Hacking The Habit Loop
Do you brush your teeth every night before hitting the sack?
When was the last time you stood in line without looking at your phone?
Is it almost impossible for you to binge Netflix without also bingeing on a pint of Ben and Jerry’s?
For good or for ill, we all have habits. They are a natural part of being a member of the human race. Find a person without their share of good and bad habits, and you’ve probably found someone who’s just a glitch in the Matrix.
Habits are an integral part of our neurobiology, and the more we understand how they work, the better we can harness the good ones and cast aside the bad. This is especially important for freelancers, business owners, and entrepreneurs because the limits of our success often go hand in hand with the routines we live by.
What Is a Habit?
Neuroscientists have studied habits pretty extensively. A working definition that they usually use to define the term goes something like this:
A habit is a routine behavior that we exhibit almost subconsciously in response to a trigger.
In other words, it’s something we do without thinking about it in certain situations.
A perfect example is checking your cell phone whenever you hear that familiar “DING!”. Despite the fact that most people readily admit to the danger of using a phone at the wheel, many will still subconsciously grab for their phone when the ringtone goes off while they’re driving.
How Do Habits Form?
To get a better understanding of how to approach your habit hacking, you should understand that every habit you form has 3 parts:
1. The trigger
2. The routine
3. The reward
The trigger is the cue that signals to your brain that it’s time to start up the “habit loop” (the name for the psychological process we are aiming to hack). The routine is the action we take in response to the trigger. And the reward is neurological treat that our brain receives to encourage it to remember and repeat the routine next time.
Let’s say you have a daily running habit, for example…
Every morning your alarm goes off at 5:00 AM. You walk over across the room to turn it off and see your sneakers sitting right next to your phone (trigger). Seeing your sneakers reminds your brain that it’s time to run, so you put them on, lace them up, and hit the road (routine). The physical exertion of your run releases endorphins (reward). These are chemicals that relieve stress and increase happiness, and your brain absolutely loves them. It loves them so much that tomorrow morning, when you see your sneakers sitting next to your phone, you’ll be much more likely to repeat the habit loop all over again.
How To Form Good Habits
So how can we apply this knowledge to our habit hacking endeavors?
Now that we know how the habit loop forms in the first place, we can take active steps to develop the good habits that will make us successful in our business pursuits and life in general. It’s a 4 step process:
Step 1: Identify Your Desired Habit
The first step is to identify the new, healthy habit that you want to build. For example, let’s imagine that there is currently no rhyme or reason to your daily work schedule. You are just flying from the seat of your pants all the time, and you really want to develop a habit of taking a few minutes to schedule your next day before going to bed for the evening.
Step 2: Set a Trigger That Stands Out
Once you’ve got your habit identified, it’s time to set a trigger for yourself. Make it something that really stands out to you. For example, since we want to develop a habit of setting our schedule every night, we could decide that brushing our teeth is going to be our trigger. This is good, because it’s a routine that we’ve already established and do every night before bed.
However, teeth brushing is also such a mundane routine that it might not stand out to us enough. In this case, we can hack the trigger by wrapping bright pink duct tape around our toothbrush. Now, every time we see that out-of-place neon shine, our brains will remind us about the habit we are trying to form.
Step 3: Establish the Routine
When you are first starting to build a new habit, it is going to take you a lot of willpower to force yourself to actually perform the desired routine. It doesn’t come subconsciously to you yet, so it costs you a lot more of your energy. This is why experts recommend that you never try to form too many habits at once.
Take it one step at a time, and give yourself a few weeks to complete your habit hacking before moving on to another one.
Step 4: Earn Your Reward
Sometimes, your routine has its own natural reward (as in the endorphin releasing run example). Other times, you’ve got to create your own way to tell your brain “Hey! This feels good, let’s do it again tomorrow!”
For our schedule setting habit, we don’t want to have to wait for the next morning to reap the benefits, so we can come up with a more immediate reward. A really simple one that many people respond to is a progress chart. For example, we can draw a really simple chart of boxes on our whiteboard, one box for the first 30 days of our habit hacking journey. Every time we successfully set our schedule before bed, we check off a box on the chart.
Sometimes, you may need a more external motivator. In this case, you could take a normal leisure activity that you enjoy regularly and do it immediately after fulfilling your routine. As soon as we set our schedule, for example, it’s time to watch Netflix or play videogames.
A word of caution! Avoid unhealthy rewards that undermine the goals of your good habits. For instance, if you’re trying to establish an exercise routine, don’t reward yourself with junk food.
Start Forming Better Habits Today!
Your success in business and in life is determined in large part by the routines you live by. The more you can master the art of habit hacking, the more you can draw on proven psychological science to automate healthy decisions.
So what habits are you going to start hacking today?