There’s a story about a horse rider that was riding a horse very fast through the village. As the horse galloped by a person yelled at the rider and asked where he was going so fast? “I don’t know,” said the rider, “you’ll have to ask the horse.”

We all have “loops,” patterns of behavior, we execute without thinking too much (or thinking at all). As with the horse rider, we mindlessly allow these habits to control how we go about the day. Being on automatic pilot can be helpful because for some habits (think stopping at a red light) we want to execute unconsciously. When we have negative habits though (think being late consistently), or we want to create new habits (think being on time), we want to be more conscious about what we are doing so we can change the behavior.

Just being able to identify the steps in the loop can allow us to find methods for breaking bad habits, and to establish better habits.

Recent inquiry by researchers into the field of how good/bad habits are formed pinpoints the steps to be:

  1. Cue
  2. Behavior, and
  3. Reward

Cues are events that trigger us to behave a certain way.

Think of a habit you want to change. What is the cue there? Specifically, what happens that causes a certain behavior to happen? Cues can take a variety of forms but some questions that are helpful in identifying the cues are:

  • What time is it?
  • Where are you?
  • Are there any smells or sounds that elicit behavior?
  • Who else is around?
  • What did you just do?
  • What emotions or thoughts were occurring before the habit happened?

For example, maybe you’ve developed a bad habit of being distracted by your phone at work. Going through the above list, you might notice that you place your phone on your desk where you constantly see it and can hear messages and alerts coming in.

An effective strategy in eliminating this habit is getting rid of the cue.

Here, because you’ve identified that the phone is always where you can visually see and hear it you can silence the phone and put it out of sight.

Additionally, by examining what the specific behavior is that the cue elicits, we can add another strategy to eliminate the habit. Here, let’s say you’re checking your phone consistently and even though you’ve gotten rid of the cue, it is not enough. A simple strategy is to make the behavior more difficult, e.g. by increasing the number of steps between you and the habit. For example, perhaps here, in order to not consistently check your phone you decide to lock the phone in your car and also power it off.  If you want to check your phone now - you have to go through the extra steps of leaving your office, walking to your car, powering the phone up and checking social media, news or whatever you were doing on your phone. Adding extra steps makes it undesirable to act on the thought.

Finally, what’s the reward you get in the moment? Every habit, good or bad, at some level has a desired effect that, over time, became conditioned within us. Perhaps here, there’s some visual stimulation or entertainment that occurs when you check your phone. The key then, become to make the reward, the payout, unsatisfying. This can be accomplished by associating emotional, social, financial and/or physical pain to the habit.  What is the behavior ultimately costing you if you don’t change it? Find a way to make the behavior less desirable.

If you want to explore some other strategies on creating better habits, join the University Ombuds Office this month for our monthly lunch session.

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