This is the first post in a series on how to stop doing something. It presents two approaches to behavior mod. A third approach is offered in the the second post. More to follow.
Think of the mini routines you do throughout the day that don’t take a lot of thought: like tying your shoes, brushing your teeth, checking your email, and ordering or shopping for food. Each one is a sequence of actions you’ve done over and over – enough for the brain to store the sequence as a “chunk.” Once that occurs, you can call up the sequence whenever you want and just do it, without much thinking.
Chunking is the brain’s mechanism for forming habits. It preserves mental energy for things requiring a lot of conscious thought – like writing, planning, doing business, connecting with others, and learning new things.
We often think of habits as either bad or good. We want to stop bad habits and get into good ones. That’s the focus of Charles Duhigg’s bestseller, The Power Of Habit.
In this post, I present two different approaches for getting yourself to stop doing something. I use two real-life examples: how Duhigg stopped eating a cookie in the afternoon, and how I stopped drinking hot chocolate in the afternoon. Compare what each of us did with your own approach to change.
Duhigg offers a framework for habit change, based on his research. He calls it the habit loop, which is comprised of 3 parts: the cue (the trigger that makes us crave the reward), the routine (the behavior we do to get the reward), and the reward (the thing we crave that drives the whole loop).
His thesis is that if we can identify the 3 parts of habit’s loop, we can change the habit through what he callsThe Golden Rule of Habit Change – which is changing the routine and keeping the cue and the reward the same.
He uses his afternoon cookie habit as an example. Each afternoon at his office, here’s how the habit played out: Between 3:00 and 3:30, he’d get up from this desk, walk to the elevator, take it to the cafeteria, buy a cookie, and eat it while talking to his friends. (After a while, he gained 8 pounds, which he didn’t like (nor did his wife).)
To break the habit, he identified the 3 parts of the loop:
- The cue was the time of day (the onset of mid-afternoon).
- The routine was everything starting with getting up from his desk to eating the cookie while talking to his friends.
- The reward was socializing.
Socializing? Wasn’t the reward the cookie itself? Duhigg says it wasn’t. Identifying the reward takes the most analysis, he explains. You have to do some detective work to figure out what the real reward is – starting with the cue. Duhigg knew that his cue was a time of day, i.e. mid-afternoon. So he did the following experiment, at mid-afternoon on 3 consecutive days:
- On day #1, he got up from his desk and took a walk.
- On day #2, he got up from his desk, went to the cafeteria, bought a candy bar, and went back to his desk to eat it.
- On day #3, he went to the cafeteria and bought nothing. He just talked to his friends.
From that, he concluded that the reward wasn’t the cookie. It was socializing. So he started a new routine: getting up from his desk at mid-afternoon and going into a colleague’s office to socialize. After a while, this routine took hold and became a habit (and the cookie craving disappeared, as did the weight he’d gained).
In sum, he identified the 3 components of the habit loop (cue, routine, reward) and applied The Golden Rule (i.e. he changed only the routine, keeping the cue and the reward the same).
Duhigg’s thesis is that we can apply this paradigm to all habit change. I think the book is reasonably well done, but trying to follow it to the letter is bound to lead to some confusion. Here’s why:
1) The Golden Rule doesn’t always work the same. It depends on what the reward is. When the reward is something reasonably benign and manageable (like socializing), it can stay the same (as we see in Duhigg’s example). But when the reward is a cookie or some other highly salient substance, the person has to substitute the reward for something else. He can’t keep the reward the same or he’ll never stop eating cookies (or drinking alcohol or snorting cocaine or whatever). Duhigg does propose changing the reward in some instances, but he does so in the book’s appendix, without acknowledging that it’s a variation on The Golden Rule.
2) It doesn’t distinguish between habit and addiction, which are very different. As Harvard psychiatrist John J. Ratey, M.D. explains, whenever we’re in the process of building a habit, dopamine is released in the brain to fuel the learning. This dopamine release is the brain’s way of telling us: “this is good, learn how to do this so you can do it more.” Here’s the thing: With habits like putting your clothes on in the same order, once you learn the habit, the dopamine release trails off. Not so with addiction. When we consume addictive substances (sugar, chocolate, alcohol, heroin, etc.), dopamine floods the brain every time we consume them, whether it’s the first taste or hit or the thousandth. The existing paradigm doesn’t account for this flood factor. Thus, it’s unclear how it can adequately address addiction, absent some modification.
3) It’s heavily reliant on extrinsic rewards – everything from promising yourself a smoothie to get yourself to work out, to thinking about how you’re going to look in a bathing suit. Rewards like these may work, but the research is clear that they’re not as powerful as intrinsic rewards (which arise from learning to love how the process feels while you’re in it). The book doesn’t make this distinction or even point out that the two types of rewards – which is a pretty big omission given the level of focus on rewards.
