Change for the better

photo credit: Molly Larkin


Hear me on CBC Radio One’s North By Northwest podcast from October 14th, 2016. I appear monthly as a Life Coach columnist.  You’ll find me at 31:50 on the Sunday show. Sheryl McKay and I discuss how to change habits or feel free to just keep reading……

Habits serve an important function. If we really had to be using our mental energy to do a number of things that happen every day, it would be so complicated we wouldn’t get out of bed. The habit wiring in our brain means that we can now brush our teeth and listen to the radio, or drive and carry on a conversation. The gift of the habit is that the brain goes on automatic pilot and frees up the higher functioning parts of your brain to do other things. The problem is that not all habits are ones we want to repeat mindlessly. Some activities, like that large bowl of ice cream and emotional reactions, like losing our temper over being cut off on the road, are so habitual we can’t stop ourselves. It’s like before we know it, we are doing it again. We think creating new habits or breaking bad ones is all about will power. We mistakenly believe that we are weak willed and if only we tried harder, or were better people, it could all be different.


Turns out, that’s not actually true.


The Pleasure Principle



Science tells us that our brains are wired for pleasure. The dopaminecinnamanbun release. If it feels good, you will keep doing it. Once the brain knows it gets that dopamine charge it logs that habit so deeply that it often
becomes a craving. So very powerful. So why are some people no longer succumbing to the Cinnabon smell at the local mall and stuffing their faces with fresh rich dough?  The brain remembers those are delicious, So how come some people aren’t eating those buns, and some of us, can’t say no?



The Habit Loop


It all comes down to something Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit, calls the Habit Loop. Many other people have written about this but I found few did it so clearly. If you are looking to delve further into breaking your habits, I recommend you read it. But let me give you a kick start-here it is in a nutshell.


Cue, Routine and Reward

All habits follow this order:


Cue– That’s the trigger that tells your brain to go into an automatic mode and which habit to use.

Routine– the thing you do or feel that follows the cue

Reward: The reason why you do it. In some way, this serves you and rewards you.


For example, in my life I have this habit loop.

Cue: I wake up

Routine: the habitual response? Without thinking I grab my robe

and stumble downstairs.

Reward: Coffee and the newspaper and breakfast with my family to start the day.




Or you might think about when you come home from work what your habits are. For many people it is:


Cue: I get home

Routine: I turn on the television, drop my stuff and crash on the couch

Reward: Down time to relax after a long day.


Scientific studies have found that people who made amazing changes and fought off deep habitual actions, like drinking or smoking even, still showed activity in the region of the brain that craved those things. The desire to repeat the habit didn’t go away, but a new routine had replaced it. The new routine was like the radio playing in your own home vs. the sound of a radio three doors down. The new reward had remained the same or was even perhaps more powerful then the original and had replaced it.


How can you change your habits?


Rule Number One?

Keep the cue and the reward. Change the routine only.


How on earth does that work?


Let’s go back to my example of my morning routine. I wanted to start a running program. I kept the cue- I wake up and put on my robe. But I changed the routine. No longer is my robe in easy reach of my bed. Instead, beside my bed are my running shoes and exercise clothes all neatly laid out and waiting. I’ve replaced the routine. I get up and run and then have my reward. It was so easy to do. I was surprised. The tricky part I discovered was it involved getting up extra early, because the family around the table is part of the reward, so I need to finish my run in time for that. So in the past when I’ve failed, I now realize that the family component mattered a lot to me, and I see it now as part of the reward.


Rule Number Two?

Be very clear about the cue, the routine and the reward. To make changes you have to know each step, so you are clear about the change in the routine.


Remember the other example?

I get home tired from day, flop down, and watch tv because it relaxes me. If you wanted to get rid of that couch potato time and put something else in that has more value to you, all you have to do is ask yourself-if the reward I crave is to relax, what else might I do that gives me that feeling? Maybe I put out my favorite book, or my art supplies exactly where the tv remote is. The cue stays the same, but suddenly the routine can be changed. If I have chosen my reward wisely, I will keep the new habit.


What about habits that don’t seem to have a reward that I want to repeat?


Charles tells a great story in his TedX talk about this- you can watch it here. He relays a story about a running study in Germany where some participants were given a piece of chocolate after every run and some were not. When they checked in a year later, more of the runners who had the chocolate were still running. Immediate gratification matters. We are not beyond the same techniques we use on children. We want our reward and we want it now. Not next week or next month. Now. You might think this is a terrible idea, chocolate to run? The revelation was that none of the runners were using the chocolate after that year to motivate themselves anymore. Eventually, the health benefits were motivation enough. Just not off the top!

Make a powerful and immediate reward possible to help get your new habit started. Eventually you will do it for the right reasons, but in the beginning it isn’t bad to bribe yourself.


Final Tip?


Write it down. Make a chart, tick off the boxes on the days you walk your talk and do what you said you’d do. It’s like the gold sticker from kindergarten. It makes you feel great and adds to a sense of accomplishment of a goal. All little steps count.


So far I’ve added a running program to my day and an weight lifting program and I’m riding my bike and driving my car less. I’m one month in and the benefits of health are beginning to become the reward, but I confess to hanging onto the homemade marshmellows from Tout de Sweet some days to get me to stay true to my goals

Photo Credit Eric Herot

5 Comments Change for the better

  1. Denise

    Heard you on CBC this morning but missed part of the program so was delighted to find your website. It’s time to change some habits!

  2. Kimberly Barber

    Changing habits was a topic of conversation this morning with my voice students in our Group Technique class, so I have passed this on to them. Thanks for sharing–a really helpful post!


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