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How to Change (or Break) a Habit in 4 Steps

How to Change (or Break) a Habit in 4 Steps
Posted by Andy Patton

The things that work in your life work because of your habits. The things that are broken about your life are your habits too. When you get out of bed, your habits are moving your body. When you get that bonus at work, you have your good work habits to thank for it. When you look at porn, your habits are up and running. When you realize, to your horror, that you have walked your marriage to the brink of a cliff, your habits will have been there the whole time, holding your hand and urging you forward.

When you need to change your life but fail to do so, it is because of your habits. On the other hand, when you look back across the decades of your life and find that you have slowly and painfully been conformed to the likeness of Jesus, your path to maturity is written in divinely transformed habits.

God made us creatures of habit; habits were one of his good ideas. They were meant to make godliness sticky and durable. But they are also contested grounds. This is what Paul was getting at in Romans 7 when he lamented,

"For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.”

Like Paul, we stand or fall with our habits. Even the smallest of our habits have their hands on the rudder of our lives; small choices in abundance add up to big choices. Small habits over decades add up to a life.

There is a lot to be gained or lost if only we can figure out how to change the vexing, precious things.

How Habits Work

Before we talk about changing habits, we have to go over some fundamentals. You can’t take apart a habit and build something else in its place until you know what all the pieces are and how they work.

 Each habit has three parts:

  • Cue—The trigger that tells your brain that it is time to start a habit and which one to use.
  • Routine—The activity of the habit, whether physical, emotional, moral, spiritual, or cognitive.
  • Reward—The feedback at the end of the habit that helps your brain determine if the habit worked and if the habit should be used again.

 Habits are your brain’s way of saving energy. Brain scans show that neural activity spikes when a habit is triggered (the cue), plummets when you are actually doing the activity (the routine), and spikes again when the reward arrives. Habits feel mindless because they are; your mind is elsewhere while the actual action of the habit occurs. The “thinking” part of you, your conscious self, has outsourced the action to the parts of your brain that handle automatic behaviors. Left to their own devices, our brains get pretty lazy.

 If that wasn’t the case, driving a car would demand so much attention that we would become bad at it (just think of your first days behind the wheel). If that wasn’t the case, we wouldn’t be able to brush our teeth, think through the day’s schedule, and search in the drawer for the deodorant with the other hand. You don’t have to coordinate the delicate motions involved in applying toothpaste to the bristles of your toothbrush because you have done it so often. That’s what habits are for.

 But that is exactly the part of the habit loop that makes habits so hard to change. The enduring nature of habits is great for driving the car and brushing our teeth, but it gets more problematic for those habits we actually want to change. If we are going to change those habits, we are going to have to figure out how to turn our brains back on during our routines or avoid the cues that trigger them altogether.

Four Steps for Changing Your Habits

As Charles Duhigg writes in The Power of Habit, “Habits aren’t destiny… [They] can be ignored, changed, or replaced… But unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the pattern will unfold automatically.”

The good news is that habits can change. The bad news is that you are going to have to fight for what ground you gain. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a way to fight smart.

Duhigg goes on to outline four steps to changing your habits:

  1. Identify the Routine
  2. Experiment with Rewards
  3. Isolate the Cue
  4. Have a Plan

Identify the Routine

The Golden Rule for habit change is: You can change any habit if you keep the same cue and the same reward, but insert a new routine. This makes identifying your routine a crucial step in changing a habit.

According to the Golden Rule, it is easier to change a habit than to erase it altogether. Erasing habits takes a lot of willpower and is a self-defeating process because willpower is an exhaustible mental commodity. The more you use it, the less of it you have to use. Then, when it is gone for the day, you go right back to your bad habit. But you can hack willpower by keeping the cue and the reward constant and swapping out one routine for another.

For example, if you are trying to lose weight, and find yourself wandering to the kitchen for a cookie every time you get hungry during the day, ditch the cookies and buy some carrots and hummus. You keep the same cue (“I’m hungry”), and keep the same reward (“I’m not hungry anymore”), but change the routine so that you still get up and go to the kitchen but eat something else instead.

Experiment with Rewards

The things that are really driving our behavior are often not as easy to spot as you might think. We are mysteries to ourselves. Perhaps you think you are going to the kitchen for a cookie because you’re hungry, but what if you are actually doing it for some other reason?

The way to pin down the actual motivation behind your habits is to experiment with rewards.

If you eat that carrot and hummus and then go back to work and find your mind still wandering to those cookies, try a different reward. What if next time you go outside for a walk and a quick podcast? When you get back to work, you are able to concentrate again and all thoughts of cookies are gone because you weren’t hungry at all. You were actually just bored. Experimenting with the rewards in your habit loop revealed the motivations that were truly energizing your habit.

Isolate the Cue

Unfortunately for anyone trying to change their habits, we are not lab rats. The lives of lab rats are pretty simple. The buzzer goes off, the door opens, they run the maze, they get the cheese. If the door opens and the rat doesn’t run, we know why. The rat has been trained to run when the buzzer goes off, and this time, it didn’t go off. No cue, no habit. Easy.

Researchers design their experiments in this way to reduce the number of variables, but life is not so neat and controllable. At any given moment, we are faced with any number of cues and a barrage of sensory information. So how do you determine the exact cue that is triggering the habit you are trying to change?

You have to start observing your life like a scientist observes an experiment.

This won’t be as hard as you think. All cues fall into one of five categories:

  • Location
  • Time
  • Emotional state
  • Other people
  • Immediately preceding action

When you start to examine your habits, pull out a piece of paper and make note of what is happening in those five categories. Where are you? What time is it? How are you feeling? Were you just talking to someone else? Thinking about someone else? What were you just doing?

Keep these notes for a few days and then look for common patterns. Odds are that some common theme will stand out (“Oh… I always open Twitter when I flop down on the couch at the end of the day.”). Here is your cue. It is time to make a plan for how to change the habit.

Have a Plan

You have the knowledge you need to change your habits; now it is time to execute.

You know your habit loop: “When I [Cue], I [Routine] so that I can get [Reward].” Now fill in the blanks with the cue you discovered and the same reward, but come up with some alternate routine you are going to do instead of the old behavior. Then start doing your plan. It is as simple as that.

It is going to take time to lay down a new habit, but rest assured, the habit will change. The old habit was laid down, like a path in the woods, because you kept walking it. If you stop walking the path, the forest will regrow. Your feet won’t take you down that way anymore. Instead, you’ll walk in the new direction.

If you run into trouble, continue to observe your life like an experimenter. Is the cue to your habit something that is necessary to have in your life? If you are trying not to check your phone in bed, do you need to have your phone in your bedroom at all? Perhaps you can get some leverage on your habit-change project if you eliminate the cue altogether.

Is your reward tapping into the right motivation? The human heart can be a fickle thing; sometimes our motivations change. There might also be some leverage in doubling down on your rewards when the old one gets boring or stops helping you avoid the old behavior. Keep experimenting.

If you fall off of the wagon every once in a while, don’t worry. Go back to your plan, your replacement habit. Hang in there. Changing a habit requires persistence, but you can do it.

Feeling inspired to change (or break) a habit or two in your life?Then we’d also recommend listening to our recent podcast episode that dives even deeper into this topic!


Posted by Andy Patton

Andy Patton is a former staff member at L'Abri Fellowship in England and holds an M. A. in theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Read more from Andy on The Darking Psalter (translations of the Psalms with new poetry), Three Things (a monthly digest of resources to help people connect with culture, neighbor, and God), and Still Point (reflections on deconstruction and why people leave Christianity).

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