As you’ll see in the next section, behavior mod doesn’t even have to be this complicated. There was a time that I had hot chocolate every afternoon, and I stopped, using a completely different approach (that felt good).
My hot chocolate
Every weekday, I used to have what may be the most decadent hot chocolate known to mankind. I’d pick up my daughter from school and we’d go to the most decadent eatery in the neighborhood, where sweets abound. She’d go to one counter and order an ice cream cone. I’d go to another counter and just stand there. I didn’t have to order, because the guys behind it knew just from seeing me that it was time to make my hot chocolate, my way (a melted chocolate bar of crack-like caliber, with just enough water to make it drinkable). Then I’d pay for both treats and my daughter and I would enjoy them on our walk home.
Was this even a habit? Duhigg tells us that there’s a certain mindlessness to habits. My afternoon hot chocolate was totally mindful. I didn’t think of it in terms of cue, routine, or reward – nor was it necessary. Because it was an addiction. My brain expected the dopamine flood in those circumstances, I was aware of it, and I knew how to get it.
One day I decided to solve the problem in the fastest way I knew. I decided to go to the eatery that day with my daughter and not get a hot chocolate – and let myself feel micro-mastery instead. And you know what happened? I loved the feeling much more than I ever liked the hot chocolate. As it happened, it took only one day. It might have taken more than that – and in other efforts, it has taken longer. The point is that it worked and I got to a state of not wanting.
I did it by applying app4Mind, the app this site is based on. The details:
- Mindset (what I thought): I tapped into my growth mindset (my belief that I can change and grow throughout life). I thought about the many changes I’d already made, some of which required me to stretch myself and learn new skill (e.g. everything from changing careers to changing how I eat and work out). And from that, I figured that I could lose the chocolate.
- Motion (what I did): I decided on a start day. I picked up my daughter and we went, as usual, to the decadent eatery. She ordered and ice cream cone. I saw the guy at my counter nod at me, as usual, to show he was getting ready to start making my hot chocolate. I politely told him I wasn’t having one. I paid for the ice cream and we left for our usual walk home.
- Mastery (what I felt): You know that feeling you get when you’re trying to do something new, and you do it, not perfectly, but just enough to think, “I can do it” or “Now I get it”? That’s micro-mastery. It’s that micro-feeling you get, based on micro-evidence that you can do what you’re trying to do. That’s what I felt when I told the guy behind the counter not to make my hot chocolate, and it’s what I felt in all the next steps: paying for just the ice cream, walking out the door without the hot chocolate, walking home, etc. Micro-mastery is high octane fuel for change. It’s intrinsic reward that’s absolutely free. Notice how I didn’t look for another external reward? I didn’t order tea or espresso as a substitute. I know about micro-mastery, and I wanted it pure and uncut – instead of the hot chocolate.
- Measurement (how I tracked): Like most of my changes, I made this one in the context of a 30 day challenge. Every day when my daughter and I got home, I put a check on my calendar to show that I didn’t get a hot chocolate. Sounds silly, doesn’t it? It’s not. I liked making the check each day. It empowered me – it added to my tenacity. It was how I journaled – which, as you may know, I highly encourage during the change process.
It didn’t take the full 30 days to work. Getting to the point of not wanting is the critical difference between what I did and conventional approaches. When you stop wanting something, it takes no discipline or willpower to not have it. With conventional means, you still want what you were addicted to, but you learn ways to control yourself. Staying in control takes mental energy. Not wanting something doesn’t. It frees you to focus on other things.
It’s true that Duhigg also got to a state of not wanting, but, as he said, he didn’t want the cookie in the first place. Socializing was his reward. For many of us, the reward is the cookie (or some other tasty or mood altering thing). So it’s a different ball game.
The loop vs. app4Mind
There’s more to habits than the habit loop itself, as Duhigg acknowledges. The habit loop is a framework, he writes. It’s a place to start. “Individuals and habits are all different,” he points out, “and so the specifics of diagnosing and changing patterns in our lives differ from person to person and behavior to behavior.”
I see Duhigg’s habit loop as one of many methods you could run through the motion loop of app4Mind – meaning that it’s one in a broad spectrum of things you could try in an effort to change something about yourself.
Note that Duhigg did detective work and changed his routine. My change didn’t require any. Because it was so obvious that the hot chocolate was the reward – a problematic one, given its caloric density and my love-hate relationship with it. So I substituted it with something I could only love: mastery (i.e. micro-mastery, that lovely internal feeling).
Over to you: What’s your take on the different ways Duhigg and I addressed our respective afternoon snacking issues? What do you think of Duhigg’s idea that the cookie wasn’t the reward? What’s your experience with getting yourself to stop doing something? Is an addiction a kind of habit, or is it a separate thing?