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A paper published by Duke University in 2006 found that more than 40 percent of the actions we perform aren’t actual decisions, but habits. 40%! Meanwhile, researchers at MIT have done us all a huge favor in identifying a simple neurological loop that makes up a habit. It has three parts and it looks like this:

It starts with the CUE, or some kind of trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode. The trigger can be an object, a song, a person, etc. The ROUTINE is the actual habit, whether it’s smoking, working out, worrying too much, cleaning impulsively, or saving money. There must be a REWARD for the habit, otherwise, why would we perform the habit over and over?

“To understand your own habits,” writes Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business, “you need to identify the components of your loops. Once you have diagnosed the habit loop of a particular behavior, you can look for ways to supplant old vices with new routines.” This is basic substitution. You are not, in fact, eliminating a habit. Instead, you are substituting a new habit, preferably a more positive one, in its place. But in order to do this successfully you have to really look into the habit, and examine the roots of that behavior in yourself.

Some years ago I had unexpectedly put on 12 lbs, seemingly overnight. The problem was that I was eating more than usual and eating at irregular times without noticing. I began to examine why I was doing this, keeping tabs on myself with a notebook. After some time, I realized that I was eating more, simply out of boredom. It wasn’t that I was hungry, or needed more fuel, I was simply bored! In other words, boredom was my CUE. The ROUTINE was eating, and my REWARD was a temporary elimination of my boredom.

So what did I do? I wrote down in my notebook that the next time I felt bored I would read a book, even if only 5 minutes. Simple, right? Just read. The CUE stayed the same: boredom. And the REWARD remained the same as well: an alleviation of boredom. But the ROUTINE changed dramatically! Not only did I lose the 12 lbs, but I began reading tons of books and learned new skills!

Duhigg identifies a simple framework for making new habits, which I highly recommend.

  1. Identify the Routine
  2. Experiment With Rewards
  3. Isolate the Cue
  4. Have a Plan

Want to change that bad habit? Or add a new one? Experiment. Devise a plan, stick with it, and you’ll see the benefits in no time. And don’t forget the importance of small wins. Most of us won’t lose weight overnight, or quit smoking in two days, or stop yelling at our kids in half a week. But if we can do it even for a day, three days, a week, it’s important to congratulate ourselves with some kind of treat. This gives your brain a small reward, which will motivate you to keep coming back to the new habit. “For every time I go jogging, I will eat a small piece of candy.” This may not seem like much, but soon your brain will keep sending you signals to go jogging because it wants that candy. Try it!