Understand Habits by Understanding Triggers and Rewards

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Habits are the KEY for you to succeed at almost anything.

The thing about Habits is, you don’t have to even think about them. They are pre-programmed into your brain and enable you to do routine, complex tasks – skillfully – on autopilot.

Imagine a morning routine – getting ready for work. There are literally dozens of steps involved between waking up, getting out of bed, getting breakfast, showering, brushing your teeth, preparing lunch, getting dressed, and getting out the door. In fact, just starting the car to go to work can be a complex habitual routine depending on the weather (whether or not it iced or fogged up your windows).

But most of us hardly even think about those things. In fact, our brains are usually preoccupied with something else entirely as our bodies effortlessly go about our routines.

Now imagine if Motivation for studying Korean (or whatever other goal you have) could be like that. Imagine waking up every morning and “Getting Motivated” was inserted as a natural and automatic part of your morning routine. Imagine if, after “Getting Motivated” it triggered another Habit sometime later in the day called “Busting out the Korean book and Getting Busy.”

These Habits can become reality! It just takes a little understanding of the Habit Loop and Habit Creation.


Understanding the Habit Loop

Countless hours of research has been done to help us understand the Science behind Habits. One book that I’ve found incredibly helpful recently is Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.

From: The Power of Habit
From: The Power of Habit

There are 3 parts to every Habit:

  1. A Cue (or Trigger) that sparks an idea
  2. A Routine (or Action) that is a direct result of the Trigger
  3. A Reward that satisfies our initial Craving (that caused the Trigger to fire in the first place)

I’ve written more extensively on the Habit Loop in other posts, but for now, suffice it to say that if this is the pattern of Habit, then:

  1. Triggers are the KEY to beginning a new behavior (but are difficult to predict)
  2. Rewards are the KEY to sustaining a new behavior (but are difficult to control)

Understanding Triggers

Actually, Triggers can be difficult to predict because they may come from anywhere:

  1. The time
  2. Hunger pains
  3. A craving for (a cigarette, chocolate, Starbucks, …)
  4. An advertising image
  5. Another person
  6. An idea in your own brain

Many of the above can actually be easily overlooked for a time until *SNAP* something Triggers a craving or routine in us. That’s why getting too busy or allowing yourself to become too tired can become a problem.

Actually, overlooking any of the above Triggers requires a small amount of Will Power – and Will Power is a finite resource. After a long, hard day of work, you may often find yourself unable to resist your Cravings or Habitual Triggers any longer.

If you’re trying to quit smoking, for example, even after resisting a cigarette all day, you may find it impossible to resist in the evening, or in the company of certain friends. Duhigg also points out that this is another reason why affairs usually occur at night – after people have used up their reserves of Will Power for the day.

So the KEY to putting Triggers to use for you is to:

  1. PLAN your desired course of Action before you encounter your Trigger.
  2. Take IMMEDIATE Action when you encounter your Trigger.
  3. DON’T resist or put off your desired Action for a “more opportune” time – if you do so, you may find the Craving becomes so strong that you overindulge in something to the detriment of what you’re trying to accomplish.

In fact, the most powerful habits (both healthy and unhealthy) are those in which IMMEDIATE, NON-RESISTANT Action occurs in response to a Trigger. The difference between Healthy and Unhealthy Habits is:

  1. Healthy Habits have a PLANNED course of Action that often employs Will Power to do.
  2. Unhealthy Habits are largely UNPLANNED and take the path of least resistance to satisfy a Craving.

Understanding Rewards

Rewards, like Triggers, can be difficult to control because they may provide anything:

  1. Mental stimulation
  2. Hormone release
  3. Deep-seated satisfaction
  4. Physical sensation and satisfaction
  5. Stress relief
  6. Spiritual awakening
  7. Social bonding

In fact, many Actions may result in a combination of more than one of the above. That additionally makes Rewards more difficult to control.

For example, smoking a cigarette may (1) release your stress, (2) allow you to bond with fellow smokers, and (3) provide a physical sensation and hormone release. And when trying to quit smoking, you’re inevitably going to have to replace that “bad” habit with a good one because you’ll encounter the same Cravings and the same Triggers as before. But what new Routine will Reward you in the same way that smoking once did? What new Habit can provide stress relief, social bonding, and a physical sensation? (Actually, this is why a common Replacement Habit for smoking is Exercising – because it provides the same types of Rewards, though in slightly different ways.)

There is another Reward that may also prove beneficial to helping you develop newer, better Habits – that of NEGATIVE social pressure. If the people around you know you are trying to quit smoking or form another habit (and if they are supportive of that), then they will provide encouragement when you succeed and pressure you to resist giving in to temptation. This is also known as Accountability, and this is one of the main reasons why 12-Step Programs and Weight Watchers have been so good at curbing bad Habits – because participants know that they’ll be forced to give a testimony (or let the scale do it) of their Actions over the last week – in front of their peers.

So the KEY to putting Rewards to use for you is to:

  1. MAINTAIN consistent Reward types if looking to change a behavior (if the Bad Habit gives you stress relief, find another way to get stress relief from a Good Habit).
  2. SATISFY known Cravings early through Good Habits (this can even be something as simple as giving yourself a small piece of chocolate after every workout).
  3. Find someone (or a group) to hold you ACCOUNTABLE.

Again, the most power habits are those that consistently SATISFY A CRAVING we have. By default, if a Routine is not satisfying, it won’t be continued. If you want to learn more about how to use your own natural Neurological Cravings to help you consistently study Korean (or do anything else), see this Post: How to use Neurological Cravings to Create Good Habits (Like Studying Korean)


Next time…

Next week, I’ll look more closely at Will Power and Accountability and how you can put those to better use in creating better Habits for yourself. But for now, here’s my BEST TIP for making Triggers that work:

Set multiple alarms throughout the day on your smartphone. Every time one goes off, that’s a Trigger to spring into your next Routine.

What do you think about Triggers and Rewards? How will you change the way you think about Habits after reading today’s post?