Why is it so hard to create or break habits? In this episode, we introduce the “Habit Loop”- the psychological pattern we engage in during habit creation. We discuss how you can use neuroplasticity to help rewire your brain to move in the direction you want and share helpful strategies to increase your chances of making desired habits stick!
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The Secret To Creating And Breaking Habits
We’re into the New Year of 2023, and oftentimes, around this time of year, we start to reflect on our habits with intentions and New Year’s resolutions. Everybody’s typically either wanting to create or get rid of an undesirable habit. I think habits is an excellent topic for us to discuss.
Yes. Discussing habits in January goes with the jam of the New Year vibe that you still get to be in. We’re still in it for a little bit longer. I think it’s after three weeks historically, or maybe it’s an urban myth, where people’s resolutions start to drop off. What we’re talking about is creating these habits. What do you think is important about creating habits or talking about this topic?
I mentioned it, which is, for me, at this point of the year, I’m looking at some of the habits that either want to form. I know you talked about creating habits, but there are even some habits that I’ve wanted to break. This past year, I quit smoking. I picked up smoking back in 2019. I know it’s a disgusting habit, but in 2021 is where I broke it. It’s looking at what I’m doing because I know habits are on autopilot. We don’t even know that we’re doing it. Increasing my self-awareness, looking at actions I would like to take and actions I’d like to stop taking, so the topic of habits is very fascinating.
I agree. Habits have been very fascinating. I’ve certainly been reading a lot on habits for a long time. It’s how we live our life. Every single day comes down to our habits and how we do certain things the way we do them to some OCD things that some people might do, like eating their foods in certain orders and things of that nature. Talking about habits during this time of year seems like the right space to talk about. You can form or break a habit at any point. It doesn’t necessarily need to be tied to a time and space, but if you can, there are benefits to doing that as well.
I didn’t realize how often we engage in habits. When I came across one study, it said that approximately 45% of our day is spent engaging in behavior that is repeated in the same location almost every day. Mine is probably a little bit higher. I think that maybe because of the pandemic and sheltering in place or whatever you’re doing to stay safe, routines or habits have probably increased, at least for me.Approximately 45% of our day is spent engaging in behavior that is repeated in the same location almost every day. Click To Tweet
The habit of washing our hands, I’m singing happy birthday to myself twice every single time.
Yeah, especially with Omicron. I don’t need any transformer getting me. That was something where I washed my hands, but it wasn’t nearly as thorough as it has been since March 2020.
That’s true. Do you think it’s easier to form a new habit than it is to an old one?
Speaking for myself, I pick up habits very easily. It’s something I’m aware of, so I have to be careful because then it does take longer for me to break a habit.
I think it depends on if the habit is desirable or not. As I said, I quit smoking. Obviously, that’s an undesirable habit. If I am going to eat a piece of chocolate every morning, I’m sure that’s a habit I could get behind pretty quickly or trying to get to the gym five days a week is a less desirable habit. If the habit is pleasurable and desirable, you’re more likely to form a new habit than it is to end one.
It can help if it’s something you want to do or if you pair it with something you want to do. That is a good strategy for creating a new habit. What you’re talking about with any of these habits is, what’s the lifestyle that you want to have? You no longer wanted to be a smoker. That’s great. As you guys know, she was a closet smoker when she was doing it. You would never know. I barely knew. I was like, “You’re still smoking?” She’s so sneaky.
It was one of those things where you wouldn’t know. If you knew, you knew, but otherwise, it was like, “I forgot you did that.” This is how not obvious that habit was. A lot of our habits aren’t obvious to other people. There might be some things you don’t realize you’re doing all the time. For me, the habit that I have come into is this fucking nitro cold brew habit that I now realize there’s a distinction between the Albertsons Starbucks and the regular Starbucks at the gyms. One is way better than the other. I’m going to come out and say it, but this is not an ad.
We are not sponsored by Starbucks yet.
If you know somebody, hit me up. It’s one of those things that I could up that habit super fast, so I know it will take time not to have that habit anymore. Something is going to need to break for that. I keep saying it’s going to be when I get to the end of my gift card, and then my gift card keeps getting refilled.
That’s weird how that happens.
