted to start reading more, he decided to tie it to his habit of eating and would always read for a bit while he ate.
Secondly, when you are trying to break a bad habit, the first step is to recognize what the cue for the habit is. Improvement Pill’s advice for breaking bad habits can be summed up by his mantra “Replace, not erase.” By this, he means that you have to recognize the cue and the reward that makes you do the bad habit and then you replace the habit with a different, healthier habit that gives you the same reward. You keep the same cue as well, as the only part that is changed is the routine itself. This is an incredibly effective strategy for breaking bad habits, but you can’t even begin if you don’t know how to recognize and label cues.
The idea of the routine is simple and requires very little explanation. It is the habit itself. It is all of the actions that comprise what you would think of as the habit. In our example, it is picking up your toothbrush, putting water and toothpaste on it, brushing your teeth, rinsing off your brush, rinsing out your mouth, and putting your toothbrush away.
When you are breaking bad habits, this is the part of the cycle you are trying to get rid of, not the cue or reward.
The reward seems straightforward. It is after all in the name. It is the reason for doing the habit. What is unexpected about the reward is that it can take many forms and the reward for a habit might not be as straightforward as you think it is. Let’s circle back to our example. The obvious reward is the feeling of clean teeth and not having bad breath. But here are two others I can think off the top of my head:
- Sense of accomplishment
- Stress relief (from mundane repetitive action)
Figuring out your reward for a particular habit is the best place to start the “replace, not erase” process for breaking bad habits. One of Duhigg’s go-to anecdotes is how he broke the habit of buying a cookie from his office cafeteria every day.
The first day, instead of going to the cafeteria, he left the office and went for a walk instead.
The second day, he went up to the cafeteria and got a chocolate bar instead of a cookie.
The third day, he went to the cafeteria and didn’t buy anything, just caught up with some friends.
Through isolating each part of the routine, he figured out that the reward he was seeking was feeling connected. So, he replaced the routine by getting up, seeking out one of his friends in the office and chatting with them for a bit before returning to work.
Figuring out your rewards requires the most introspection and breaking your habits into parts like Duhigg did. Keeping a journal about how you respond is a great way to get started.
How It Worked For Me
If you are trying to build a new habit, remember that rewards that are “good rewards” might not work for you. For years I had serious issues getting up in the morning, I would miss classes and work because of my unparalleled ability to sleep through an alarm.
I tried all the tips for building a good morning routine: no social media, quiet time, a cup of tea, a shower right when you wake up, journalling. None of it worked and I kept sleeping through my alarm. It didn’t work because I wasn’t giving myself a reward that worked for me. Instead, I was trying to build a second habit on a habit that didn’t exist. I was giving myself a chore to do first thing. It wasn’t until someone mentioned to me that they had a friend who solved their oversleeping problem by waking up early and watching an episode of their favorite TV show first thing. This genuinely shocked me, because this person was productive and put-together and that is not what productive, put-together people do first thing in the morning. You weren’t supposed to use your computer first thing in the morning and you definitely weren’t supposed to watch tv first thing.
But I’d tried everything else, so I thought I’d give it a shot. Watching TV didn’t exactly work for me, but it was closer than anything I’d tried before and it did get me to wake up every morning. I figured out I needed something a little more interactive. Now I wake up, move from my bed to the comfy reading chair in my room and listen to one of my favorite podcasts (always something light and funny, the news can wait) while I scroll through Pinterest for the first twenty minutes of every day. It motivates me to get up because I like doing it. Perhaps, in a few months, I will switch it out and try building another habit on my existing habit of waking up at the same time every day. Perhaps, but for now, I am happy to look at crafts and recipes while listening to the McElroy brothers or Tim Batt and Guy Montgomery.
Things to Remember:
1. Don’t Overwhelm Yourself
Pick one or AT MOST two habits to build at a time. You don’t have to change your entire life overnight. You are building a new you, do it carefully, do it piece by piece. You are one of those hyper-realistic pointillism paintings, not a bucket chucked at a canvas all at once.
2. It doesn’t matter what the “perfect girl” on Instagram is doing
The truth is good self-care is self-care that works for you. If none of what I’ve said here is helpful, then trash it, forget every word, and go figure out what does work for you. I won’t be offended. I don’t assume I know any better than you. We’re all just figuring this thing out as we go.
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