Many chronic diseases can be prevented, significantly improved, or even completely reversed simply by making positive diet and lifestyle changes. It sounds simple in theory—just make healthier choices and enjoy the benefits—but in practice, that often means dropping stubbornly held habits or struggling to implement brand new routines. Making those changes isn’t easy, but it is possible—especially once you learn how habits form in the first place.
In this article, I’ll discuss how habits work, the science behind a process called cue-routine-reward, and how you can use this information in your life to reverse old habits and form new ones.
Building new habits and making lifestyle changes can be challenging—but there are ways to make the process simpler. Check out these 10 tips to help you replace your not-so-good habits with better ones. #healthylifestyle #changeagent #wellness
How Habits Form: The Cue-Routine-Reward Process
A habit is any action that you do automatically and without thinking in response to certain cues in your environment, like parking your car or getting dressed for work. You probably perform these habitual actions throughout the course of your day, without needing any extra motivation or mental energy to do so. You can easily go through a complex series of actions—think about how many steps are really involved in parking your car—while your mind is autopilot.
That’s because those habits are firmly ingrained in your brain through the cue-routine-reward process. (1, 2) Here’s how it works:
- First, a cue triggers your brain’s preprogrammed response; this can be as simple as being in a particular room in your home at a specific time of day
- Then, you move through the routine (the habit) that has been established
- Finally, there is some reward that positively reinforces the habitual behavior and further ingrains the habit
Once a new pattern of behavior becomes fully entrenched in your brain as a routine, you no longer need to feel motivated to take the action. You don’t even need to be fully aware of everything you’re doing; when you encounter the cue, the habit takes over. (3, 4)
In many cases, habits make our lives easier. Being able to get things done on mental autopilot frees up your mind for more important things. However, when our brains create negative routines, or when we’re looking for ways to change up our day-to-day, breaking those long-held habits becomes a challenge.
Three Steps to Harness the Power of Cue-Routine-Reward for Your Health
Everyone wants to live a long, happy life, free from chronic illness. So, if it’s a simple matter of making healthier choices each day, why are we in the middle of a chronic disease epidemic? The problem is that many of our health choices are based on deeply ingrained habits. It’s not a simple matter of just making a change. Adjusting the way we eat, how we exercise, or even the way we go to bed at night means running counter to habits that we’ve built over the course of years—or even a lifetime.
However, by working with your brain’s built-in cue-routine-reward system, you can replace your negative habits with positive ones. Here’s how.
Step 1. Isolate the Cue
The cue is the thing that triggers you to perform your habit. It can be something internal, such as hunger or boredom, or external, such as walking through a doorway. The most powerful cues are also contextual, meaning that they happen about the same time and same place every day. The “context” can be an event (like the moment you arrive at work) or a certain time of day (like right after you finish dinner).
Other examples of cues include:
- An alarm set to go off at the same time every day
- Feeling hungry, stressed, bored, or negative
- Entering or leaving your home
- Sitting down to eat a meal
- Getting in your car
- Stopping at a red light
- The presence of other people
Before you can start changing up your routine, you need to know the cue that’s triggering your behavior. To identify your cue, take note of the location, the time, your emotional state, and the immediate preceding action you engage in before you perform your unwanted habit. And get as specific as possible; specific cues, rather than vague ones, tend to hold more sway over our behavior.
Step 2. Identify the Reward
The reward is especially crucial in the habit formation process. It positively reinforces the routine and etches the habit in your brain. The reward can be something as simple as the taste of your favorite food, a feeling of happiness or joy, or a sense of relief from stress. The important thing is that it’s something that you find intrinsically pleasurable—it’s something you crave, and it motivates you to continue your habit.
Before you can think up a new (healthier) routine, you need to know what reward your existing routine is providing. You’ll have a better chance of success if you replace your old habit with a new one that provides a similarly satisfying reward.
To identify your reward, pay attention next time you engage in your habit. What did you get out of it? What craving tends to set your routine into motion?
Sometimes, identifying your reward can get tricky. If you’re not sure what’s keeping your routine going, try deviating from your usual behavior to see what else will satisfy your craving.