It’s so weird that my gift card does not seem to have a bottom. It does. I keep refilling it or I get gift certificates. Matt’s mom got a bunch of gift certificates for Christmas or enough for her birthday. Her birthday is in November. She’s like, “Here. I know you like coffee.” I was like, “I do. Thank you, Diane. Let me fill up that bad boy.”
When we’re thinking of creating a new habit, I know that I used the word routine interchangeably with habits. I’m going to get into an exercise routine, but I want it to be a habit, but there are some things that can never be a habit. That’s because, according to science, habits are done with basically little to no thought. Routines require intentional behaviors to be performed, so exercising will always be a routine.
The problem is, according to this Harvard Business article I was reading, that many of us, when trying to create a new habit, we skip this idea that when we’re engaging in these new behaviors, it’s actually a routine. Over time, those routines can become a habit. If you think about it, we assume that the habits that we’re trying to create will allow us to put these tedious, unenjoyable, like exercise, on autopilot. It won’t. There’s a reason why I don’t go to the gym every day. It’s because it’s unpleasant.
Part of it, too, can do with the reframing of it. Instead of saying, “I’m trying to create a habit,” one of the things that I’m able to do with some of my clients is maybe ritualized it. You were talking about a new skin regimen you want to do, your quartz rolly thing down your face. Those things are super luxurious. I like doing them every now and then. Instead of saying, “I want to make a habit of a new skincare routine and start doing this,” if you make it a ritual, there’s something about ritual. It’s like, “I want this new ritual in my life. How can I add this as part of my morning routine?” As you said, these words can sometimes help people with whatever goal they’re trying to do, whether they’re trying to create or undo a bad habit.
When we’re talking about habits, we would be remiss if we didn’t talk about Atomic Habits by James Clear. He’s the leading authority, is what I would give him but he talks about the micro changes that we’re doing. My girl, Gretchen Rubin, who I love, and her book, Better Than Before, is the best habits book out there, but Atomic Habits has sold a gazillion copies. The thing that I took away most from his was the habit loop. You start with the cue for how the habit is created. That goes to a craving, and then there’s your response and reward. What he says in the book is all behavior is driven by the desire to solve a problem. Sometimes the problem is that you notice something good, and you want to obtain it.
Sometimes the problem is that you’re experiencing pain, and you want to relieve it. Either way, the purpose of every habit is to solve the problems you face. He goes on to talk about what you need to do is you need to change the response to still give yourself the proper reward. That’s how you’re able to start making lasting changes by recognizing the cue and noticing what I am craving here. Is it something that I want? Is it some pain that I’m trying to avoid? What is it? Your response is the key to changing your habits.Your response is the key to changing your habits. Click To Tweet
I also came across the habit loop, but from a different author. The author that I came across with is Charles Duhigg. He explores why we do what we do in his book, The Power of Habit. According to Charles, every habit begins with the psychological pattern called The Habit Loop. I’m assuming it’s probably a derivative of James Clear’s work. Instead of 4, it’s 3. He has the cue, the response, and the reward.
The cue triggers your brain into initiating that behavior in some way. The response, as you said, is the behavior itself. The reward is something that your brain likes and enables it to remember that habit loop in the future and increases your chances of initiating that behavior again. If we’re looking at my smoking analogy, for my fellow smokers, you’d understand that the cue or the trigger is stress for me. If it was at work, a relationship woe, or whatever it was, that stress would ball up in me, so my response would be to smoke a cigarette. That reward was a temporary reduction in stress. Anytime that cue or stress happened, I was in this endless cycle of this loop. What’s nice about understanding this habit loop is it helps you increase your self-awareness.
Knowing that stress triggers me, as you had mentioned, Siria, I need to change my response. Rather than smoking a cigarette, maybe I need to walk away and not work for fifteen minutes or listen to an Audiobook, go outside for a brisk walk, get the mail, or whatever that is. Changing the response will still temporarily reduce my stress level because I’m not in that space anymore. The self-awareness piece is probably the greatest thing I’ve gotten from learning a little bit more about this habit loop.
