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How Habits Work

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Hi, I'm Justin Baeder. In this video, we're going to explore precisely how habits work. This is a critical area for increasing our performance in just about anything we want to get better at.
Throughout the day, about 40 to 50 percent of what we do is governed by habits. Think about the moment you wake up in the morning. You probably go into the bathroom and brush your teeth without even thinking about it.

You probably get in your car and drive to work without even thinking about your route. It's that fact that you don't really think about how to execute a habit that makes habits so powerful. Now, that's also what makes habits a little bit dangerous, because it's very easy to get into unhealthy habits, work counter-productive habits.

The power of habits can work for us, as well, because we can purposefully develop high-performance habits. I want to show you, now, how habits actually work. Habits start with a cue. We're going to draw this first as a loop.

If I have a cue, that can be anything in the environment. That can be a feeling like hunger. It can be the time of day. It can be an alert that you receive from your Smartphone. Just about anything can serve as a cue for what's called the habit loop.

I'm drawing on some research that's represented in Charles Duhigg's excellent book, “The Power of Habit” for this part of the presentation. The cue triggers, what we would call, a reaction or what Duhigg calls a sequence.

This is, basically, a sequence of behaviors that you carry out in response to the cue. Now, that can happen very rapidly, and it happens without a lot of thinking. Again, that's key to this actually being a habit. You don't have to think. You don't have to put forth conscious effort to carry out that sequence.

It just happens, because it's encoded in your brain. It may be encoded in your muscle memory, like driving to work. You just know where to turn. Once the sequence has been ingrained in your brain and in your muscle memory, it can be fairly difficult to change.

One of the reasons it's so difficult to change a habit, once you've learned it, is the third factor which drives the whole process, and that is the reward. Now, the reward shouldn't be confused with an effect or a consequence.

The reward is something that's almost always a feeling. It's almost always something that you experience internally after taking the actions in the sequences. If you're hungry, if hunger is the cue, and the sequence is having a snack or eating a meal, the reward is that you're no longer hungry.

That reward could be a new feeling, like the feeling of being full or the removal of some negative feeling. Some negative cue like hunger. In the classic, habit loop, this is drawn as a cycle. So cue leads to sequence leads to reward, and then we're back at cue.

That's how Duhigg describes it in the diagrams in his book. It's not actually so simple a cycle. There's another step that's omitted from a lot of the diagrams that I've seen about this, and that is anticipation.

Anticipation is what allows the reward to trigger the behavior in the future. When you experience the reward that reloads the anticipation for next time. Next time you experience the cue, you'll then experience anticipation. Then, you'll carry out the sequence which leads to the reward.

We can erase this arrow between reward and cue, because the reward doesn't cause the cue. We can erase the arrow between cue and sequence, because it's actually the anticipation that's triggered by the cue, and that triggers the sequence.

Let's go ahead and modify our diagram here a little bit. We can erase the arrow between reward and cue and between cue and sequence. What we have now, is no longer a loop. It is a better model of how habits actually work.

Once you understand how habits actually work, you have a lot of different leverage points for breaking bad habits, changing existing habits, and creating new habits for high performance.

Let's talk about how we can influence each element of the habit model. Now, a lot of the cues that you experience on a day-to-day basis are going to happen. They're outside of your control, because they're outside influences.

They're the time of day. They're things that other people do. We can't always prevent or control the cues, but what we can do is we can sometimes preempt them. We can say, “OK, at a certain time of day, I know I'm going to get hungry, so before that time of day, I'm going to have a healthy snack so I'm not tempted to just have some candy.”

The second thing we can do is we can seek to modify the anticipation. If you're anticipating something that's going to trigger a destructive sequence of behavior, then what you can do, is set up a negative consequence for yourself.

I have some examples in the habit guide that you'll find, also on this page that you can download, to go through some exercises on this. The sequence is where we usually focus when we're trying to modify a habit.

The golden rule of habit formation is to take an existing cue, an existing reward. Say, the cue is hunger and the reward is feeling full. Change the sequence. Maybe the sequence that I've been using is, “I'm eating a bag of chips to make myself feel full.”

It's pretty easy for me to substitute in a different behavior, a different sequence, and eat a salad, if that will trigger the same reward. Now, the problem with that is often that change of sequence, changes the reward that we experience.

It doesn't trigger the same kind of habit that we were trying to change. Then finally, let's look at the reward. If we're trying to develop a new habit, we may need to pick out a meaningful reward that we're going to be able to look forward to.

If we're going to install a new sequence, if we're going to commit to a new behavior, it's helpful to pick out a reward that we can anticipate so that we can reliably carry out that habit and make it a part of our daily practice.

Now that you have a model for how habits actually work, I want to challenge you to think about a habit that you want to develop, a habit that you want to eliminate, and a habit that you want to modify, and think to yourself, “What's the cue? What's the anticipation? What's the sequence, and what's the reward?”

What's the best point of leverage for modifying each of those habits so that you can get the results you want and perform at the level that you want to as an instructional leader?

I'm Justin Baeder. Thanks so much for joining me for this video.

Download the “How Habits Work” PDF Guide


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