How To Build New Habits

Every morning I take my dog, Polo, out for a walk. Polo is a stunning White German Shepherd.

About 10 days ago I noticed a pattern emerging. It was the same every morning.

As soon as we went through the gate to the field, Polo would run and pick up the nearest pine cone and expect me to play.

That was a habit. He did it without thinking.

Habits are amazing things. We start to form them from a young age. They change and develop throughout our whole life. Most of the time we don’t even know they’re there.

Before we continue, let’s look at the habit loop:


So let’s take Polo’s example.

The cue was the gate.

The routine was running to find the nearest pine cone.

The reward was getting to play with said pine cone.

I wanted to reprogram that habit.

You see, with Polo, if you let him play first it is an absolute nightmare to get him to do his business. Ergo, I wanted Polo to do his business before he got his reward.

According to Charles Duhigg in his book, The Power Of Habit*, the key to reprogramming a habit is to keep the cue and reward the same and change the routine.

So that’s exactly what I set about doing.

The first day was hard. Polo didn’t understand why he couldn’t go and pick up a pine cone.

This became better every day until after 9 days this new habit became automatic.

Polo knew that to play he had to do his business first. And he now does. Every single time.

His new habit loop looks like this:

The cue was the gate.

The routine was doing his business.

The reward was getting to play with said pine cone.

Just like Charles advised, the cue and reward remained the same. Only the routine changed.

It took Polo just 9 days for this to become automatic. 9 days.

As long as the cue and reward remain the same he will always understand.

Let me give you another example. This time it’s about myself.

I had an awful habit of grabbing my phone as soon as I woke up. I’d lie there for sometimes up to an hour just browsing Facebook.

The cue was my alarm.

The routine was rolling over, picking up my phone and staying in bed.

The reward was getting to play on my phone

Now this was a little easier to reprogram. I kept the cue and reward the same but I changed the routine by moving my phone over to the other side of my room.

I still got to play on my phone but to do so I had to get out of bed to do it. By the time I had done that I was awake and had no intention of wasting more of my day lying in bed.

This took about a week to become automatic. The first couple of days I just ignored my alarm and stayed in bed but it didn’t take long for it to became a habit.

So how can we apply this to various health goals you may have?

Well, pretty easily.

Building better habits works the same for pretty much everything. If you only change the routine you can make it work.

Let’s say, for example, that you wanted to start running and you wanted to do it in the evening.

Right now when you get home from work you throw your shit down and put the TV on. Using that example:

The cue is getting in from work.

The routine is getting in, throwing your shit down and putting the TV on.

The reward is getting to watch the TV.

We want to keep the cue and reward the same and change the routine. So how could we change the current routine to build an exercise based habit?

Here’s a couple of ideas:

  • Take your workout gear with you to work and put it on before you leave. That way when you get home you can go straight out.
  • Have your workout gear waiting for you inside the door with a note on the TV reminding you of your goal.

Are those ideas perfect? No.

Will you fail sometimes when you first start trying to put it into place? Yes.

Habits take time to form but stick with them and you can reprogram whatever you consider is a “bad” habit.

Keep in mind the key to making this work is to dig deep and find out what the cue, routine and reward is for any specific action.

They will be different for everyone and you may have to pay close attention to how you behave and act for a little while.

Just remember: Keep the cue and reward the same. Change the routine.

*If you want to know more about building new habits and look into how to change them, I recommend you check out Charles’s book.

Categories : Habits, Mindset
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