Rewriting Habit Loops
Hi friend. I know we’ve talked about habit loops before, but I want to really get into them today.
We all want to be better. At least, I know YOU want to, or you wouldn’t be reading this.
People concerned about their health and well-being are generally also trying to grow into their most authentic selves. But it’s no easy feat.
Our brains are SO smart—they’re designed to learn and repeat behaviors.
It dates back to the beginning of human evolution, when our goal was simply to survive. For instance:
Human sees food, human eats food, human remembers where food is to find it again.
This is a simple example of a habit loop.
Trigger → Behavior → Reward
This is the cycle we repeat that encourages us to go toward what’s “good” and stay away from what’s “bad.
Typically, though, the cycle happens without our conscious knowing or intention. Scientifically, this is a concept coined by Dr. Judson Brewer as “reward-based learning.”
Here’s as an example of the cycle in today’s world:
Trigger: See donuts in the breakroom.
Behavior: Eat a donut. Or two.
Reward: Enjoy the sugar rush.
The reward in a habit loop is always immediate, but it doesn’t always feel so… profitable. I prefer to call it a “result” than a reward.
The same Habit Loop above, for instance, could result in feeling guilt or shame.
Consider any number of negative habit loops; with smoking, for instance, the addiction and habit loop is dependent on the immediate gratification of the nicotine hit—not the long-term result of the health consequences (which is why simply knowing smoking is “bad” isn’t enough for most to quit).
Food habits are so tricky—we often find ourselves eating even when we aren’t hungry or may not necessarily want that food. We’re caught up in habit loops…
Some of these loops are built off of the external cues of seeing food and eating it.
Some of them are built off of internal cues, such as seeking emotional comfort through maladaptive coping.
But, if our brains are designed to learn, then can we insert new behaviors to re-write the ending of the habit loop?
It can feel so complex and entangled—but if we break it down into the habit loop itself, it can demystify the whole experience.
We may even be able to notice the habit loop as it’s happening, and perhaps, perform a different behavior and thereby experience a different reward/result.
The first step is awareness of these habit loops.
We have to recognize our triggers, and this may require tracing the loop backwards.
Here’s a real-life personal example I explored recently: I notice that I’m “getting stomachaches in bed” lately, and I want to explore if it’s associated with a negative habit loop.
If I can trace that result of the stomachache back to the behavior—what was I doing before this result happened?
I may recognize that on these nights I’ve been eating ice cream before bed (and with the help of my outer wisdom I am able to determine that perhaps so much dairy and sugar right before bed isn’t serving me).
What was the trigger that caused this behavior? Perhaps, wanting a sweet after dinner.
With awareness of this habit loop, I can choose to intervene at any point.
I can’t necessarily remove the trigger of “wanting a sweet” (although maybe there is some outer wisdom that can contribute to my food choices that could help forgo such cravings, but that’s for a different email) but I can replace the behavior.
Perhaps, when I notice this yearning for a sweet, I can turn to another item that I know will not cause such digestive distress throughout the night—this is not about making a “healthier” choice, although it may be smart.
The point is to address the habit loop and replace the behavior sustainably. Maybe I go for some fruit, or maybe a cookie (or even half a cookie) will satisfy me more without the pain.
Whatever serves me best, I create a new habit loop to replace the maladaptive one.
What we need to consider, however, is that this “new” loop will not actually be a habit until we have enacted its cycle many, many times—that’s how the first, negative habit loop came to be, after all.
To replace the old loop, we must commit, not only through willpower but also with intentional systems in place for accountability, to rewrite and practice new behaviors that serve the rewards/results we want to experience.
For instance, I may forget about the stomachaches and head to the ice cream—for a few days or weeks I might put a sticky note on the freezer reminding me “beware of ice cream too close to bedtime!” (true story).
Remember what I said at the beginning of this email:
Our brains are SO smart—they’re designed to learn, and repeat behaviors.
While this new habit loop won’t feel “natural” at first, our brains are designed to adapt, and so old habits can be replaced! This in and of itself is a win! But it will require both a shedding of old conditioned reactions, as well as intentionally enacting new behaviors.
The longer we’ve been stuck in a negative habit, the longer it will take to replace.
If I’ve only eaten ice cream before bed a for the last few nights or week, this “habit” is more easily replaceable; but if I’ve done this for years, it will require more time and intention.
This week, I encourage you to map out one negative habit loop that is not serving you and figure out where you can break the chain. Can you remove the trigger? Replace the behavior?
Health is not about making perfect choices all the time, it’s about slowly and sustainably replacing our negative health habits with ones that better serve us here and now.
Light and love,