“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” –Aristotle

Habits are a critical root of our behavior. Habits can save us time, energy, and precious mental bandwidth. Unfortunately, not all habits fall into this category. Some are dangerous—even deadly.

According to the latest research, habits follow a three-step process:

  1. Cue. A trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use.
  2. Routine. This can be physical or mental or emotional. Your brain believes this to be the best way to get to step 3.
  3. Reward. Rewards for a particular routine help your brain figure out whether or not this sequence is worth remembering.

This habit-loop is the Rosetta’s Stone of behavior change. Simply understanding how habits work—cue, routine, reward—makes them easier to control. But let’s dig deeper.

Change, Not Deletion

Once a habit has formed, it can never be extinguished. That kind of sucks. But there is a silver lining: You can change a habit.

How does this work? In order to change an old habit, you must address the underlying craving.

Cravings are what make cues and rewards work. They power the habit loop. To successful change a habit we must identify which craving is driving the behavior. To change an old habit, you have to address this craving. Keep the same cues and rewards as before, but feed the craving with a new routine.

Step One

So what’s our first step? Awareness. To change a habit we have to identify what triggers our habitual behavior. This isn’t always easy, but it is a necessary step in changing our behavior. Recognizing the cues and rewards driving our behavior is half the battle.

After we have identified the cues, rewards, and the underlying craving fueling our unwanted routine, it’s time to experiment with replacement routines. If you were thorough and honest enough with yourself in step one, this should be relatively straightforward. Insert the new routine into the old habit loop.

For some habits there is one more necessary ingredient: belief. In many studies belief was the X factor that made a reworked habit loop into a permanent behavior.

Remember: Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.

The Buddy System

Communities are great at fostering belief. This is the primary reason for the success of AA and other support groups. A community of believers is stronger than a lone wolf. It can keep you on track when you feel like going off the rails. Whenever possible find a supportive tribe.

There you have it. The groundwork for how you can change an undesirable habit. First, identify the cue (trigger), reward, and underlying craving. Next, come up with an alternative routine that you believe will satisfy the underlying craving. Then implement the new routine. Simple. But simple and easy are not the same thing.

Have you deployed this strategy to change a habit? Did it work? I would love to hear about your successes and struggles.

Deeper Learning

This article was inspired by Charles Duhigg’s amazing book, The Power of Habit. Duhigg is able to transform a technical subject into a page-turner by weaving the science around fascinating stories. If you’re serious about changing your habits, I highly recommend it.