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The Habit Loop: How to create an effective daily routine this year.

Explore the challenge of changing ingrained habits by breaking down The Habit Loop into cues, routines, and rewards.

Do you have some areas you want to work on this year? First, consider this: 40 percent of the actions you perform every day are not based on decisions you make, but rather they are routine habits programmed into your brain.

So how do you make changes when you are up against actions so ingrained in your daily life that you aren’t even aware you’re doing them? There’s no shortage of frameworks to help you stay on task, but before you find your perfect productivity hack it’s important to understand how habits form in the first place. 

Let’s take a look at the science of habits, and how to change yours for good:

The Habit Loop

Throughout the course of your life your brain has formed thousands of habits that it performs daily. All habits can be broken down into a three part loop: the cue, routine, and reward system.

An example of a habit loop you’re probably familiar with is entering your kitchen first thing in the morning and still feeling a tad sleepy. You then fire up the coffee maker (or teapot, or blender), and proceed to enjoy your first cup of coffee, tea, pre-workout smoothie, or shot of apple cider vinegar (listen, wellness comes in all shapes and sizes. You do you.)

In this instance, 

The cue is your morning grogginess.

The routine is making yourself a coffee, tea, or smoothie.

The reward is your body beginning to feel ready to tackle your day.

Image credit: Charles Duhigg

Cues can be external or internal. For example, an advertisement for your favorite restaurant is an example of an external cue. An internal cue might simply be feeling hungry. A cue is essentially anything that activates your habit loop to kick into gear.

Once a cue is signaled then a routine behavior starts, like calling up that restaurant to order dinner. This routine is then reinforced by the reward of enjoying delicious food. This entire process is called the habit loop, and is the foundation of every repeatable task you make in your day to day.

How to find your cues

Identifying your cues is a key to unlocking habit changes and making improvements to your routines. Because the habit loop exists as a continuous circle, understanding cues is essentially an exercise in identifying patterns. 

Here are some tips for identifying your habit cues:

Scrutinize, then jot it down: Examine your daily routines and identify habits associated with specific times or activities. For example, you might snack while watching TV or check social media during breaks between Zoom meetings.

Ask the people that know you best: Sometimes, others may notice patterns in your behavior that you're not aware of. Ask friends or family for feedback on your habits, their observations can be quite illuminating. My husband noticed that in the summer I always go to the freezer and grab a sorbet lemon popsicle after tucking the kids in bed. For what it’s worth, I have no desire to change that habit. Life is full of small wins.

Leverage (practical) mindfulness: Mindfulness, in its practical form, is about becoming aware and thoughtful of your actions, even the routine ones. ​​Paying attention to your surroundings, emotions, and thoughts can help you identify patterns and cues that trigger your habits.

How to change your routines

So how do you actually change a habit? In his bestselling book, “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg writes, “We know that a habit cannot be eradicated—it must, instead, be replaced. And we know that habits are most malleable when the Golden Rule of habit change is applied: If we keep the same cue and the same reward, a new routine can be inserted.”

Now that you understand the habit loop of cue, routine, then reward, how can you use this framework to alter the habits you want to change? 

One important thing to understand about the habit loop is that the cues (hunger, enticing ads, the ping of a notification) are never going away. You will always have cues that trigger behaviors because you can never completely control your environment. 

The thing you CAN control is the next step, your routine behavior. So once you understand your cues, you actively need to resolve to change your behavior. So for example, if you’re trying to break the habit of grabbing a piece of chocolate every time you have a 10 minute break before your next work meeting, you resolve to change the behavior from grabbing chocolate, to doing 5 jumping jacks. The 10 minute break (your cue) will always be there, but what you do with that time now changes to a different habit.

Image credit: Charles Duhigg

How technology helps (or hinders) you

Leveraging technology to help you improve is a classic example of outsourcing tasks you can’t compel yourself to jumpstart on your own. Here’s a roundup of a few different ways technology can help you cue routines, and also how it may be holding you back.

Time blocking apps and frameworks: The concept of time blocking, or allocating specific periods to a certain task, can be turned into perfect habit loops due to their start and end times. The Pomodoro technique, the process of setting a timer for 25 minutes, going heads down, and then coming up for air when the alarm rings, is a great way to engage the habit loop. Your cue is needing to go heads down, your behavior is setting a timer for a finite period of time, and the reward is the sound of that timer to tell you that you were productive for the exact amount of time you allotted.

Fitness trackers: Fitness trackers have become a staple of habit loop routines: they hold you accountable for step counts with notifications, and they will buzz if you haven’t been active in a while. But they’re not just for physical health. There is a lot of research suggesting that increased movement can reset brain blocks. This helps you be more productive by thinking about something else for a while or changing your location. So even though fitness tracker watches are often used for personal fitness, incorporating movement into your work day actually helps you be more effective at your job, as well. 

Gamification: Certain apps keep you coming back for more by using the technique of gamification, which means applying aspects of game play into things that are not games. Duolingo, the app that helps you learn a new language, is a prime example of this. The app rewards you with badges, rankings, and dancing birds to compel you to continue completing “streaks” of usage. In the work space, the app Habitica is popular among college students and has the literal tagline of “gamify your tasks.” It looks like an actual video game, and allows you to customize which tasks you want to turn into little games. This approach is foundational to the habit loop because it prompts you to “play” your lesson or task, you interact with the app, and are then rewarded like you’re playing an actual game.

Turning off email, text notifications or Slack pings: If the goal is more focus, sometimes it’s about minimizing technology, rather than leveraging it. By turning off email, text, and Slack/Teams notifications, you avoid the trap of hearing a ping sound (cue), checking your phone or chat app (routine), and receiving notifications (reward) that can lead to the trap of being in the distraction zone of talking about work, instead of going heads down and doing it. 

There are a million ways to start the year off with exciting new frameworks and approaches for how you want to improve your productivity and focus. But before you try every brain hack known to humankind, set aside some time to learn your own habitual loops, and understand how you are applying them to your routines, good and bad.

Let's fix the way we work.

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