How to Transform Your Habits with Cues and Rewards

Habit change isn’t a quick and easy process. To change your habits, you must practice BENDALONG 0018patience and pay attention to detail. There is nothing sexy about this topic and that’s why you probably won’t see it mentioned in a diet book, magazine cover, or reality show anytime soon. Just because something isn’t popular, however, doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing. As Mark Twain said, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”

Habit change is so essential that I feel confident when I say you won’t improve your health in any meaningful way until you confront your bad habits. Sure, following an extreme diet and exercise routine like the “Biggest Loser” contestants might help you lose weight in the short-term, but it’s unlikely to result in long-term success since it fails to address the behaviors that caused you to gain weight in the first place.

If you lose weight (or make other changes) by following a restrictive routine, here’s what’s probably going to happen: you will revert to your default behaviors, gain your weight back (and then some if you’re unlucky), get depressed, and wonder why you’re such a disappointment. The Yo-Yo cycle is not an inspiring experience for anybody, and the more you repeat this process, the more you will become convinced that you might as well stop trying.

Last week, I used driving and getting dressed to demonstrate how habits form. Having to make conscious decisions about everything you do all day would be exhausting for your brain. Thus, it searches for ways to save effort by remembering actions and behaviors that are repeated consistently. Your brain stores these steps as habits, so that you can follow the procedure without thinking about it in the future. This is good news for children learning to tie their shoes, but bad news for adults struggling to overcome an addiction.

Habits are formed by a feedback loop that consists of three parts: cues, routines, and rewards. Cues are the triggers (physical or mental) that tell your brain to disconnect and follow a learned procedure. Routines are the steps it takes to follow that procedure. Rewards are the benefit you receive for following those steps. A person who is having a stressful week at work, for example, could turn what was meant to be a one-time-treat into a daily habit by repeating these steps too many times:

Cue – Finish their shift and clock-out.

Routine – Stop at Sonic on the way home for a milkshake.

Reward – Experience a brief energy boost due to the sugar-rush.

There is nothing wrong with treating yourself on occasion, but once the treat becomes a habit, it not only works against your health, it can also become less rewarding (a process that psychologists call “habituation”) and may lead to a desire for more of the treat to regain the pleasure once associated with it. Indeed, bad eating habits can become so intense that they turn into obsessive cravings!

Now that you are aware of the habit-forming formula, you can use this power for your fitness success.

For example, if you want to start taking a walk every morning, begin by identifying a specific cue that you can use to prompt that action. For example, you may put your sneakers right beside your bed at night, so you’ll be reminded to take a walk as soon as you wake up. The routine, of course, is the walk itself.

Finally, identify a specific reward that will make the routine worth it. That could be the beautiful sunrise you get to admire, the relaxing bird songs you get to enjoy, or the cup of coffee you drink afterward. To really experience these rewards, it is important for you to tune in to them: being mindful, relaxed and open to simple pleasures is one of the key skills that healthy people develop. For many of us, the mere experience of working out – feeling the body as it executes a formerly difficult movement or challenge – becomes intensely rewarding in itself.

The stressed-out worker from the example above could use this formula to deal with their cravings. Their sweet-tooth is tough to beat, so they buy some vanilla ice cream to keep at home. After reading about how habit formation works, they replace their daily pit-stop at Sonic with a trip to the gym. They treat themselves to a small bowl of ice cream after their workout. The cue remains the same (clocking out). The old routine (milkshake) is replaced with something positive (exercise). The new reward (ice cream) satisfies their craving with a much smaller dose of calories. In time, the habit becomes ingrained enough that the reward can either become optional or can be replaced with a healthier alternative (I treat myself to a protein shake after each workout, for example).

Neat, huh? Tell us about a healthy habit you’re trying to adopt in the comments. If you’d like to help your friends change their habits for the better, please share! .

Daniel Wallen is the CEO (Chief Empowerment Officer) of the Wallen Way. He is a personal trainer, Lifehack contributor, and author of, “The Busy Woman’s Guide to Getting Fit, Fierce, and Fabulous

6 thoughts on “How to Transform Your Habits with Cues and Rewards

  1. Once you really begin paying attention to the idea of “cues,” it is surprising how much of our behavior is in response to specific cues from our environment. I like this article because it really helps us understand how we can set up our environment to naturally support our goals!

    1. Yes, it is quite surprising. A couple past behaviors I used to do on auto-pilot that I have mostly got a handle on, after I realized they became habitual:

      -Check email as soon as waking up (not the best way to start a morning, as you’re subconsciously setting yourself up for a day ruled by the demands of others).

      Now I start my day with a daily journal exercise, dog walk, and breakfast before I can even think about work.

      -Check Facebook notifications immediately before starting my car or upon arriving somewhere (not while driving — still a bit excessive, though).

      I got in the habit of turning my phone off while in transit (and out with people in general) to avoid the temptation. It’s good to be mindful of the things you do without thinking about it, because some of them might not serve you in any meaningful way (a lot of mine didn’t!).

  2. I have to say I start my day by checking my blood sugar, have a cereal bar and water, of course work, I am also stepping to increase my strength, and at the end of the night after having dinner, try to eat before 7pm, then exercise doing kick boxing, cardio strengthen.

  3. I am starting my day with stretches and a plank. That gives me a sense of accomplishment for the rest of the morning and I am more likely to exercise later. Also, my back pains are resolving.

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