Tuesday, August 12, 2014

What drives your Loop? How to Establish Healthy Habits, Part Deux

A few months ago, we potty trained Darling Son #2. We gathered together all the necessary equipment--potty, Thomas the Tank Engine underwear, sticker chart and required stickers (microphone, sunglasses, etc.) And we girded ourselves for the task at hand.

Potty Training: It's risky business

Initially, it didn't go very well. In fact, it went quite badly. He just wasn't getting it.

I realized the problem was the stickers. He gets stickers every time we go to Trader Joe's. Stickers just don't light him up enough, so it was time to bring out the big guns:

 Chocolate chips.
This is how he feels about chocolate chips.
Yup, as soon as we dangled the sugar in front of him, the potty became his new best friend. There is indeed a time for everything under heaven, and potty training is the time for chocolate chips. We'd clap, cheer and give him one after he'd performed--just one. After a while, it was no longer necessary. The habit was set and the chocolate chips resumed their rightful place in the basement.

But of course, the process was somewhat painful, as learning new habits can often be. You can make it a little easier on yourself by learning how habits work. It seems simple... you just do something over and over, and it becomes a habit, right?

Well, yes, but it turns out there are certain triggers that fire certain behaviors. Learning how to tap into what researchers call 'the habit loop' can make learning good habits easier... and replacing bad habits easier, too.

The Loop
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology began studying habits in the 1990's. They found habits had a distinct pattern: a cue, a routine and a reward.

Let's use exercise as an example, since I think we've talked enough about the potty. When people talk about exercise, it almost always centers around the routine--what workout will get you the 'best results,' however those might be defined. And that's fine. There are certainly many ways to move the bod and it's a worthwhile discussion.

But the cue and reward components of the loop are far more important from a habit-building perspective.

The Cue, a.k.a, The Hurdle
Let's say you've decided to do an exercise video everyday when you get home from work. That's your cue. Time to get moving! The problem, however, is the cue often comes with hurdles--you're tired when you get home, you're hungry, there's a pile of mail you look through, you need to get your clothes on. What are you going to wear? Uh-oh, cute workout clothes are in the wash. And then what video should you do? I have quite a collection so I could spend days on that, alone.

And by now it's so late and you're so hungry, you just end up noshing in front of the TV. (I'm not saying I've ever done that.)

This is why you need a reward. This pattern--cue, routine, reward--turns into a cycle. The researchers found study participants began associating the cue with the reward. The more they practiced the cycle, the stronger the craving for the reward.

In short, the craving drove the loop. This explains why DS #2 wasn't quite clicking with the potty at first. Stickers, schmickers. Hand over the chocolate, Mommy, or there will be pee on the floor.

Deciding on your Reward
Depending on your personality and circumstances, I'm inclined to discourage chocolate chips, or any other food reward. I mean, they worked for the potty, but they might not support your goals. I suppose in the above scenario, you could just make your healthy dinner the 'reward,' but then you might set up a pattern of I exercise/I eat. That may not be helpful if you switch your workout time down the road, but that's up to you.

Years ago, I set up different rewards for myself, without even knowing about this marvelous 'loop.' I made charts, kept a journal, followed workout rotation calendars, that sort of thing. At one point, I made the delightful post-workout shower my reward. I focused on how blissful it would be to feel warm water on my fatigued badass self, how nice it would be to feel all clean and fluffy...

Now, I focus on the lalas--that lovely endorphin rush I get from a good workout. In fact, I once schooled a roommate to remind me 'just think how good you're going to feel when your done.' The lalas can be a very potent reward. I'm at the point where I don't need an external reward. The exercise habit is pretty much burned in brain by this point. It's a good place to be.

But when you're just getting going, pick an external reward. Screen time? Phone a friend? A nice, hot, soapy shower? Sticker chart? It needs to be something good. Remember: the craving drives the loop.

I learned about this in the book The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg. Highly recommend. Next time we'll talk about obstacles in the loop. I'm off to the coffee pot. It was my reward for finishing this post.

1 comment:

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