Developing good habits can be easy. I think many of us get discouraged and feel stuck, refusing to experiment and try new things, which lead to the same old results, and therefore it makes changing habits seem like a daunting task. Changing habits can, however, be pretty straightforward and learning how to do it can alter your life forever!
In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg breaks down the habit cycle: Cue -> Routine -> Reward. It may be difficult to create brand new routines, but Duhigg believes that it is easy to modify existing habits by using existing Cues and altering the routine and reward.
Step One: Identify the Routine
I have found that, after being on a strict diet for a while, I will start craving chocolate. I tend to eat chocolate in the late afternoon or late evening, and almost always while standing at my kitchen counter. So the question that needs answering is: What’s the cue? Do I need something to eat? Am I hungry? Am I bored? Do I need a break? Am I stressed? Do I need a temporary distraction or way to transition home from work prior to going to the gym?
Step Two: Experiment with Different Rewards
The next time you feel a craving like this one. Try altering your reaction to give yourself a different reward. Maybe you just need to relax. Maybe listening to your favorite song or drinking a cup of hot tea will do the trick. Maybe you are craving physical stimulation after sitting behind a computer screen all day, so try taking a 15 minute walk outside. Maybe you are tired and you should commit to getting a little extra rest each night to fight the fatigue with rest instead of sugar. As you experiment with different rewards, take notes to see if it alters your mood. If you’re reaching for chocolate because you’re stressed, but you listened to your favorite power song and now you’re actually feeling better, then maybe you have found that the cue isn’t hunger, but stress. The key at this point is to do something different to see if it helps your mood and then set a timer to delay gratification to see if you are still craving the chocolate after you have tried a new reward. Chances are, you won’t want the chocolate after a slight delay. The goal here is to isolate what is driving your craving so that you can manipulate the habit cycle by adjusting the reward you deliver for the craving that you’re bound to experience again.
Step Three: Identify the Cue
Now that you’re finding what rewards might work, we can focus on the cue itself. What does this craving actually feel like? What is happening right before, during, and after your chocolate craving? Ask yourself:
- Where are you?
- What time is it?
- How are you feeling?
- Who else is around?
- What action preceded this craving?
Once we start to identify patterns associated with cravings, we can start to recognize them in the moment as they are happening, prior to overindulging in chocolate or binge eating. For me, I was usually in my kitchen, craving chocolate around 3 or 4 pm without anyone else around and trying to decide which of the many things on my to-do list I would tackle first. So, my cue was a bit of anxiety about all the things I needed to accomplish, coupled with an empty, quiet house. If my roommate was home, I wouldn’t feel the urge nearly as strong. If I had a clear list of things to do that I was excited by and not overwhelmed by, I wouldn’t have the urge to binge. If the house was clean, I would feel less inclined to binge. So for me, my chocolate cravings were usually accompanied by a feeling of too much to do, too little time, and feeling like things were messy and out of order – further contributing to me feeling overwhelmed as I note one more thing to do: Clean the house.
Step Four: Have a Plan
Once you’ve identified the triggers and the rewards that could satisfy them, all you gotta do is plan and stick to the plan. It’s really that simple. Duhigg says it best:
“When I see CUE, I will do ROUTINE in order to get REWARD.”
So to combat my chocolate craving, I wrote a plan:
“When I get home from work, I will make a cup of my favorite hot tea to enjoy before I go to the gym.” It doesn’t happen immediately, but if you can relax and observe what you’re doing instead of beating yourself up for making mistakes, you can start to make real changes that will make you more successful in every area of your life. Start with a single habit. Tackle it. Experiment. Fail. Try again. Sooner or later, you’re gonna get it, and when you do, you can add perseverance to your skill set and that skill will serve you in literally every area of your life.
What are some habits that you’re trying to change? Write them down. Start observing. Start experimenting your way to a better life.