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How to change a bad habit using the habit loop

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Vadym Pastukh / Shutterstock

Zoe Romanowsky - published on 03/27/23

This simple formula is how habits are created, and it's also the way we can change them.

Habits make up a lot of our lives, and many of them benefit us, allowing our brains to focus on more complicated or meaningful tasks. But what about the bad habits we have that we know we need to change?

In a recent Instagram story, clinical psychologist and professor of psychology, Dr. Matthew Breuninger, spoke about how habits develop and are reinforced through what is called “a habit loop.” That loop is made of three major components — a cue, a a routine, and a reward.

A cue is something that triggers your behavior, and then the reward is what you get from doing the behavior, which in turn reinforces it.

5 Kinds of cues

According to Dr. Breuninger there are five main kinds of cues: location, time, emotional state, other people, and preceding behaviors.

So if we want to change a habit we need to look at our habit loop for it, write out the cues we notice, as well as the rewards or payoffs we get, and then begin working with them to change them — which will then lead to changing the behavior.

So let’s say you have a habit of checking your phone every morning when you wake up, but you’ve decided you would like to stop that and start your day with prayer instead.

The first thing you can do is write down the cues. What triggers you to pick up your phone? It may be multiple cues — the thought of checking during your first waking moments (time) as you lie in bed (location). Perhaps you also have a degree of anxiety (emotional state) about making sure you check any messages that have come in and that you haven’t missed anything important that’s happened while you were asleep.

After you write down the cues, write down the rewards or payoffs you may get from checking your phone. Maybe your anxiety subsides when you pick up that phone. Maybe you feel better about yourself when you see someone has reached out to you with a message or liked a post you left the night before on social media. Maybe you feel more in control of the day if you have checked the news.

To change the behavior of checking your phone first thing in the morning, consider how you an alter the cues. For instance, maybe you can change the location of your phone so you can’t reach it from your bed. Or maybe you can decide to change the time of checking your phone from the first moments of waking to a little later on, such as when you have breakfast.

How is your behavior rewarding you?

You can also look at the rewards you get from checking your phone. Examine them. Maybe checking the news first thing actually gives you a degree of anxiety and in order to truly feel more prepared for your day, prayer would lead to a more meaningful reward — a greater sense of peace and calm.

So the next time you want to change a bad habit, take a look at your habit loop, break it down, and play around with it to create a new or better habit. Habit by habit we can improve our daily lives, growing in virtue and living as the person God created us to be.

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