The Anatomy of a Habit

I was recently talking to someone who was expressing disappointment in themselves because they cannot seem to be disciplined enough to eat the way they know is best for their body. I really had empathy for this person because this is a trap many of us fall into. We think we should have enough discipline or willpower to make changes in our lives that are hard. And while we can have a great store of willpower, willpower is not an infinite resource. Willpower is a resource that is exhaustible and is often exhausted to the point it needs time to replenish. So, what is my friend to do then? How can we stop the cycle of using willpower to make hard changes and then inevitably failing when the willpower runs out? Oh, and if you do not believe me, think about the last time you tried to change a bad habit. My guess is you were able to avoid the bad habit until about 8PM at night on the 3 or 4th day of your “cold turkey” spell. 

This is the case for why habits and routines are so important. We can fall back on good habits and routine when we exhaust our willpower. But we have all tried to set new habits and break bad habits and we have all failed with it. So why do we fail? We have good intentions, we have a plan, and yet, if you are like me, you end up back in the pantry at 9:00PM trying to satisfy your sweet tooth. 

To stop this madness and really make progress on building good habits and breaking bad habits, we need to understand the anatomy of a habit. By understanding how habits are formed, then we have a fighting chance of breaking up with the bad ones and keeping the good ones going. 

Enter the habit cycle. With a habit, there is a cue followed by a routine followed by a reward. Let’s start with an example of a habit cycle. Maybe the focus is to stop late night snacking. What is the cue? Is it after dinner, 8PM at night, after a few hours of TV, feeling stress about the next day? Our cues can be situational, emotional, mental, or physical. So, my cue here is it is after dinner and my sweet tooth is talking loud to me. Next comes the routine. This is where we are either trying to create positive action or stop negative action.

But before we focus on the routine, let’s talk about the final phase of the cycle which is the reward. This is satisfying the sweet tooth, this is the instant gratification. Typically, in a bad habit, the reward is fleeting and pretty good at meeting our need for instant results. This is why it is so hard to break up with bad habits. So in my example of late night snacking, I need a new routine that starts with the same cue that I am done eating for the day and my reward will be the lack of guilt I feel from my late night snacking. No, it does not have the same appeal because it is not focus on instant gratification, but this is why we are not relying on willpower. So in the past, my habit cycle was that it’s after dinner, my routine was to go find something sweet, and my reward was my craving was gone but my sleep is jeopardized because of the late in the day sugar consumption. So here is a new cycle; my cue is dinner is over, my routine is I brush my teeth or I make a cup of tea when I start craving sugar and my reward is a delicious cup of tea that leaves me with satisfaction and no guilt. 

You may be doubting that this can work because the reward is not as enticing. But, if we can hold off on satisfying a bad craving for 15 minutes, a lot of times, the craving goes away. The plan is to create a different routine to give yourself time to think about how you want to satisfy the craving. 

We cannot simply just stop a bad habit and not replace the cycle with something else. Think about your cues and what routines or cravings they lead to and how rewarding is your reward at the end? The cue will not change but the routine can, and the reward will be more fulfilling. 

Source: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Tip shared by Jessi Chadd, a certified financial planner (CFP®) and a certified financial transitions specialist (CeFT®). Jessi lives at the intersection of wellness and wealth and enjoys helping people be well in all areas of their life including their finances. For more information on how you can improve your financial wellness, please reach Jessi at Jessi is a co-organizer for Priority Fit Camp. Each week, we publish a health and wellness tip that is shared at the Priority Fit Camp community workout. The free group class happens every Saturday at 7:50 a.m.  

Click for more info on the free Saturday group workout.