What’s a habit and why should I care?

Behaviors are the foundation of processes–and at the foundation of behaviors are habits. Habits consist of three elements. In fact, these three elements govern any habit. Let’s start at the beginning…

What is a habit?

It’s a shortcut for the brain, habits makes things more efficient.

How do habits work?  

Charles Duhig breaks down habits in his book The Power of Habit. He introduces a simple model called the habit loop that makes it easy to identify and create a habits: Trigger, Action, Reward. The big idea here is that you can make significant behavior changes when you understand this simple series of events.

Start with the trigger

The trigger is the thing that initiates the action, it can be anything, location, time of day, emotions, other people, a certain sound, you get the idea. Some of these triggers are generating subconscious “habits” but once you learn to understand them, these triggers can be one of the most powerful tools at your disposal. If my habit is eating ice cream at night my trigger might be a certain time of day or an activity I’m doing, like binge watching Netflix. If my habit is to go running each morning, my trigger is my alarm clock going off and having my running shoes by the bed. Sometimes you need to adjust your trigger a little bit, for example, if I find myself pressing snooze every morning I might need to move my alarm clock across the room so my “habit” of hitting snooze gets interrupted.  

Action follows the trigger

The action is the behavior or WHAT you do. This one is pretty simple to understand. If eating ice-cream has become a habit I might find myself with a bowl full without even realizing I went and got it. When my alarm clock goes off, if I’ve established a true habit of running, I roll out of bed, grab my running shoes and head out the door, almost as if on autopilot.

This results in a reward

The reward is in a lot of ways the MOST important part. This is the WHY behind what you do. WHY do I get that bowl of ice-cream every night? Is it because I’m hungry? Is it that it just tastes good?

Breaking  old habits

If you have a habit you’re trying to break you’ll need to experiment a little bit  to really understand the reward you’re getting from the bad habit. Same thing applies for running. There HAS to be a reward in it for me or WHY would I ever get up at the crack of dawn and workout? That reward might be the endorphins I get as I run or the fact that I’m healthier as a result.

Creating new habits

New habits can be established one of two ways: either by replacing an existing habit or creating a brand new routine. Replacing an existing habit is actually pretty easy. If I want to replace my habit of eating ice-cream every night, I need to identify the trigger – 9:00 pm, then I can proactively insert a different “action” when that trigger comes up. The key here is to make sure whatever action you choose provides a reward. If I was eating ice cream because I was hungry, I might need to replace it with a healthier snack. If I was eating ice cream because I was bored, maybe I need to find an activity I can do to fill my evenings.

Start with the why.

To create a brand new routine I like to start with WHY. If I want to create a habit of running every morning I need to figure out WHY I’m doing it, Am I running to lose weight, clear my head or just to feel more energized to start my day. Once you really understand WHY you’re doing it, work towards establishing an effective trigger (like your alarm clock going off across the room).

Only you can improve and change your habits.

If any of these three pieces of the habit loop are missing, you won’t achieve consistent, scalable results. This is the difference between giving up on my goals to get healthy or successfully establishing a new routine to meet my goals. If you take a few minutes to look around you’ll see habits (both good and bad) everywhere. By using the habit loop model you’ll be able to promote significant behavior changes both for yourself and your team.