I did read his book as well. There are a lot of books on habits right now, and I’ve already been reading some of these things. It’s the reminder that our habits are so strong because what you’ve done is you have created this neuro pathway in your brain of this is what you’re going to do. Your brain wants to do the easiest thing possible.
I remember this time that Melissa and I had decided to do weight training three times a week. After we do that, we are going to do cardio. It is what we had told ourselves. We did it for 1 or 2 times, and then we had created such a strong cue that we go straight to coffee to get our cafecito afterwards. We were walking out halfway to the car, and it was like, “Didn’t we say we were going to go do cardio?” I was like, “We’re already halfway outside. Let’s go get cafecito.”
We’ve never gone back to trying it again because it is one of those things that’s super entrenched in us once you start doing that. That’s why these habits, routines, or however you want to look at them can be dangerous because the autopilot is what they come down to. In the beginning, it can seem like this is very difficult to form this new habit of exercising consistently.
I can say honestly I’ve exercised consistently since 2014. Does that mean five days a week? Not right now. It changes. Right now, it means more like 3 to 4 days, and I’ll get back up to it. Sometimes it could be six days a week because I feel like walking more. I can say consistently I have been active in doing that since that time period because the cue for me is to do it first thing in the morning.
That’s what makes a difference even though I’ve played around with it and given myself the flexibility of going for a walk in the middle of the day when it’s nice in Las Vegas or doing these other things. I know that there’s a risk that I may not do it because all of my other obligations from the day may push that out, so for me, the strongest cue is to wake up, put on my gym clothes, and get the fuck out of the house.
I like that you’re bringing up the point that you’re fighting against science when you’re trying to create a new habit or break an old one. With that said, it’s important to share that. It’s okay if you stumble and give yourself some grace. I was reading one academic journal, and they wrote the pervasive effect of habits in everyday behavior is key to understanding the difficulty people frequently experience in changing their behavior.
Failure to change does not necessarily indicate poor willpower or insufficient understanding but rather speaks to the power of situations to trigger past responses. Habits keep us doing what we’ve always done despite our best intentions to act otherwise. Once I read that, that resonated with me. I tell you, when I was trying to quit smoking, I didn’t do it the first time.
I was like, “I’ll buy the gum or patches. I’ll do this and that.” I found myself like, “I’ll keep a pack for the stressful times.” It’s not a clear-cut line. Allowing yourself some grace and understanding that you are fighting neuroplasticity and neuroscience or your brain is working against you helps you forgive yourself a little bit if you stumble.
I love that you bring that up because it is talking about this thing that we like to talk about. It is self-compassion and not beating yourself up over the fact that you are stumbling on that habit or you did go back and it took you some time to smoke. Once upon a time, I was a smoker. I picked up that habit. This is going to sound super bougie. When I was studying abroad in Europe, I picked it up in Prague. I was rolling my own cigarettes by the end of the summer. You can imagine me. All I was missing was a little beret.
I’m imagining you are wearing one.
Right now, I’m wearing a striped shirt. All I’m missing right now is a red beret and being like, “Let me tell you about that time. That was sweet. I was smoking in Paris. It’s the Eiffel Tower.” That’s what was going down. What I did was I picked up this habit and I smoked all through my third year of law school. I would go hanging out with the smokers. They’re like, “What are you doing in here,” because I hadn’t smoked the first two years. I’d been a social smoker before, like, “I’m so drunk. I want a cigarette.”
Aren’t we all? We are all that girl at some point.
Yes. I was doing that kind of stuff, and then I was like, “I’m going to quit after the bar.” For me, sometimes, not all the time, I can decide to do something, and I’m done. After I was done with the bar exam, I stopped smoking. I didn’t need patches, to wean myself off or do any of these things. It was the same thing I did with drinking soda. I decided, at some point in high school, I don’t drink soda. I stopped.
I wonder why that is because this was not my first go-round with the cigarette pack. In high school, I was also a smoker, and then one day, I was like, “I don’t want to do this anymore,” and I stopped. I don’t know what’s going on inside our brains. Some things are harder to give up than others. Maybe it’s the timing, you have better coping skills, or you’re substituting that response with something else when that cue is triggered. Who knows?
