The Best Way to Change a Habit: Behavioral loops and the FISH! Philosophy

Published On: January 17, 2023Categories: Blog

What is a habit? In the most basic terms, it’s your brain rewiring itself to make life easier… for itself. When we repeat something often enough, our brains create the neural pathways that make these tasks feel like second nature, meaning we have to devote very little brainpower to completing them successfully.

This is great when you don’t have to think about brushing your teeth before bed, but it can be not-so-great when it comes time to break a habit that’s detrimental or unhealthy, like responding defensively to constructive criticism or pushing back against changes to your work routine.

How a habit loop is built: cues, routines, and rewards

 In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg describes every habit as being built upon a 3-part “loop” that includes cues, routines, and rewards. We repeat this loop time and time again until it becomes reinforced and automatic, at which point we can firmly say that a habit has been formed.

The first part of this loop is the cue, which is a trigger (a time of day, an action, an interaction, etc) that signals to your brain that it’s time to perform a particular habit. The second part of the loop is the routine, which is the action you take in response to the cue. The final part of the loop is the reward, which is the benefit our brain gets from having completed the routine in response to the cue.

A positive example of a habit loop would be a workout routine: Your cue may be walking out the office door at the end of the workday, signaling to your brain that it’s time to initiate the “go to the gym” routine. The feel-good chemicals released by your body following a successful workout serve as the reward that reinforces the loop. The next day, it’s even easier to leave the office, go straight to the gym, and come out feeling great.

Identifying your habit loop

Now let’s go over an example of a less-positive habit, and how we can break that loop. Say that every time your boss comes to you with an idea to increase efficiency during your work day, you push back and go on the defensive. You know that it isn’t making you look like a great employee, but it’s an ingrained habit and you’d like to figure out why, and how to change that.

The first step is identifying your routine. You notice (or maybe your boss brings up in a performance review) that you have a habit of getting defensive in response to requests. You say “but we’ve always done Y this way and changing it would disrupt A, B, and C; I’m not changing.” That defensive aversion to change is the routine.

Next, you need to identify the reward. This can be tricky, because especially with negative habits, it’s much easier to identify the harm they cause than how they benefit you. In this case, you identify the outcomes of your routine: your boss gets frustrated and reprimands you. That’s not very helpful, but something stronger must be at play, since if there was no benefit, there would be no habit. Maybe you notice that you get deeply anxious at the thought of doing your boss’s request. When you push back against that request, you notice that anxiety goes away, even just temporarily. That anxiety relief is your reward.

Lastly, you need to isolate the cue. You take note of your interactions with your boss. You notice that requests to push forward a deadline, to have a meeting at noon, or to check in at the end of the day aren’t met with any resistance, but when your boss suggests you switch desks or work with a new software, you jump to the defensive. At this point, it becomes clear that you feel deep anxiety not when your boss approaches you, but rather when you’re asked to change your tools. This is the cue!

How to break a habit–and Choose Your Attitude

In this instance, the harmful habit can be fixed by following Duhigg’s advice as well as one of the core pillars of the FISH! Philosophy: Choose Your Attitude. Duhigg writes that the best way to break an unwanted habit is to work to replace it with a new habit; a new behavioral loop that includes either picking a new cue to trigger the loop, or identifying a new routine to follow a cue that may not be within your control.

In this case, you can’t stop your boss asking you to change your tools, so a new habit must be built by practicing a new routine in response. Here’s where you can Choose Your Attitude: when you see your boss approaching and you feel the anxiety of potentially being asked to change your tools, plan to respond with a change in attitude by preparing a new response. For example, a question that can show a willingness to change but will also help soothe your anxiety, such as asking “what can I do to prepare for the switchover” if your boss asks you to move to a new software.

It’s crucial that your new routine include a reward that’s both immediate and satisfying. The knowledge that you’re building a better reputation with your boss might be enough, but picking responses that help quell your anxiety ensures that your brain is experiencing the same (or better) reward as before. By practicing a more affirmative attitude each time your boss comes over, you’ll eventually build a new habit, breaking the previous defensiveness to which you had become accustomed.

Habits can be hard to break, and replacing them takes time and conscious effort. But in doing so, you’ll find that you can be the best version of yourself you want to be, making them well worth the investment!

Ideas to Reflect On:

  • A habit isn’t necessarily a chore; it can be any response that consistently and automatically comes up after a particular cue. Can you identify one habit that might be inhibiting your professional development?
  • Break apart the loop of this habit: What’s the cue, what’s the routine, and what’s the reward?
  • How can you break that habit by finding a different cue or routine? What’s the reward that motivates you to build the new habit in its place?

Whether you work in business, education, or healthcare, FISH! offers accessible, intuitive solutions to empower your workers, bring your team together, and introduce Play into your organization. We invite you to contact us today at 800.695.4534 or to speak with our cultural specialists, who will help you find the right FISH! Philosophy solutions that will nurture your organizational culture and motivate your team!

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