As you might remember from Part1, the Habit loop or the Cue-Routine-Reward loop plays a crucial role in helping us understand how habits work. Habits can be scientifically defined as the choices that all of us deliberately make at some point and then stop thinking about but continue doing, often every day. For example, what now comes to most of us as second nature - driving - would have started out as a nerve-wracking and deliberate activity. Similar is the case with a lot of the decisions we (think we) make. Research suggests that more than 40% of the actions people performed each day weren't actual decisions but habits. In short, habits, as much as memory and reason, are at the root of how we behave. By understanding how habits work, anybody can build these patterns and create new habits.
Creating a new habit isn't necessarily easy or quick, it isn't always simple. But it is possible.
How to create new habits
In Part 1, it was mentioned that basal ganglia, the structure in our brain that stores habits, lets habits take over as soon as a chunk of behaviour starts or ends. Note that the beginning or end of this chunk of behaviour is represented by a spike in our brain activity - our brain activity spikes at the beginning of a routine (when we see the cue) and again towards the end (when we anticipate the reward). So the moment a cue presents itself in the form of a heightened brain activity, the basal ganglia lets the related habit unfold, resulting in what is called a habit loop. If you take smoking as an example, for some, the cue could be boredom, for others, it could be good company, or even alcohol. The reward is the rush of nicotine.
From the image of the Habit loop or the Cue-Routine-Reward loop, you may get the impression that as soon as the brain gets a cue, the routine will unfold. But there is another dependency. Research suggests that a routine becomes a habit only if the brain starts craving for the reward - in the case of smoking, the brain craves for that nicotine rush. No matter how many times you forcefully make yourself do something for a reward, that activity will not become a habit until your brain starts craving for the reward. In short, the cue, in addition to triggering a routine must also trigger a craving for the reward to come.
Craving is what powers the habit loop
When researchers interviewed people who exercised regularly, in one group, 92% of the people said they craved the feel good factor a workout provided (the endorphins and the other neurochemicals). In another group, 67% of the people said they had come to crave a regular sense of triumph from tracking their performances, and that self reward was enough to make the physical activity into a habit.
So if you want to start running each morning, it's essential that you choose a simple cue (like always lacing up your sneakers before breakfast or leaving your running clothes next to your bed) and a clear reward (such as a midday treat, a sense of accomplishment from recording your miles, or the endorphin rush you get from the jog). I always go to the gym right after I come back from work (cue) and my body has started to crave the healthy chicken salad that I munch on after the work out. Essentially, a cue and reward aren't enough for a new habit to last. Only when your brain starts expecting the reward, will it become automactic.
So here's some practical advice: Want to exercise more? Choose a cue, such as going to the gym as soon as you wake up, and a reward such as a smoothie after each workout. Then think about that smoothie or about the endorphin rush you'll feel. Allow yourself to anticipate the reward. Eventually, that craving will make it easier to push through the gym doors every day. Just give it a try.
In conclusion, this is how you can create new habits: by putting together a cue, a routine, and a reward, and then cultivating the craving that drives the loop. Finding a cue and a reward really helps, but figuring out how to spark a craving is what makes creating a new habit easier.
Now that we know how to create new habits, like being regular at the gym, in the next post, we will look at how to change our existing habits.