Step 3: Try a New Routine
If you’re trying to break a long-held habit, you’ll need to actively interrupt your routine and replace it with a new one. To do that, you’ll need to try out different—more positive—routines to see what else might satisfy your craving and offer the reward you’re looking for.
Here’s an example of how it might work. Imagine you’d like to get more sleep at night, but your typical routine involves staying up late while staring at your smartphone. Once you’ve identified the reward—Is it the entertainment value? Or the chance to mentally “switch off”?—you can experiment with new routines that won’t disrupt your shuteye. Reading a good book can satisfy your need for late-night entertainment, while listening to music or meditating can give your mind a chance to rest at the end of the day.
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10 Tips to Help You Make Lasting Lifestyle Changes
Ready to try it out? Here are 10 tips to help you along.
1. Choose the Right Habit—and Choose It Yourself
Make sure that it is specific, measurable, and achievable. If your goal is to get fit, break that down into a distinct habit (for example, “walk or bike to work three times a week”) you can do that will move you towards your goal. (And just a friendly reminder: be practical in your choices. If you live 10 miles from your work, you’re unlikely to hike it or bike it.)
It’s also important that you choose your target behavior yourself and that it’s not chosen for you. If a third party—even a well-meaning partner or colleague—tells you to work out more, and you resent the suggestion or don’t feel the need to make a change, it will likely be harder for you to find the motivation to stick with it.
2. Shrink the Change
Break down a larger goal like “eat healthier” or “manage stress” into something specific, small, and achievable that you can do every day, like “eat one cup of vegetables” or “meditate for one minute.” This is called “shrinking the change,” and it’s a powerful tool when you’re trying to build new habits.
Want to learn how to shrink the change? Check out my recent article on the subject—or, if you’re ready to give it a try, download this free handout and get started.
3. Create an Implementation Intention
An implementation intention is an if-then statement where a cue you decide on triggers you to perform your habit. Remember that the cue can be something intrinsic, like a feeling, or extrinsic, like walking into a room or encountering another external stimulus. Your implementation intention will sound something like, “If … (cue), then … (routine).”
For example, if you’re trying to cut down on your technology use, you might say, “If I get into bed, then I will put my phone away so I can’t look at the screen.”
4. Take Advantage of Existing Habits
A cue that takes place within an existing routine can be particularly powerful. Through a process called “habit stacking,” you can piggyback off an existing habit, using it as a cue to perform another habit while you already have momentum.
For instance, if your goal is to start your day with a brief meditation practice, perform it immediately before you brush your teeth each morning.
5. Schedule Habits in Your Calendar
Give the new habit as much priority in your days as your other commitments. If you schedule it now, you won’t need the mental energy and motivation to decide on doing it later.
6. Build a Chain
Make large X’s on a calendar when you complete your habit, or use an app to track your chain of successful days. As the streak grows, so will your investment to keep going.
7. Note How You Will Celebrate
Choose what you want to do to reward yourself and reinforce your success. Physical movements like a post-workout fist-pump and an affirming “Yes!” can be more powerful than you think. Rewarding yourself—even with small celebrations—can offer a sense of pride and internal validation to help you continue. (Consider how small kids love to put stickers on charts when they do a task—it’s the same rewarding feeling!)
8. Watch Out for Mental Loopholes
It’s inevitable—at some point you’ll try to talk yourself out of following through on your good habit. But it helps if you’re prepared with a strategy. Instead of succumbing to the pull of your old habit, rely on mini-actions to help you get around mental blocks.
For instance, if you feel like you want to skip your daily run, tell yourself that you at least have to put your shoes on and go outside. Once you’re standing outside, shoes on and ready to go, you might find it much easier to take those first few steps.
9. Know That Failure Is Part of the Process
Don’t let one slip-up derail your success. Just pick up with your routine where you left off as soon as possible—and don’t beat yourself up over it.
10. Work with a Health Coach
Health coaching deals with behavior change. Health coaches provide emotional support, help brainstorm ways to overcome obstacles, and offer external accountability to their clients. A health coach can help keep you engaged and active in your own self-care—and that often makes all the difference when it comes to changing your lifestyle.
If you’re ready to start working with one, look for a graduate of a health coach training program that emphasizes behavior change and habit formation.
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