How to Change a Habit in 4 Steps!

After reading Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of HabitI felt full of excitement with the possibilities of changing and creating habits.

Although, it’s also overwhelming to start major habit change. Habits are deeply engrained, and it won’t be accomplished overnight. Just like when I wrote about having a Slip Up to Success Planchanging a habit is a process that isn’t linear. Still, it’s a journey worth taking and I hope this 4 step guide helps get you started!

For those who haven’t read The Power of Habit, Duhigg breaks down how habits work by detailing the “habit loop”.

Habit Loop

A habit has 3 components; Cue, Routine, Reward.

Let’s look at the common habit of brushing your teeth before bed; your cue is getting ready for bed (more specifically, maybe it’s washing your face, or changing into pajamas), and your routine (habit) is brushing your teeth, and your reward is the clean mouth feel and taste.

By adulthood, this habit is so ingrained in your routine you hardly think about it. It’s just what you do.

Changing a habit focuses on only changing ONE thing; the routine.

Big changes start with small changesTry to change the cue, routine AND reward at one time and you’ll end up overwhelmed and unsure of why the new habit didn’t stick. Was it the cue that didn’t work or the reward or was the routine too complicated? By focusing on one small change you can master it.

Duhigg outlines the framework of changing a habit towards the end of the book:

1.Identify the routine
2. Experiment with rewards
3. Isolate the cue
4. Have a plan (Doesn’t it always start with a plan?)

Let’s work one out together, so you can apply these steps to whatever habit you want to tackle first. Here’s (one of) mine; snacking after lunch on dry cereal.

Identify the Routine

The behavior of eating handfuls of sugary cereal after lunch is the habit I want to change . I know I’m not actually hungry, because I fix a satisfying lunch, one that is filling and enjoyable. I resolve to not do it the next day, yet the next day I’ll put my dishes in the sink and mindlessly grab a handful.

But what’s my reward? Why do I need to snack on something? Am I not eating enough as my meal? Do I need something sweet? Am I not ready to get back to work yet?

Experiment with Rewards

Duhigg explains that rewards satisfy cravings, but we often don’t know exactly what we’re craving. To figure out what you’re actually craving, you get to play scientist, testing different rewards/behaviors until you find one that leaves you satisfied.

When I go to grab some cereal, I will test a new routine. Instead of cereal, I’ll get an apple then get back to work. The next day, I’ll make some tea after lunch. Day three, I’ll try a few minutes of yoga. The day after that, I’ll walk the dog. Another option I’ll try, is to browse one of my favorite blogs (probably!)

The purpose is to find something to replace this mindless munching with the same reward of satisfaction to get back to my day. If it’s because I’m hungry, an apple or other healthy snack will do the trick. Or, if it’s a need to be up and about, yoga will help. Maybe it’s the change of scenery, and walking the dog will satisfy me.

I’ll probably need to try a few different approaches over the next couple of days, so I”ll take notes, jotting down my immediate thoughts  – just a few words; i.e. full, refreshed, calm – after the experimental routine. This will bring me into the present moment, and connect me to my feelings.

Next, Duhigg suggests setting an alarm for 15 minutes. 

When the alarm sounds, I’m to reflect if I still crave cereal (the habit). If I ate an apple and 15 minutes later I still want some Lucky Charms, I must be craving the reward of sugar. Or, 15 minutes after reading a favorite blog, if I feel ready to move on with my day, my craving must be downtime before delving into another thing on my to-do list.

With my handy notes I can remember exactly how I felt after each experiment, helping me pinpoint what I enjoyed – or didn’t enjoy – about my theorized craving.

Isolate the Cue

For many habits, the cue isn’t obvious and will take digging to find. To find my cue, I’ll need to note the five categories nearly all habitual cues fall into:

Location, time, emotional state, other people, and immediately preceding action.

When my urge hits to grab a handful of cereal, I will fill in all the categories.

May notes could look like this:

Location: Kitchen
Time: 1:15
Emotional state: Content
Other people?: No one around
Immediately preceding action: Grabbed client binder

The next day may be this:

Location: Desk
Time: 1:40
Emotional state: Bored
Other people?: Husband (worked from home, too)
Immediately preceding action: Started writing blog-post

And the next:

Location: Desk
Time: 1:30
Emotional state: Little stressed
Other people?: No one around
Immediately preceding action: Opened email that need immediate response

While my timeframe is consistent with lunch, I know from my experiments that I’m not hungry for food since the apple didn’t satisfy me. The other constant is that I’m starting to work on something that needs concentrated attention.

My habit is triggered in a post-lunch slump by delving immediately back into work. I, apparently, need to give my mind more of a break before getting back to work since I’m eating out of avoidance. Or, procrasti-eating.

Have a Plan

To break my habit, I need to come up with a plan before the habit loop starts.

Since I need a mental refresher to avoid mindless munching, I have many options. My plan is to set an alarm for 15 minutes immediately after I finish lunch and do one of 2 things I found through my experiment that left me satisfied: Yoga and/or browsing my favorite blogs.

My hope is that soon I won’t have to set an alarm, and it will become part of my routine, like brushing my teeth. There will be days it won’t work, and there will be days where I look forward to the new routine. As long as the days it works outnumbers the days I don’t succeed, I’m making progress.

Here is a worksheet to help put your habits into context and begin your journey to a new routine!

Changing a habit is not quick, but with repetition you can adjust your routine. Health Coaching focuses on behavior change, and getting you closer to your ideal life. If you would like help discovering your habit loops, or need someone in your corner when you slip, shoot me an email at to set up a FREE 20 minute Discovery Call!

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