Evolution has wired our brain to be lazy and it is proven that it is constantly looking for ways to minimize the efforts and conserve energy. This effort-saving instinct was advantageous to humans in evolution as rather than spending mental energy on the routine behavioral activities like walking, brushing, eating etc., we devoted our mental energy in inventing wheels, machinery, aero planes etc. Our brain, guided by this instinct, tries to convert any routine activities into automatic behavior in the form of Habits, and once we form any habit our mind function on auto-pilot mode and we don’t have control over the ingrained habits even in the face of shame, loss of relationship or self-respect.

One of my favorite books, The Power of Habit, Why we do what we do and How to change, written by Charles Duhigg, explores the neurology of Habit formation and explains the framework within which our habits emerges, becomes part of our behavior and how to change the habits.

First, let’s try to understand the basics of Habit formation with an experiment conducted by researchers of MIT on monkey named Julio. In a laboratory, Julio sat before a computer screen and his job was to touch a lever whenever colored shapes like blue rectangle, green cube or yellow spiral appeared on computer screen. If, Julio, pressed the lever correctly on appearance of colored image, a drop of blackberry juice would run down a tube and directly fell onto the monkey’s lips. Initially, Julio pressed the lever randomly but on pressing a correct sequence the first dose of juice arrived on pulling the lever.

In expectation of more juice, the monkey pressed the lever furiously and after dozens of repetition, he understood the pattern. As Julio become more and more habitual of this behavior, his craving became stronger and his brain in anticipation of the blackberry juice become more insatiable which created a Craving. Then the experiment was bit modified and even after pressing the lever at right time, juice didn’t arrive. His neurological pattern showed frustration, anger and despair.

A Habit emerged- press the lever and get the juice.

The colored shapes on the screens were a Cue for a Routine (touch the lever) that resulted in a Reward (Blackberry juice) and desire of juice was Craving.

The discovery of Habit Loop reveals a basic structure – By putting together a Cue, a Routine and a Reward and cultivating a Craving which drives the Habit Loop, the result is creation of a new Habit.

First starting with Cues, researchers have learned that cues or triggers can be almost anything from a visual trigger such as candy bar, a time of day, an emotion, sequence of thoughts or the company of particular people. Then next ingredient is Routines which can be incredibly simple or complex like smoking, biting nails, eating fast food, drinking, scrolling etc. which satisfies a craving in our brain. Then next ingredient is Reward which can range from food or drugs that cause physical pleasure, emotional payoffs, feelings of pride, ease from any discomfort or any which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop or Craving is worth remembering for the future.

I hope you better understand now when a mobile vibrates with a new notification (cue), the brain anticipates something interesting or fear of missing out (craving), we instantly check the phone (routine) and satisfy the desire (reward) or when a smoker sees a Cigarette (cue), his brain starts anticipating nicotine (craving) and he/she pick a cigarette (routine) and satisfies the desire (reward) and this is how such habits emerges. Is there any scientific way to change habits?

Golden Rule of Transformation

After understanding the Habit loop, a Golden Rule of transformation emerges which has influenced the treatments of alcoholism, obsessive compulsive disorders and other destructive behaviors in various researches. The Rule is that to change the habit, you must keep the old cue and the provide the old reward, but by shifting the routine you can gradually change the habit.

Alcoholics Anonymous is the largest, well known and successful habit changing organization. An estimated 2.1 million people seek help every year and as many as 10 million people have achieved sobriety through the group. The methods adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous are totally different and mostly therapeutic methods rather than backed by science. It offers a twelve step program in which it gives the addicts a place to come together and share their experiences through daily meetings and discussions and program intense focus is on spirituality. It believes that alcoholics crave a drink because it offers escape, relaxation, companionship etc. and in order to give the same reward it offers such exercise where the alcoholics can make friends, relax and release emotional tension. The study done on this group endorse the Golden Rule because it helps alcoholics to use the same cues and get the same reward but shifts the routine as most alcoholics drink for emotional escape, relaxation etc.

Various study on former smokers have found that by identifying the cues and rewards they associate with cigarettes and then choosing new routine that provide similar payoff like a piece of Nicorette, a cup of coffee or simply taking a few minutes to stretch makes it more likely to quit.

I hope by now, we also understand how to create a new productive habit. Create a cue, set a routine and define a reward backed with a constant craving which will spin the loop. Choose a cue like going to the gym as soon you wake up and set a reward for yourself like a treat of great chocolate milkshake and a healthier and energetic life will be constant craving.

Companies and advertisers also use this technique and in fact it has become staple for companies to find ways to pitch a cue, provide a routine and clearly define the reward in their campaigns. Companies try figure out how to spark a craving in the minds of the consumers by their products and make their products habitual in the lives of the consumers.

Takeaway

Habits are powerful, emerge outside our consciousness, without our permission and shapes our lives far more often we realize and unless you deliberately adopt a good habit or fight a bad habit, it will dictate your life quality, decisions and outcomes. My purpose of explaining this concept is that most of us don’t recognize the habit loops structure as they grow. So by learning to observe the cues, routines and rewards, we can change the routines and probably change the bad habit or adopt a new habit.

Before saying Adieu…

One ingredient which was conspicuously missing above is a Belief. A belief that you can change the habit by understanding the habits by its components, how it functions and by your willpower. If you belive, that you can change, then only change becomes real.  

For How to Change and about Willpower, read my previous blogs which might will be more insightful. Do comment and share your thought below.

Stay tuned for the next book review, till they stay home, safe and curious.

Happy Reading!

Amit Malani