How to Hack a Habit: Part 1

You have countless habits running all the time. Thousands of them – critical to your health and happiness – are programmable. Habits allow you to update, learn, pivot, and keep moving – always calibrating to the life you most want to be living.

However, without the ability to update these routines, you’re like a robot without access to your own code. And, since bad habits often result in failure and more bad habits, those robotic patterns can quickly lead to a life filled with people, activities, beliefs, and behaviors that habitually suck all the joy out of life.

A habit is a sequence of 4 units of behavior – a cue, a routine, a reward and an exit.

Although most habits run automatically and outside of your awareness, you can learn to reprogram them with just a little training. By taking control of the basic mechanism of habit building you gain the ability to redesign your entire life from the ground up. Do it long enough and you make being the best version of yourself effortless and automatic. In a word:  habitual.

Part 1: How Habits Work

This thought experiment will help you understand how to hack a familiar behavioral pattern that was formerly outside of your awareness.

Let’s begin by exploring habit building in the context of something each of us does all the time – using a mirror. First off, using a mirror isn’t a single thing, it’s a sequence of events that begins with the impulse to look in the mirror and ends when you walk away.

To expose the underlying mechanisms of a habit let’s look at its individual components.

A habit is a sequence of four units of behavior – a cue, a routine, a reward, and an exit.

The cue (also called a trigger or stimulus) is the first part of the habit. It initiates the routine. In the case of your mirror habit we’ll say that the mirror is the cue. (Often there are other things – like getting food on your face – that will cue the desire to look in the mirror in the first place, but let’s keep this simple for now.)

The routine is the most complex part of the habit. It is what’s triggered by the cue. In our mirror example, when you look in the mirror you do something.  That something is the routine. For some people, when they look in the mirror they tense their stomach, make a face of disgust, and say something in their heads like “Ugh!” or “You’re so ugly.”

Others look with focused eyes at a specific part of their face or body and take action in relation to what they see – like popping a pimple. Some people simply look, make sure everything is the way they want it to be (checking it against a picture in their minds of how they want to look) and nothing is out of place. And still others look and say something nice to themselves like “Fabulous! You’ve done it again! Good job, Mother Nature!”

The reward (or result) comes next. This is the product or outcome of your routine.  Achieving it lets you know that you’re done and can move on to the exit and into your next activity. However, don’t be mislead by the word reward. Far too often the final result of people’s strategies are not rewarding at all. In fact, they’re often down right mean.

Looking at our above scenarios, some likely “rewards” are:

Cue Routine “Reward”
Look in mirror Tense stomach/ Make a face of disgust/ Say “You’re so ugly.” Feel crestfallen and pit in stomach.
Look in mirror Look with focused eyes at pimple/ Pop pimple/ Clean face. See pimple free face.
Look in mirror Compare to ideal picture of how they want to look in their mind/ Adjust until the mirror and mental images match. Looking the way they want to look. Feeling of satisfaction or dissatisfaction.
Look in mirror Say something nice to themselves like “Fabulous! You’ve done it again! Good job, Mother Nature!” Good feeling and motivation.

The final part of the habit is the exit. Exits are important because they signal the end of the habit. If there is no end, the program is left running – like an app in the background of your computer – using RAM and energy.

For example, if after looking in the mirror someone continues referencing an unsatisfactory mirror image of themselves in their mind that doesn’t match their idealized self-image, it can trigger a near constant feed of bad feelings. In this case, with no exit, the mirror habit is detrimental and it leads to downgraded performance, unhappiness, and eventually despair.

All aspects of a habit – cue, routine, reward, and exit – are programmable. You can connect new routines to familiar cues, or old routines to new cues. You can update rewards or ensure exits… all in service of the best life you’ve yet considered. Which is one of the most important habits of all – identifying and enforcing the life you want to lead. We’ll get into that in Part 2.

For now, take faith in knowing that while we’ve only gone through one very basic habit, the mechanics stay relatively the same for every habit in just about every domain of your life. Next week we’ll get into hacking your mirror habit as the first step to hacking any and every habit in your life.



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