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How Behavior Becomes Routine: Understanding the Science Behind It
Habit Building

How Behavior Becomes Routine: The Habit Loop Explained #2

June 18, 2020

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At Fitmoola, science is behind everything we do. It’s how we help people create change in their lives, build new habits, and do more than they ever thought possible.

Last week, we touched briefly on some of the science that makes work Fitmoola. Specifically, we talked about the first piece of the Habit Loop, the Cue. Today, we’ll be continuing our exploration of the Habit Loop, by talking about the more familiar second element of the Loop— your Routine.

How Does the Habit Loop Work?

Think about habits as being made up of three distinct parts:

  1. Cue – What triggers the habit (seeing Starbucks on way to work)
  2. Routine – What you do when triggered (buy a coffee)
  3. Reward – What makes your brain remember (flooded by caffeine and sugar)

Your brain runs through those three steps everytime you perform a regular, ingrained action like chewing your nails when nervous, heading to the gym every morning, or slapping the snooze button until the very last minute.

As you continue to run through the loop—and continue to reward your brain—you’ll find that the Routine you perform (nail chewing, working out, snoozing, etc.) becomes burned into your brain, to the point where you perform the Routine without thinking.

This is amazing for good, healthy habits that you’re having trouble motivating yourself to complete. However, as you’ll see later, Routines can be part of both good and bad habits. That is, if you reinforce bad Routines you’ll burn them into your brain in exactly the same way. Let’s explore that, as we learn what a Routine is, what they look like, and how you can choose healthy Routines that are actually achievable.

What do Routines Look Like?

The Routine (also known as a Behavior), is the flagship piece of the Habit Loop. It’s the most recognizable part of the entire Loop and is typically something you want to start doing more of (good habits) or stop doing entirely (bad habits).

Most habits are named after or recognized for their Routine. For example when someone says they have a “smoking habit” or a “drinking habit,” they’re talking about the Routine— the actual activity that takes place. Even though in reality their habit is a three-part process that starts long before you light that first smoke or open that first beer.(In our next article on Rewards we’ll explain why we don’t actually have a smoking habit… we have a nicotine habit).

Unlike Cues, it’s generally pretty easy to understand how Routines work. Once triggered, perform an action, and then receive some kind of a reward that your brain can recognize. However, as you start building your own habits you’ll find that choosing what action to perform is actually harder than it sounds. Here’s why…

Creating New Routines

Creating a new Routine sounds simple at first.

All you need to do is go to the gym. So if you decide, “hey, from now on I’ll go to the gym everyday for the rest of my life,” then that’s it, right? Routine set?

Not so fast.

If you’ve ever set a goal like hitting the gym each day, you’ll know that eventually your extrinsic and intrinsic motivation flags out and you stop going. It sucks, but at least it seems some kind of weird design-flaw we share with all other human beings. The good news, is that with a little patient habit hacking you can completely avoid flagging out when you try to achieve big goals.

The key is to start small. Choose a Routine that’s so tiny and achievable, it would almost be work to not do it. Ideally, look for individual pieces of your big, ambitious goal that you can automate using habit. For example, to make your workout goals more achievable, you could try:

  • Putting your packed workout bag by the door each night.
  • Have a specific time where you record daily exercise efforts.
  • Choosing one, enjoyable exercise to perform as soon as you get to the gym.
  • Calling your accountability buddy at the same time everyday before the gym.

In other words, you don’t want to try and make the entire “going to the gym” activity into a single habit. That’s just unrealistic. Instead, you want to cut it up into a series of smaller habits so there’s less overall friction when you do start heading to the sweat palace.

One thing to keep in mind— plenty of folks do great at setting small, achievable goals to start with (one pushup a day, flossing one tooth, etc.). However, because the habit they’re working on is so achievable, they end up pushing themselves to go a little further.

Don’t do this.

If you’re having trouble keeping your milestones small, try an old James Clear trick and set an upper bound on your goals. This is great for eager beavers who do big things in their first week of habit building, but bite off more than they can chew and quickly burn out. Avoid this, by setting an upper limit: I will NOT go to the gym more than three times this week.

Doing this will help you avoid the temptation to “skip ahead” in the habit building process by doing more work than you originally intended to. Remember that habits tend to take at least three weeks before they begin to take hold in your brain. You’ll need to be patient if you’re going to make this work.

That being said, how well your brain handles new Routines and makes them habit has a lot more to do with the Reward you receive (especially at first) than the size/achievability of your goals. In our next article, we’ll talk about how you can choose good Rewards that will make your new habits permanent and automatic. Until next time!

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