I’ve been lucky enough to run in events all over the world. In the past ten years I have run more than 20 marathons, including the Boston Marathon seven times, and marathons in New York, Chicago, Berlin and Tokyo. In September 2018 I ran my first Ultra Trail Race, the Barkley Fall Classic. During the years that I completed these events in there have been a few constants, one of which is my Sunday long run.
In the weeks and months leading up to an event I meet my running group at 7:00 am every Sunday. That means I have to wake up at 5:30 am. But 5:30 am during wintertime in Canada is different from 5:30 am elsewhere in the world—it’s usually dark, windy and cold. Minus-twenty cold, sometimes (it’s nice in the summer though). So in order to stay committed I follow the same steps every week.
On Saturday night I send a text to at least one of my running buddies. Something like, "See you at 7:00 am." Shortly after, I do four things: I put my running shoes and car keys beside the front door, I put a coffee mug and a banana on the kitchen counter, I get my running gear together and leave it by my bed, and I set my alarm for 5:30 am.
I started doing this because it made getting out the door every Sunday morning much easier. When I wake up, I don't have to think. Everything is where it needs to be. And even if I feel like going back to bed I don't. First, I've already invested some energy the night before preparing for the run, so I’m half-committed to going. Second, I've told my friends I'll be there—I try to do what I say I'm going to do.
Of course, that is just one habit among many that makes running a big and consistent part of my life. But how was the habit formed? How do habits, in general, come about? Many people have asked this question and many people have converged on an answer. Here's four to get you started.
ANSWER 1: B=MAP
The Fogg Behavior Model is simple. It says that “...three elements must converge at the same moment for a behavior to occur: Motivation, Ability and a Prompt. When a behavior does not occur, at least one of those three elements is missing.” Here’s Fogg’s visual representation of it…
...and here’s an example of how it works in practice: I want to get up in the morning and go for a run. To do that, the motivation has to be there (the expected reward must outweigh the discomfort experienced during the task), the ability has to be there (I need to be injury-free and able to actually run), and there needs to be a prompt of some kind (a friend knocking on my door in her running gear makes it hard to opt out). If my ability is impaired due to injury, I won’t go for a run. If I’m severely de-motivated, I’ll tell my friend I have a cold and go back to bed. If my friend doesn’t show up, I’ll tell myself that she gets a day off so I should too.
It’s a simple model and it can be used to build new habits and to take the wind out of old and destructive habits. If I want to stop snacking on cookies I can simply remove the ability to eat them by purging them from the house, not buying them myself and not letting my husband buy them either. I can’t eat something that isn’t there.
B.J. Fogg does go into more detail about the model and its components—he is a Stanford researcher, after all—and he has also created a methodology called Tiny Habits, but familiarity with the Behavior = Motivation + Ability + Prompt equation is all we need for now.
ANSWER 2: CUE, ROUTINE, REWARD
In The Power of Habit Charles Duhigg explains that at the core of every habit there is a neurological loop that consists of three parts: a Cue, a Routine, and a Reward. A Cue is an automatic trigger that initiates a behavior; a Routine is the behavior itself; and a Reward is something that reinforces the pattern for the future. Duhigg goes on to explain how dangerous this loop can be:
“Over time, this loop–cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward–becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges. …When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard or diverts focus to other tasks. So, unless you deliberately fight a habit -unless you find new routines–the pattern will unfold automatically.
This explains why it's so hard to create exercise habits, for instance, or change what we eat. Once we develop a routine of sitting on the couch, rather than running, or snacking whenever we pass a doughnut box, those patterns always remain inside our heads. By the same rule, though, if we learn to create new neurological routines that outpower those behaviors–if we take control of the habit loop–we can force those bad tendencies into the background.
Consider fast food, for instance. It makes sense–when kids are starving and you're driving home after a long day–to stop, just this once, at McDonald's or Burger King. The meals are inexpensive. It tastes so good. After all, one dose of processed meat, salty fries and sugary soda poses a relatively small health risk, right? It's not like you do it all the time. But habits emerge without our permission. Studies indicate that families usually don't intend to eat fast food on a regular basis. What happens is that a once a month pattern slowly becomes once a week, and then twice a week–as the cues and rewards create a habit–until kids are consuming an unhealthy amount of hamburgers and fries.
But since we often don't recognize these habit loops as they grow, we are blind to our ability to control them. By learning to observe the cues and rewards, though, we can change the routines”
As Duhigg points out, the loop is only dangerous if it remains unnoticed and if we remain unmindful of its ability to grow rapidly when we’re not looking. But if we understand how Cue leads to Routine which leads to Reward, we can modify existing habits, create new ones, and take apart the ones we don’t like. Duhigg comments:
“The golden rule of habit change: If you use the same cue, and provide the same reward, you can shift the routine and change the habit. Almost any behavior can be transformed if the cue and reward stay the same.”
For example, it’s not uncommon for someone to want to go to the gym after work. So they come home, dump their work bag, think about changing into their gym clothes, and then… talk themselves out of going. “It’s been a long, difficult day, the gym will be busy and noisy, and maybe I just need some me-time? I’ll do an extra good session tomorrow.” With Duhigg’s model, the solution is simple. Keep the cue—finishing work still means going to the gym—and the reward—an evening meal with the family and a nice long shower—but change the routine—take your gym gear with you to work and don’t go home after finishing your day.
Duhigg’s model is, at heart, a simple feedback loop, and feedback loops can be interrupted and leveraged by those who understand them.
ANSWER 3: HOOKED
Nir Eyal’s Hooked is about the dark art of designing addictive habit-forming products. It’s similar to Duhigg’s model—it’s a feedback loop—but it has a few key differences. Here it is:
The “trigger”, says Eyal, “is the actuator of behavior—the spark plug in the engine”. He goes on to describe that an external trigger, like a push notification on a phone, once engaged with consistently, forms internal associations “which attach to existing behaviors and emotions.” A push notification is not just a push notification. It becomes a chance to continue building your relationship with a friend. The “action” that follows the trigger is a “behavior done in anticipation of a reward”. And this is where it gets interesting: notice the word “variable”. It’s very important, argues Eyal:
“What distinguishes the Hook Model from a plain vanilla feedback loop is the Hook’s ability to create a craving. Feedback loops are all around us, but predictable ones don’t create desire. The unsurprising response of your fridge light turning on when you open the door doesn’t drive you to keep opening it again and again. However, add some variability to the mix—suppose a different treat magically appears in your fridge every time you open it—and voila, intrigue is created.
Introducing variability multiplies the effect, creating a focused state, which suppresses the areas of the brain associated with judgment and reason while activating the parts associated with wanting and desire.”
Following a trigger that initiates an action, itself undertaken in anticipation of a variable reward, is the final stage in the Hooked model: “Investment”. This occurs when “the user puts something into the product or service such as time, data, effort, social capital, or money.”
A simple example of the power of the investment comes from the use of a food and exercise logging app. If you’ve spent a year a carefully inputting every morsel of food and logging down all your walks and training, and if you’ve persuaded your best friends to get it and do the same, you’re going to have a hard time switching to a different app. Your friends use it. It’s got all your data in a format that is notoriously difficult to port to another product or service, meaning you’d have to start from zero. And it’s familiar—you know how it works and can operate it without thinking. Everything that you put into it, every time you open it up makes it more likely that you’ll keep using it. That is why most companies don’t just want your clicks or your eyeballs—they want you to act and interact with their service/platform/product. Because every action you take in their little sandbox increases the chances that you’ll stay there and build sandcastles.
ANSWER 4: THE HABIT LOOP
James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits, is intended to be the manual for habit formation and deconstruction. A long-time researcher of the psychology of self-improvement, Clear has absorbed the previous three models in his work and come up with his own synthesis of the research surrounding habit formation. It looks like this:
Clear’s model asserts that something in our internal or external environment—a location, a thing, a feeling—creates an anticipatory desire or association—we want to be rid of the anxiety, feel energized—that we respond to—by watching our favorite YouTube channel, taking a walk—and are rewarded for. Cue; craving; response; reward.
A simple model, again, but one with surprising depth. For example Clear explains that cues can manifest themselves as a particular time of the day or week, as a specific location, as a preceding event, as a strong emotional state, or in the form of other people. Similarly, rewards can be both internally and externally positive—a good feeling or validation from a person you care about—but they can also be both internally and externally negative, and so break the cycle, making the repeat of a behavior less likely.
MAKE YOUR OWN PIZZA
As you can see there's a similarity between each of the models presented above. They all form a feedback loop of stimulus-response-reinforcement and rely upon the same components. But my intention is not to get bogged down in the granular aspects of the different models. Instead, I want to focus on a question:
How can we use all this to create new habits?
Have you ever been to those pizza joints that let you create your own version of doughy-heaven? Where you choose the crust (original, whole wheat, or thin), the base (tomato sauce or white), and the toppings (pick five from this list of twenty). We can do that with habits, too.
First, choose your habit.
Second, choose your cue(s).
Third, choose your reward(s).
That's it, in its simplest form. But there are a few things to keep in mind for each step.
When it comes to habits, choose something that is small, specific and easy. If you’ve never run before and you want to end up running five kilometers four times a week, where do you start? Not with an intense program of interval training and distance runs every other evening. No, make the decision to go for a ten minute walk, every weekday, at 7:00 am, regardless of weather. It’s small (anybody can find ten minutes in the morning), it’s specific (you’ve selected the time, location and duration in advance), and it’s easy (you don’t need any special preparation or equipment to walk that long, except maybe a jacket).
When it comes to choosing your cues, the strategy is similar. Choose things that are small, simple and minimize the energy required to follow an activity through to completion. It also helps if you enlist other people in your quest. This is why I ended up preparing my running gear the night before morning runs (i)and sending a text to my running buddies in advance. These tiny acts enable me to continue on with an activity that sometimes seems ridiculous—especially when I’m lying in my warm bed looking out at the cold, Canada snowfall.
Finally, when it comes to choosing your rewards, it’s best to hit three markers: internal, external and variable. The rewards associated with health, fitness and nutrition are often internal—feeling faster, stronger, more mentally alert, more able to recover and endure—but they can also be external—measured by bodyweight, by one-rep maxes, by personal best times. So explicitly select a few to focus on.
The internal reward I tend to keep my eyes on is the feeling of health. I like feeling strong and supple and energetic, and the memory and experience of that feeling keep me going. One of my external rewards is a calendar I keep on a wall in my house. It has my training schedule for the month printed on it and it’s positioned so that everyone can see it. This means that when I complete a run I get the satisfaction of putting a big check mark over the corresponding session. But more importantly I get to see, and so does everyone else, the sessions I’ve consistently completed that month. Lastly, my variable reward is provided by keeping track of my event times. I can’t predict when I’m going to hit a PB. But the possibility of doing so whenever I compete keeps me intrigued, engaged, and committed during my training.
Oh, and a final thing—one at a time. The success rate for developing new long-term habits drops off significantly if you try to build more than one at a time. So don’t try to improve your sleep, develop a running habit, cut out sugar and hit a new PB in the gym all at once. Instead, figure out which will have the most impact and focus on that and that alone. Once it’s a stable and a fully integrated part of your life (which usually takes upwards of three months) then tackle the next most important thing.
- - - - -
Habits are repeated behaviors that operate below the level of our consciousness. At first, this seems problematic, but if we had to think about all that we do, all the time, we would be unable to do anything at all. The real problem is when our habits take us to places and in directions that we don’t want to go.
Fortunately, many people have devoted a lot of time and effort to understanding and leveraging the power of habits. Which means we can learn to control them. We can dissolve the ones we deem harmful and replace them with new ones we think helpful and healthy. All it takes is a little bit of thought, a simple three step process (choose your habit; choose your cues; choose your rewards) and the decision to start making positive change.