Many people have heard the famous Albert Einstein saying: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.”
We all form habits that we repeat time and time again. These are often helpful to us. The brain needs to create “habit loops” so that it can automate some of its processing otherwise there would be too much work for it to do.
But sometimes we form habit loops that end up becoming unhelpful or unhealthy for us. The problem is that, once they’re formed they have become an unconscious pattern that we’re often unaware of and are not making conscious choices about.
And, we find ourselves repeating the same thing and wanting to change but continuing that cycle and staying the same.
When you start to do something differently – even if it’s just a small change, it can have a dramatic effect on the whole cycle and can interrupt and even disrupt that unhelpful habit loop.
The Habit Loop
So, the brain will create a habit loop which is made up of a cue, a routine and a reward. It creates a response to a certain cue and when there is some kind of reward to that response, it develops that response into a routine. A habit loop is set and that routine becomes an automatic response to that particular cue.
When you want to change a habit like drinking, you need to break the habit loop.
The first step to breaking the loop is to identify the routine (the habit) you want to change. Then, you identify the reward that’s driving the routine. Then you explore the cue or trigger that’s prompting the routine.
Step 1 – Identifying the routine
That’s the behaviour, action or habit you want to change. There will be plenty of drinking routines you can choose from.
Step 2 – Exploring and identifying the reward
It’s really important to explore the reward you get from this routine. It might not be as straightforward as the drink itself. To say “getting drunk” is the reward is not enough. You need to be explicit about what the “getting drunk” actually gives you. You can do this by asking questions like:
• And when I get drunk, what does that give me?
• And when I get drunk, then what happens?
So, one way to get to the bottom of what reward is driving this routine is to question yourself to get to underlying, deeper motivations. Take a look at the following example to give you an idea:
A: My reward for pouring that G&T on a Saturday evening is the smell and the taste and the feeling of it going down into my belly.
Q: And, when I get that smell and taste and the feeling of it going down into my belly, what does that give me?
A: It gives me instant relief and relaxation. It’s like letting a long breath out.
Q: And, when I get instant relief and relaxation and it’s like letting a long breath out, then what happens?
A: Then I’m happier and relaxed and I can enjoy my evening.
Notice that my answers are all about RELAXED, HAPPY and ENJOYMENT.
So, the reward I’m seeking is to feel relaxed, happy and to enjoy myself (the reward isn’t the drink itself, the drink is just a means to get there).
Once you’ve identified the reward you want, you can start to find other ways of achieving it.
Step 3 - Exploring the cue
This can be done very simply and easily by responding to these five questions when you notice yourself experiencing an urge to reach for a drink:
1. What’s your location?
2. What time is it?
3. What is your emotional state?
4. What other people are around you and what are they doing?
5. What was the preceding action before this urge kicked in?
Using the above example of my G&T at 6pm on a Saturday evening, my answers would have been:
1. My kitchen
2. 6pm Saturday evening
3. Tired, irritable, a bit bored
4. My partner is in or around the house getting on with his things
5. I walked into the kitchen, opened my recipe book, turned the radio on and started getting ingredients ready
Once you’ve figured out your habit loop – you’ve identified the routine, the reward driving your behaviour, and the cue leading to this loop – you can begin to shift the behaviour.
You can change to a better routine by planning for the cue and you can choose a different behaviour or pattern that that delivers the reward you desire.
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