I’ve tried many times to establish new habits in my life and truthfully, have never been successful. Sure I’ve had moments, and even months, where I felt I had created a new habit, but none really stuck. I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say, “Do something for 31 days and it will be a habit.” Horse manure is what I think of that saying, as I have done many things for 31 days yet it never became a true habit. I sort of chuckled the first time my boss passed out “amazing” 66 day challenge sheets. She proclaimed simply pick anything and do it for 66 days straight at will be a habit. I love her, but talk about over simplifying such a task. I’m sure many people can simply will themselves to do something for 66 days in a row. I tried on three separate occasions. Each time I was confident I had it. I made it all the way to 18 days on my first attempt. I proclaimed to the universe I was going to exercise for 30 minutes each night as if the world could hold me accountable. The next time I said I would not drink beer and made it a whole week. On the third attempt, I said I would send a daily text to my children each morning reminding them how much I love them. I did that one 31 days straight. It should have stuck, right? It didn’t!
Then I read the book The Power of Habit which does an amazing job explaining why we have habits and how there short cuts, or as I prefer to think, the brains way of maximizing its time by just running a loop that requires no thought to perform the task. I am a bit lazy by nature so this made total sense to me.
Okay, so it was awesome that I better understood why I formed habits and I felt better knowing it’s simply my brain trying to be more efficient. I’m not sure why that made me feel better, but it took a habit from being a bad thing or a good thing to simply being an automatic response. I always wondered how I could drive for long stretches of time and have no recollection of it. I was on autopilot and that isn’t by itself a bad thing. But, it didn’t help me move any closer to changing or creating a new habit on purpose which is what I desperately wanted. In the graphic below you see what appears to be a simple key to the formation and pattern of any habit loop: cue, routine and a reward.
In the past when I would try to establish a new habit, I never consciously considered these three things. My main focus was on the routine (habit). I knew I needed to keep the routine easily definable and finite, but I had spent little or no time considering cues or rewards. At best, I thought of the cue as the start of my routine, but never as a separate crucial component.
Let’s examine the cues and rewards for the 66 day challenge I just completed. The habit I wanted to establish was exercising every day for at least 30 minutes. Ironically, the 66 day challenge manifested the cue, routine and reward by magic. My stepdaughter in a manic state declared she would help me get healthy and “we’d do it together.” She declared we shall rise each morning at 5 a.m. go to the gym and workout for an hour then come home and drink delicious nutritious smoothies.
While I was not at all stoked by the idea of dragging my tired ass out of bed at 5 in the morning, I am more of a 6:30 a.m. stumble to the bathroom for a shower kind of guy. I was excited to have a partner in this endeavor. You know someone I could lean on and we could encourage each other when the other lacked the will to push forward. The first morning went off without a hitch. I had set my cues in place. I set my alarm for 5 a.m. and had layed my tennis shoes, socks, underwear, T-shirt, shorts and ear buds in a tidy pile, so I was good to go. The cue is imperative, in my case it is the laying out the clothes the night before or as I learned setting them out for the whole week was best. I only had to set my alarm the first night and awoke each morning since without it. So at the end of day one, we high-fived each other and said how great we feel. This was the reward I was counting on for this 66 day challenge.
Day 2 at 5 a.m. I got up, dressed and looked around for my stepdaughter who hadn’t stirred yet. Being an encouraging partner, I stroll into her room to find her sound asleep. I gently shake her on her shoulder and kindly say it’s time to go workout and sadly not to my surprise I hear her say, “I am going to work out later today.” I shrug in disappointment, but I had expected from the start she was more talk than action. I go and workout for an hour and return back sweaty and wide awake. Then it happened, I felt the overwhelming desire to needle her or say to her see I did it and you didn’t. I sent her a simple text that read, “Day 2 check.” I am embarrassed to admit it but sending that text provided me with tremendous joy. If I were a dog being trained to do a new trick it was my equivalent to the tastiest dog treat every made! I was hooked.
Day 3 I awoke again at 5 a.m. and the pattern repeated. I smiled with glee as I sent off my text that read, “Day 3 check!” I did the same on day 4, however, I didn’t bother trying to wake her as honestly if she did come it would have messed up my reward system. I continued to send her a text daily until my challenge was complete.
Truthfully, I’ve never had such a powerful reward for a behavior and while it may not be cool to poke fun at another person’s failure while gloating at my own accomplishment, it clearly demonstrated that in the past I hadn’t had a strong reward in place. For me, it appears the reward is more important than the cue and the routine. This thought was reinforced when I was watching a Sunday morning TV show where a dog trainer explains how he picks out a dog to train from a shelter. He said and I quote, “It is important the dog have a high food drive.” What he is really saying is that it is much easier to establish a new habit/routine if the animal loves the food reward. It turns out I am a lot like a dog without a high food drive, so I need to make sure I have a reward I really enjoy.
I am now contemplating my next 66 day challenge and with each new idea I am more focused on what my reward will be than the routine nor the cues. I’d love to hear your thoughts, experiences and advice.