The Golden Rule of Habit Change: Why Transformation Occurs

Habits are a three-step loop – cue, routine and reward.

Habit loop picture

The golden rule of habit change is this: To change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.Almost any behavior can be transformed if the cue and reward stay the same. You cannot extinguish a bad habit. You can only change it.Champions don’t do extraordinary things. They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking. They follow the habits they’ve learned.

So if you want to change a habit:

  • Identify the cue.
  • Identify the reward you crave for.
  • Identify the routine you do to get the reward.
  • Then change the routine when you get the cue so that you get the same reward.
  • You also have to have the belief that you can change your habits and that things can get better.Belief is easier when it occurs within a community. The community can be as large as two people.

It is important to note that though the process of habit change is easily described, it does not necessarily follow that it is easily accomplished. It is facile to imply that smoking, alcoholism, overeating, or other ingrained patterns can be upended without real effort. Genuine change requires work and self-understanding of the cravings driving behaviors. Changing any habit requires determination. No one will quit smoking cigarettes simply because they sketch a habit loop.

However, by understanding habits’ mechanisms, we gain insights that make new behaviors easier to grasp. Anyone struggling with addiction or destructive behaviors can benefit from help from many quarters, including trained therapists, physicians, social workers, and clergy. Even professionals in those fields, though, agree that most alcoholics, smokers, and other people struggling with problematic behaviors quit on their own, away from formal treatment settings. Much of the time, those changes are accomplished because people examine the cues, cravings, and rewards that drive their behaviors and then find ways to replace their self-destructive routines with healthier alternatives, even if they aren’t fully aware of what they are doing at the time. Understanding the cues and cravings driving your habits won’t make them suddenly disappear—but it will give you a way to plan how to change the pattern.

Read these flow-charts to make or break a habit: