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How Habits Are Developed & How We Can Break Them

Strategist, Sam Hughes helps you stay on track with your New Year’s resolutions.

Habits control our daily lives. They influence our sleeping patterns, the routes we take to work, even our diet and exercise regimes. Once a habit embeds itself in our life it can be extremely hard to change.

This is why – despite by the best of intentions – by mid-January many New Year’s resolutions are already starting to crumble.

Thankfully, neuroscience (and in particular, Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit) can help us to understand how habits work, and how to change them too.

Here are three key learnings about what habits are, and how they stick in our brains. We’ll take the most natural of post-Christmas examples: a habitual snacker.

  1. Every habit contains a ‘cue’ and a ‘reward’

Simply put, habits are systems of cues and triggers that drive behaviour towards a reward.

Without understanding the specific cues that drive a person to seek a reward, a habit will be difficult to understand and therefore difficult to effectively change.

For instance, those who snack too much may generally want sweet treats because the sugar hit is a reward. Each snacker or instance of snacking might have cues as varied as anxiety, boredom, stress, or even just a general daily rhythm. Identifying the specific cue, and working out how to avoid or soften it can help to challenge the habit at source.

For instance, if stressful situations lead to snacking, avoiding them altogether can help them avoid snacking. Or set a healthy-snack timer 30 minutes before the regular snack habit usually occurs in a day, thereby building a new cue.

  1. Habits become psychologically sticky long-term when the system of cues and rewards also leads to a psychological ‘craving’

Similar to how conditioning works and muscle memories form, our brains get used to the patterns and neural pathways that are used in a habit. Daniel Kahneman would say a habit becomes ‘System 1’.

Eventually, the brain gets so used to the reward following the cue it starts activating the same reward-functions before this reward is even present.

For instance, in a well-trodden habit, a snacker’s brain might mimic some of the sugar high a snack would bring merely at the sight of one. This is because the brain has linked the visual trigger of the snack with the neural reward so deeply that it starts activating the reward areas of the brain before the snack is eaten.

This heightened activity feels like an acute craving, and it makes the desire for a snack even greater in that moment, compelling the person to get the reward.

Once these cravings embed themselves in our brains, they are extremely hard to erase.

  1. Because of the stickiness of established habits, it is easier to map a new reward onto an existing cue or build a new craving to challenge an existing one, than it is to stop a habit ‘cold turkey’

Many cues occurring in our daily lives are unavoidable, and cravings end up burned into our brains. It’s hardly surprising many attempts at changing habits fail.

However, rather than trying to force the brain into something completely new, a better strategy for changing habits is to map a new one onto an existing one.

In the classic goal ‘I want to stop snacking so I lose weight’, the reward (weight loss) will not inspire a craving as there will be no immediate tangible benefit to the brain. The brain cannot start craving a reward it cannot feel in a tangible way, and so the old habit’s brain pathways still fire when snack-driving cues occur.

But, there are two strategies to help combat this.

Firstly, rather than trying to stop snacking entirely, a suitable healthier alternative reward can help to slowly replace the brain’s need for the old reward. In this situation a cue still occurs, and the craving still activates, but this is satisfied by a new reward.

Secondly, building a new craving to challenge an old one can make a new habit more likely to stick. For instance, keeping a calendar of snack-avoiding days, or totting up money saved by not buying snacks will actually build a competitor craving. In this situation the satisfaction of filling in this journal and seeing the saved money tot up also leverages our ‘Completion Bias’ (in other words, the need to complete things). As we establish this new routine, the act of ticking off days or seeing an amount increase becomes the craving itself. We start to crave the dopamine this small act of completion gives us, which competes with the same brain-space as the old craving.

It’s important to choose a tangible habit with an immediate reward because when our brains start craving this new reward, the new habit has a better chance of replacing an old one permanently.

So, to change a habit or build a new one*:

  1. Identify specific cues to the habit and combat them at source
  2. Build strategies and routines which can generate new cravings to combat old ones
  3. Replace old rewards with an alternative reward where possible

*Of course, some willpower still required!