A habit loop consists of a cue, a routine, a reward and a craving. To build habits that benefit your happiness and health, you need to understand how to hack habit loops at each level.
To master the routine, start ridiculously small and apply the 3650 rule.
To master the cue, understand the types of cues and experiment with changing them or habit stacking.
Now let’s look at mastering the reward.
Let’s start with an important question. Why do you do anything? Stop reading and consider this for a moment.
Why do you do put your clothes on in the morning?
Why do you go to work?
Why do you smoke? If you don’t smoke, why not?
Why did you start that business?
Why do you spend time with your family?
Why did you eat the last brownie? No, I am not watching you.
Why did you buy that house? Or that stock?
Why did you hire that coach or mentor?
The answer is simple. To gain a reward. Would you do anything that doesn’t benefit you in some way?
A reward either moves us toward something pleasant or away from something unpleasant. A perceived reward initiates behaviour. The reward itself reinforces behaviour and makes you want to do it again. If you keep doing something, it becomes a habit.
“A perceived reward initiates behaviour and the reward itself reinforces behaviour.”
To proceed, we need to accept the premise that we do anything to gain a reward. I would like to Steel Man this premise by arguing against it on your behalf.
Argument 1: It seems unlikely that everything we do benefits us in some way. What about selfless acts?
There are no such things as selfless acts. There is always a reward. Does giving to a homeless person benefit you in some way? Of course it does. That’s why you do it in the first place. For example, it may fill you with a sense of pride or happiness that you helped someone in need. A selfless act falls under the umbrella of kind acts. Kindness naturally benefits at least 2 people: the person receiving the kindness and equally, and often disproportionately, the person giving the kindness. And you know what? That’s great! Remember, a reward reinforces behaviour. Is it a good thing to reinforce selfless and kind acts? ABSOLUTELY!
Argument 2: There are so many trivial things, like brushing your teeth or putting your pants on, that we do habitually. What are the rewards in these mundane and reward-less tasks?
Everything we do is to gain a reward. Brushing your teeth moves you towards a cool and fresh sensation in your mouth and away from halitosis (look it up). Putting your pants on moves you towards wearing pants! It moves you away from well…not wearing pants. If you are not convinced, don’t wear pants tomorrow.
The word reward is associated with gifts and awards. In the context of habits, a reward doesn’t need to be extravagant. It’s anything that moves you towards something pleasant or away from something unpleasant.
Feel free to argue this with me so I don’t have to do it with myself. People sometimes gets worried about me when I talk to myself. They should be worried, just not about that.
Why is this all important?
Once you understand that a reward reinforces the habit, we can design a suitable reward. A well designed reward needs 3 things. It needs to be
2) Easily reproducible.
3) Immediately after the routine.
The reward in a habit is usually intangible. Meditation might give you a sense of peace. Exercise may make you feel energetic. A gratitude journal could provide a more optimistic view on life. These rewards are great. However, they are intangible. A masterful reward requires tangibility. In other words, can you measure it?
Peace resulting from meditation is not measurable. Minutes of meditation is measurable.
Boosted energy levels after exercise is not measurable. Crossing off the days you exercise on your calendar is measurable.
The optimism derived from gratitude journaling is not measurable. Writing at least 1 thing you are grateful for everyday is measurable.
A reward does not have to be extravagant. This is actually a hindrance. For example, many people start exercise with the expected reward of losing weight. Losing weight takes time. Keeping it off requires more time. Many people stop exercising because they feel that they have not been sufficiently rewarded. If the reward is what reinforces the habit, it needs to be simple and easily reproducible.
You can’t rely on a big result or a party or to pop bottles of champagne each time you do something. It’s not easily reproducible. Tallying your progress on a whiteboard or recording it on an excel spreadsheet is.
Immediately after the routine
The reward needs to come immediately after the routine. At a neurological level, this literally wires your brain to want to do the routine again. If the tangible and easily reproducible reward happens too long after the routine, the reward doesn’t associate directly with the routine. You lose the opportunity to reinforce the behaviour and if anything, it’s only weakly reinforced.
I have a friend who I was helping to build a meditation habit. He had started ridiculously small and found an appropriate cue. He rewarded himself by tallying on an excel spreadsheet. It was tangible. It was easily reproducible. The only problem? He was meditating in the morning and tallying it at night when he remembered. The habit loop was not “sticky” enough and so he was finding it hard to maintain consistency. Whatever the routine, reward yourself immediately after.
My favourite way to tick the 3 boxes of designing a reward that is tangible, easily reproducible and occurs immediately after a routine is tallying.
Tallying is incredibly rewarding. It’s a beautiful thing to have objective evidence that you are progressing.
Once you perform your desired habit, tally it.
You can tally on a whiteboard or a calendar. This was popularly coined the “Seinfeld Strategy”. Folklore suggests that Brad Isaac had the following interaction with Seinfeld after asking for tips on how to be a young comic.
“He said the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day.
He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker. He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day.
After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job is to not break the chain.”
Hilariously, many years later Jerry Seinfeld is denying that he came up with this. It’s still a powerful insight into mastering the rewards.
You can also tally on an excel spreadsheet. I love this because you can set it up so that it automatically updates your progress. For example, it appears that over the years, I have done over 4000 minutes of meditation. That’s encouraging!
The 2 rules
There are 2 rules that will help you.
- Create a streak. Whatever way you decide to tally your progress, create a streak and try not to break it.
- Never miss 2 days in a row. Life happens and occasionally you may miss a day. That’s OK. Just don’t miss 2 in a row. The more days you miss, the harder it is to get back on the horse. If you follow this rule alone, for 50% of the year you will perform the habit.
I learnt this from Atomic Habits by James Clear. It’s a book that has changed my life.
- We do anything to gain a reward.
- Rewards move us towards something pleasant or away from something unpleasant
- A reward reinforces the routine.
- A well designed reward has to be tangible, easily reproducible and occur immediately after the routine.
I hope this helped. Please feel free to share it if it did.
Much love to you and of course, myself.
If you want to find out more about coaching, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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