That’s why at the beginning, we’re talking about this topic in January. I can pick up a habit whenever which is also why I can also make a goal or resolution whenever because I have this ability of, “This is what I want to do,” and knowing that it is a conscious effort. That’s also why I like Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin because she talks about the different strategies. She talks about how you form habits and all of that, but she gives you actual pillars of habits. When is the best time to begin a habit and the things that you need to be looking out for yourself, like loophole spotting, which I like.
She talks about the strategy of pairing. If you don’t like exercise, but you pair it with your favorite crime show, that gives you the reward. For me, when I started working out, Supernatural was being played on TNT all the time. I would think to myself, “It is disrespectful if I walk away from this episode.” I would finish the full hour of cardio because I was watching this episode. It was something fun that I enjoyed doing. Funny enough, I got sidetracked. I was listening to a book on the treadmill and Law and Order: SVU sucked me in.
It always does.
No, it doesn’t. All Law and Order stopped sucking me in.
Once you become an attorney?
Yes. Once I was in law school, I could no longer watch them the same way I had before. That, for me, is a moment, guys.
Before you get into the strategies, there are so many things that an individual needs to do even before they even look at the different strategies. We talk a lot about intention here on the show. You’re good about reminding me about intentions. What is it that you’re trying to achieve and why? Whatever routine you decide to nurture, be realistic about the process and understand that it’s going to require self-discipline, time, and commitment. Understanding the why is super important. I wanted to quit smoking because I was tired of smelling like an ashtray. I also noticed that I was running and stuff. I was having difficulty breathing, and I have asthma, so what the hell was I doing?Whatever routine you decide to nurture, be realistic about the process and understand that it's gonna require self-discipline, time, and commitment. Click To Tweet
I wanted to get healthier. I was looking at that and then preparing for roadblocks. My cue coming back was stress. Life is full of stress. Being an adult sucks. You and I agreed we would give it zero stars. We would not recommend it to anybody. Stress is going to be everywhere. What do you do to prepare yourself for these roadblocks? It’s sharing it with friends and stuff, too. I’m letting you know, “I’m going to quit smoking. If you see me itching for a cigarette, tell me now. Slap it out of my hand.”
Public declarations can be very powerful in keeping us accountable. For example, NaNoWriMo is in November. If you guys are looking to write a book, it is a global challenge where everybody writes 1,600 words a day. At the end of November, you will have a manuscript. It is what it is. Part of what they have you do is declare, “I am going to participate in NaNoWriMo.” Part of that has to do with this psychology of if you declare it out to people, they’re going to hold you accountable but you’re also going to hold yourself accountable in doing this because you’re going to say, “I said this.” We don’t want to look bad, not only in the eyes of others but in our own eyes.
If we say, “This is what I’m going to do,” it’s going to be harder for us to break our own words. That’s not to say that that goes for everybody. There are certainly different tendencies that we have that may make it a little bit harder to keep our words to ourselves and much easier to keep the word to somebody else. You definitely want to be able to know, where are you? Where do you fall? Am I somebody who does better with outside accountability because I don’t want to let someone down? It’s like, “No, I’m fine. I can totally do it myself?”
Matt is like that. He can decide to do something. He’s like, “It doesn’t need me. I’m outside accountability.” I need to know the why behind it in order to understand and buy-in, and then I can buy-in. Some people are going to reject all of this, and some people are going to need that buddy system to be able to do things. If you are at all familiar with what I’m talking about, I just laid out the framework for The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin.
The why is exceptionally important. It’s what drives us in almost everything we do. There’s a why whether it’s subconscious or not. Understanding or building that self-awareness, creating that intention, and understanding your why helps lay the groundwork for creating or establishing a new habit. I know that you had talked about temptation bundling, which works well. Again, you gave the wonderful example of being on the treadmill and doing cardio while listening to your favorite podcast, which is Pivotal Moments.
There was also something else that I came across that helped me when I was trying to quit smoking. It reminded me of the intention-setting episode where we were talking about vision boarding. You’re like, “Let’s do a micro vision board. This one was setting a micro habit.” Rather than saying, “I’m going to quit smoking now like I’m going cold turkey,” say, “Instead of having five cigarettes a day, I’m going to go down to one. Let me set a small micro habit to one cigarette at the end of the day to end my day,” and then you can slowly taper off. I’ve found that setting micro habits has helped me start to build the behavior that I want to see in myself.
