Cues, routines and rewards: use the habit loop to help you succeed

‘There’s one other thing I’d like to talk about,’ said Peter (not his real name) towards the end of his coaching session. ‘It sounds daft really but I feel like I’m drinking too much coffee.’

‘Okay, what’s making that an issue for you now?’ I asked.

‘Well, I’m not sure I even really enjoy it – it feels like it’s become a bit of a habit. Since the twins arrived last year, our sleep’s been a bit disrupted and I sometimes feel a bit dozy at work. It feels now like whenever that happens, I automatically walk through to the office kitchen and pour myself yet another mug of coffee. I never used to drink coffee!’

Charles Duhigg’s habit loop

As he spoke, Peter’s words reminded of an article I’d read about habit loops, based on a book by Charles Duhigg. It seems that habits are all about satisfying cravings and are based on a cue, a routine and a reward.

Say you’re craving distraction. Your phone beeps to draw your attention to WhatsApp: that’s your cue.

You reach for your phone, take a look at WhatsApp and while you’re at it, you check your other social media, chuckle at a video of cats who are terrified of cucumbers and update your Facebook status (‘it’s only Tuesday and I’m thinking about Friday’). That’s your routine.

A few minutes later, your desire for distraction is satisfied. That’s your reward. If the reward is sufficiently satisfying, the next time the cue occurs, you’ll follow the same routine in order to achieve the same reward.

I talked this through with Peter and asked him what struck him as he thought about the habit loop.

‘It’s right – I am stuck in a loop. I need to be alert at work so when I feel drowsy, I drink coffee. That perks me up … but only for a while. Then I’m tired again so I drink more coffee. I just go round and round again in that loop.’

‘What else?’ (That’s one of those tricksy questions coaches like a lot!)

‘Well, at the moment, I can’t change the cue: I’m going to be sleep-deprived for a while! I need the reward of feeling alert and being able to get on with my job. Maybe I can change the routine,’ Peter smiled.

And so, Peter’s homework from the coaching session was to explore other routines which might bring about the same reward when the drowsiness cue struck. Over a month, he tried out drinking water instead of coffee; doing some simple stretching exercises at his desk; having a healthy snack; taking a 10 minute stroll through the park across the road from his office.

It was the last one which worked best for Peter and in his next session, we turned that into a visual reminder to keep him on track. Here it is in all its technicolour glory:

Charles Duhigg habit loop cue reward routine

Today’s pebble for your thoughts: how will you use your understanding of the habit loop to create some good habits?

What do you think?

Turning over pebbles is the blog of Thinking Space Coaching. 

If you’d like to make progress in your work and life, why not email me to see how we can work together?


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