Last week on the LitHabits Blog, we explored the anatomy of habit. If you missed my trials and tribulations with a tenacious tuna melt addiction, catch up with Part I of the How Habits Stick series here.
To recap, we covered the definition of a habit (your brain’s strategy for conserving energy). Then, we looked at Charles Duhigg’s framework for understanding how habits are formed: The Habit Loop.
Cue: Triggers the brain to switch to autopilot and perform the routine.
Craving: The hankerin’ for the reward the routine provides.
Routine: The habit action. AKA devouring cheesy, calorie-rich, tuna melty goodness.
Reward: The benefit of the habit that keeps you coming back. That awwwhhh yeaaah feelin’.
We can use the Habit Loop for a deeper look at what’s making it sticky––and then we can rewire the behavior. The easiest piece to identify is the routine. For me, that was an addiction to a tuna melt and tomato soup from the deli across from my office. 🥪🤤
The hard part is finding the reward in your Habit Loop, but it’s critical in diagnosing the motivation behind the habit.
Put On Your Lab Coat and Hunt Rewards
To find the reward that’s triggering your craving, get experimental. Put on your lab coat and safety goggles because we’re diving into the scientific method!
Duhigg emphasizes self-compassion during the experimentation phase. Don’t expect radical changes from the start. You’re only looking to diagnose. Change comes later. Take a deep breath, give yourself a hug, and approach your habit like a scientist.
Let’s look at my tuna melt addiction from 2015. I left the office every day around 12:30 p.m. to indulge in a calorie-rich sandwich combo at the deli. I wanted to take a hard look at what I was really craving.
(Side note – I’m hosting a workshop for writers who want to develop a consistent writing schedule unique to their life. Want in? Shoot me an email or sign up below👇)
Test a Hypothesis
Write down what you think you’re craving, and set up the first experiment.
To test my first hypothesis (“I’m hungry, so I crave food”), I could start by packing a yummy but healthy lunch––something I know I’ll enjoy like chili or spinach salad––and eating in the breakroom.
After swapping the routine, Duhigg suggests jotting down the first three things that come to mind after the habit. They can be feelings or random thoughts. The point is to jot down your state of mind.
After my lunch, I could set a timer for 15-minutes. When the timer goes off, I could ask myself, “Do I still feel a craving for an Elephant’s tuna melt? Was my homemade lunch satisfying?”
It’s possible that 15-minutes later, I still wish I had that delicious, cheesy tuna melt. I’m staring out the window at November rain wishing I’d had a few precious moments alone in panini paradise.
Okay, the first hypothesis is a no-go. Next, I could switch up my Elephant’s order. I could order a chicken caesar salad or the meatloaf to see if it’s the tuna melt or a comforting atmosphere I’m craving.
Once back at the office, I set a 15-minute timer and record my feelings. Even though I’m full, do I still wish I’d had the tuna melt? Or, am I content because I wanted to enjoy the sound of clinking plates and the assortment of artisan stationery around the Elephant’s dining room?
After noting my feelings, I realize the Elephant’s salad was just as satisfying as the tuna melt. But even sans tuna melt, I can’t eat lunch out every day! Bad habit persists.
I’ve discovered that my craving is not tied to the tuna melt. Next, I can try packing my lunch and taking it out of the office. I can pack a thermos of homemade tomato soup and walk along the Willamette River at lunch. Or, if it’s raining, I could drive to the closest park and enjoy my soup in the toasty cockpit of my Suzuki.
Back at the office. Fifteen-minute timer. How do I feel? Satiated? Focused? Ready to get back to work? Yes!
Bingo! Reward and craving identified. After a few hours in the same building staring at a computer, I’m craving a change of scenery (plus a hearty meal to satisfy biological hunger).
Now that we’ve pinpointed the reward, it’s time to break down the cue.
Duhigg’s recommendation for finding the cue is similar to finding the reward. When the craving hits, jot down three things:
Where are you?
What time is it?
What’s your emotional state?
Who else is around?
What action preceded the urge?
For my tuna melt addiction, the cue would be fairly easy to identify. Craving always hit between 11:45–12:15… lunchtime in corporate America. The shuffling of co-workers. A drop in blood sugar. This tells my tummy and brain: it’s tuna melt time!
But for habits that don’t align with meal times, this can be tricky. You may crave a cigarette at random times. Smoking may not be triggered by the clock, but by an emotion, event, or interaction with a specific person. If you use Duhigg’s question method when the craving comes on, you’ll notice a pattern.
You might notice your cigarette breaks align with stressful meetings at work. Or, maybe you bite your nails when you think about your next blog post. You probably have a hunch about your cues, but writing down your state of mind is an easy way to identify patterns.
Awareness is the first step. Now that you’ve diagnosed your habit, take action! This is the fun part because this is how we change our lives.
You know the reward you’re craving. It’s time to replace the routine while keeping a similar reward. For example, if your cue for a smoke break is a snarky comment from a co-worker, and your reward is the stress-relief of going outside with a cigarette, experiment with other stress-busting activities like:
Five minutes of desk yoga
Qi Gong (Give this a go! It takes three minutes and works wonders.)
Phone a friend who makes you laugh
Listen to five minutes of a comedy routine
Habits are sticky. When we’re tired or stressed, the willpower muscle is fatigued and not interested in our goals. A new routine may satisfy the habit craving, but we might be too damn tired to choose the new routine. 🤷🏻♀️
Sometimes, we’re working against chemical addiction––like nicotine, alcohol, salt, or sugar––on top of psychological wiring, which makes retraining the brain twice as hard.
Been there. Do you know how many times I wrestled myself into the break room while trying to crack my tuna melt habit? I had to move across the country to get away from that thing.
It haunts me, friend. It haunts me.
Set up Safeguards
At the start of each day, write down exactly how you’ll replace your addictive routine.
Set a timer to go off every ninety minutes to remind yourself of your new plan.
Find an accountability partner who wants to change their own habit. Set check-in times and encourage each other to stay on track with the action plan.
Be kind. This is critical. You will fall off the wagon. Habits don’t break overnight. Avoid the “Well, this is hopeless” attitude. Carry on. BIG breakthroughs happen after you fall, get up, and brush yourself off.
Whether your habit is procrastination on your latest writing project, sneaking a bowl of ice cream after work, or a devil-sent tuna melt, it’s possible to turn your brain off autopilot and rewire the routine.
All it takes is awareness and action.