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Last Updated on May 8, 2019

How to Break a Habit and Hack the Habit Loop

How to Break a Habit and Hack the Habit Loop

Is there something that you just love or can’t stop doing on a daily basis? Maybe you absolutely have to start your day with a coffee or you won’t be able to function. Or, you need to go for a run every evening. Perhaps it is something more subtle, like twirling your hair whenever you’re in deep thought, or tapping your fingers whenever you’re feeling impatient.

Take some time now to think about something specific that you find yourself doing all the time. How did that habit form? Is it something you want to continue doing, or is it something you’d rather do away with? And most importantly, how is it affecting your life?

When it comes to habits and routines, most people want to learn how to be in control of them. Whether it’s trying to quit smoking, maintaining a healthy diet or going to bed early, habits can be hard to control. They are really quite sneaky since they are behaviors that develop and occur subconsciously; yet they also have the biggest impact in the outcome of our successes, whether you realize it or not.

Habits Govern Your Life!

Many people don’t consider habits as a key factor of their personal success because they simply see them as routines. Habits are either good or bad–and that’s as far as most people would go. They don’t necessarily make the connection to personal success.

This is because most people put emphasis on external factors when looking at success. They may consider luck, educational or family background when determining success. While habits are largely internal, they are often overlooked.

The truth is, habits are a core factor that govern almost every aspect of our lives. They account for the vast majority of our actions on a daily basis from big to small: your morning routine, where you typically have lunch, or even the route you take to work and back home. These are all habits!

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If you’re someone who has strong willpower, or a high threshold of discipline, then great! You might find that breaking a bad habit or sticking to a new good habit is not too hard. But for the vast majority of us, that can be a real issue.

Thankfully, habits don’t rely only on one’s willpower. Successful people are able to actively steer their habits, and use them as a tool to create consistent and systematic inputs or actions towards an output or outcome that they want to achieve.

So how does one break a habit?

Deconstructing a Habit

Thankfully, habits can be tamed; and, once you gain full control over them, you’re going to realize their true potential in steering your life towards greater achievement and progress.

So, let me deconstruct a habit for you.

The way in which a habit is formed can be described as a Habit Loop. This is a cycle that governs how every habit forms and functions.

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It’s made up of three key components:

  1. Cue
  2. Routine
  3. Reward

A Cue

A Cue is something that triggers your habit. It might be an event, an action, a feeling, people, or even an emotional state.

A Routine

A Routine is the behavior that follows after your habit has been triggered. Because habits are on ‘autopilot’, a routine is usually the same sequence of actions that is taken each and every time.

A Reward

A Reward is the positive reinforcement your brain identifies with the Routine that you’ve just taken. It associates the Routine with the Cue; so, your brain remembers to repeat the behavior again in order to get the same Reward in the future.

Looking at this simple loop, you can see that the culprit of any bad habit starts from the Cue. That is what triggers the start of the Habit Loop.

Let’s use a popular example of a bad habit: Smoking.

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Perhaps you might be feeling stressed (Cue) after a long meeting; you decide to take a little break and light up a cigarette (Routine). While smoking, you start feeling calm and relaxed from the nicotine rush, giving you a physical sensation of satisfaction (Reward). As a result, you continue with this routine every time you feel stressed or want to unwind.

Here, you can see that Cues are the starting point for each time you go through a Habit Loop. Theoretically, without the Cue to trigger your habit, your Routine or behavior won’t follow… and the Reward will not be attained. When any part of the Habit Loop is broken, that’s a potential weak point, which you can utilize to help you break your habit.

It’s Time to Take Control of Your Cues

This means that the first step to controlling your habits is to take control of your Cues. Go back to the specific habit that I asked you to think of in the beginning. Can you identify the cue that kicks off your habit?

Now, think of another habit that you have. Of the 2 habits that you’ve identified, which one is more prominent in your daily life? Now compare the 2 potential cues for each habit. Are they different in nature?

Since Cues are the beginning spark for any habit to form, one of the main reasons habits are unequal is because they each have a different Quality of Cues. Some Cues are just more effective than others. The more Regular a cue is, the more likely the habit will form. The more Stable a cue is, in that it is seldom affected by external factors, it is also more likely the habit will form.

And, while we’re talking about regularity and stability, time is of the essence. The shorter the time frame that a cue repeats, the more effective a Cue becomes. Anything more than a week means a Cue becomes a lot less effective.

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Ready to Break the Habit Loop?

By now, I hope you can see that every element in the Habit Loop feeds and reinforces each other, creating a snowball effect. A habit becomes stronger as you repeat it more times. By understanding and tackling the first part of the Habit Loop – the Cue, you’re already one step closer to controlling your habits!

Now, you may have read hundreds of books, articles, and watched videos, maybe even tried some solutions to help you break or form new habits. But, none of them really had any impact. They bring only incremental changes, and that’s not what you’re looking for.

This is because permanent change requires a holistic approach, and requires more than just focusing on one area of your life or working on changing a part of your routine or actions.

Your habits are just part of a greater system of thinking that is responsible for the way your life turns out. Every action and behavior comes from an original thought pattern. So if you really want to break bad habits, create new ones and have a total lifestyle change, then you’ll need to change more than just your habits.

This is where the Breakthrough Framework comes in. It’ll help provide an overall paradigm shift for you to turn any limitation you may be having, into an opportunity that is achievable.

By going through each of the 4 steps, you’ll be able to transform your mind and actions towards the change that is needed to achieve your ultimate goals, and truly break free from anything that is currently holding you back.

So if you’re ready for lasting change, start the life-changing journey with us here!

Featured photo credit: Lukas Blazek via unsplash.com

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Leon Ho

Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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