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The Habit Loop: Why We Do What We Do (Even When We Know We Shouldn’t)

Question: How much of what you do each day is down to habit rather than being planned in advance?

5%? 10%? Maybe as high as 25%?

Well, a 2006 paper published by Duke University put the figure at over 40%!

In other words, almost half the stuff we do on a daily basis is performed on autopilot.

That means everything from brushing your teeth or checking e-mail to navigating your way to the office or crushing a 300-yard drive off the first tee.

Habits are the reason why I always seem to end up in Starbucks whenever I'm on the road, and habits are the reason why I always order an 8-oz latte (to go) when I do.

And get this:

I don't even like Starbucks coffee that much!

But hey, I'm not on the road that often so it's no big deal.

On the other hand, habits are the reason I get up around 4:30am, work out regularly, eat pretty well, and have kept my weight below 185 lbs for a full year since losing 61 lbs.

So, habits aren't either inherently good or inherently bad.

But they are absolutely essential.

Free Up Processing Power

Why are habits essential? Because making things habitual frees up valuable mental resources that are more productively applied to other tasks.

As William James put it, habits allow us:

...to do a thing with difficulty the first time, but soon do it more and more easily, and finally, with sufficient practice, do it semi-mechanically, or with hardly any consciousness at all

To Juan Pablo Montoya, the basic act of driving a race car on the absolute limit is pretty much automatic - it takes minimal conscious thought.

But that doesn't mean he's driving around the track wondering if he left the milk out of the fridge or what to watch on Netflix.

No, his freed-up mental capacity is now devoted to processing a million tiny details about the race (where is this guy slow? how are his tires holding up?) that he would otherwise be unable to take in.

So habits can be incredibly powerful.

But we have to use them in a way that works for us.

OK, let's say two guys get home from work, physically tired and mentally fried:

As always, Dad A slips on his running shoes without even thinking, heads out for a 20-minute jog and returns home feeling totally rejuvenated.

As always, Dad B cracks open a beer without even thinking, crashes out in front of the TV and feels slightly less bad than he did when he came through the front door.

Two guys, two radically different habits but both are perfect examples of what's known as the cue-routine-reward loop.

The Cue-Routine-Reward Loop

OK, this is really simple but massively important.

Keep in mind that advertisers spend billions of dollars every year trying to lure us into the habit loop.

So, here's what it looks like.

Cue Routine Reward Habit Loop

And here's how it works.

The Cue

So, what do all these things have in common?

• Arriving home from work

• Seeing the Starbucks sign

• The smell of fresh donuts

• Getting chewed out by the boss

Yep, they're all cues (basically, a cue being anything that triggers a specific and predictable response).

And we're surrounded by the things.

Like right now I've got notifications on my iPhone, a reminder that's just popped up on my computer, and the clock is telling me it's almost 1pm.

All cues for me to take some kind of action (reply to message, send e-mail, eat lunch).

The Routine

OK, as the action we take is usually predictable, it makes more sense to call it a routine.

After all, when your phone rings, you tend to pick up - you don't use it as a trigger for random stuff like doing star jumps or vacuuming the floor.

Arrive home from work (cue) → crack open a beer (routine)

See the Starbucks sign (cue) → grab an 8-oz latte (routine)

Obviously, we don't react to cues with identical levels of enthusiasm.

The 5am alarm that wakes you up on a Monday morning is a whole different deal to the 5am alarm that heralds the start of your family vacation to Hawaii.

And how enthusiastically we respond to the cue doesn't really come down to the routine itself (head to office, head to airport).

It's more about the strength of the feelings we associate to the reward the routine leads to.

Ultimately, it's all about the reward.

The Reward

Feeling sorry for the poor bastard jogging in the rain as you drive past in your car?

Well, he's getting pleasure from the endorphin rush, the fact that he's doing something most folks wouldn't, and the post-run shower is going to feel spectacular.

And the guy steadily working through a six-pack when he arrives home? He's getting pleasure from that, too.

Maybe it's relaxation, unplugging or changing his focus.

I mean, if it didn't give him pleasure, he wouldn't be doing it, right?

The upshot is every habit we have gives us a reward, and the more intense the reward, the more strongly the habit gets reinforced.

Put it this way, if every time Dad B took a pull from his beer, an invisible hand punched him in the junk, how long do you think his six-pack habit would continue?

Two or three sips, at best.

But as that doesn't happen, the shot of pure pleasure he gets reinforces the cue (that's the arrow linking "Reward" to "Cue").

So, that closes the habit loop which means that's all there is to it, right?

Not quite - there's just one piece we need to add that's the key to driving the whole thing...

Anticipating the Reward

The real power of habit comes from anticipating the reward when you're exposed to the cue.

You lace up your running shoes at 6am → you're already thinking about how good you'll feel when you're a few miles into your run

You see the Starbucks sign → you're already experiencing the feelings of comfort and control that supping on that 8-oz latte is going to provide 

You get home → you can already taste that cold, refreshing beer and feel the tension melt away

(Be honest, didn't you just imagine how good the beer would taste when you saw that photo?)

Ultimately, we're wired like Pavlov's dogs.

He'd ring a bell then give them food and, before long, just the sound of the bell was enough to make them salivate in anticipation of the reward.

So, when you woke up at 5am and jumped out of bed happy and excited, you were thinking of palm trees and mojitos not check-in lines and airline food.

It's the strength of the association between cue and reward that drives everything.

Creatures of Habit

All our life......is but a mass of habits

– William James

The reality is any change we want to make either comes down to 1) a behavior, or 2) how we feel about something.

Habit is the key to making that change stick.

Now we're familiar with the cue-routine-reward loop, we can start making habits that work for us instead of wasting time and energy fighting against habits that don't.

As Charles Duhigg writes in The Power of Habit, "You can't extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it.”

And that's precisely what the final part of this article covers.

Check it out here:

How to Make Awesome New Habits (Without Driving Yourself Nuts)

(Hint: It all comes down to "the six human needs"...)

– Tim

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Miki Yoshihito - Starbucks

Sarah Stierch - Juan Pablo Montoya

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