You’re absolutely right. It is one of those things where sometimes we try to eat the whole elephant. You can’t do that. You can’t eat the whole thing in one sitting. Breaking it up like that is a phenomenal way to get started. If you want to start with running 5K, they’ve got the great app Couch to 5K. It’s been a long time since I’ve used this app. You don’t start off running a 5K immediately. It’s little by little. It’s like, “Let’s start by running 30 seconds and then walking for two minutes,” and then you start building until you know you should be able to run the 5K fully. I think I’ve done that once. Probably not. I’m more of a walker kind of person, but it’s the same thing.
Rather than saying, “I’m going to exercise every day for an hour,” start by, “I’m going to exercise. Whether that’s five minutes, and then you start building up to what it is that you eventually want, which is, in your case, not smoking by tapering it off. That was the same thing I had done with caffeine. I hard stopped on coffee back in 2013. Before then, I’d realized I was drinking a lot of coffee, so I started reducing it down to one cup. We had an opportunity because we got a stomach bug. We were out for five days and I realized, “I don’t have any caffeine in my system right now. Let me keep this going.” That one was actually called The Clean Slate Strategy. I had a clean slate, and I rolled with it. It made it super easy until the summer of 2021 when I discovered nitro. It’s the sweet cream in the nitro.
It’s half-sweet cream, half-nitro fucker.
Yes. It is so delicious, but it is something that I’m mindful of this habit that I have picked up because I could enjoy a cup of coffee every now and then. It wasn’t that I was totally caffeine free. I’d replace my caffeine intake with tea, which has a lower concentration and I wasn’t getting headaches over the weekend. That was my big motivator. Right now, I’m not getting headaches. If I start getting caffeine withdrawal headaches, I will cut this habit completely. Don’t look so sad.
I am. I was bringing you down with me.
Those are some of the strategies. I love the clean slate strategy. That’s one of my favorites because it is one of those ones that you can do at the beginning of a year, at the beginning of a new job, or if you’re moving to a new place.
When you’re talking about the clean slate, the example you gave was a stomach bug. Is it some outside experience or a life change or shift that causes that?
Yeah. When you have a life-changing event, say you start a new job. You have a clean slate. You’re going to have a new routine. If you’re like, “I want to not listen to anything on my commute. I want to start doing that.” That is a great time for you to start that habit. It’s a great time for you to start reinforcing that because you’re doing a couple of things. You’re tying it to this new commute that you have this other goal, and then you can build off of that.
How I was able to establish my exercise habit was I paired it with a new job. It was the pairing and a clean slate, so using multiple strategies. Not even knowing at that time. That’s the other thing. I want to make that very clear to everybody. These things are now names that I have for a lot of these things. Sometimes it happens. Sometimes you also get moments of inspiration where you’re like, “Fuck that. I’m not going to do that anymore.” Say you overspend on something or you burn yourself on the stove. You’re going to have that moment where you’re going to be like, “I’m not doing that again.” These are things that, as you recognize them, you’re like, “That’s what I’m doing.”
The strategy of pairing, or I think you called it Temptation Bundling, are tools or names that we’re using. I’m sure you’ve got plenty of strategies yourself on how to create these habits. The main thing is knowing what works best for you. I know a clean slate is a great opportunity for me to start something new because I’ve seen it throughout my life several different times when I’ve wanted to do something additional or something a little bit more aspirational. If I’ve tied it to some pivotal moment or a life event, it sticks for the long-term.
Strategies vary based on the type of habit you’re trying to build. What I would hope that our readers also walk away with is an understanding of habits. I would like you to know how habits are formed and understand that loop to help increase your awareness in terms of identifying your cue and what your response is to that cue. Also, what are you feeling afterwards? What does that response provide you? Understanding that in any situation within that loop, you can change it, but primarily you do want to change the response. I hope it increases their self-awareness so they can then engage or choose a strategy that works well for them.
- Atomic Habits
- Better Than Before
- The Four Tendencies
- Winning Tactics for Setting Your Expectations for 2022 – Previous Episode
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