By Dr Joe Flanders

Let’s face it: almost everything we do in life is tied to a habit. Life is simply too complex to think everything through. Could you imagine having to lay out explicit instructions on how to drive a car? Or cook a meal? Or walk? Or even breath? Thankfully, our brains automate these sequences, by creating habits, which free up mindspace for more interesting concerns like how to deal with a sticky problem at work or make our own lives happier or more meaningful.

All of this automation comes at a cost though. Whether we like it or not, habits are continually shaped by all the positive and negative reinforcements we encounter over the course of each day and we are not entirely in control of this process. As a result, we sometimes develop bad habits like eating too much sugar or spending too much time on facebook, or in the extreme, addictions to thing like drugs and alcohol. The science of habit formation is beginning to show us how exactly this works and even point to some cool ways to take back control.

The Habit Loop is an incredibly important model for understanding habits. The loop includes 3 components: cues, routines, and rewards. A cue is anything that triggers the habit. It can include something in the environment that we see or hear or something internal like a state of mind or sensation in the body; a routine is the actual behaviour associated with the habit, like eating chips or checking facebook; and a reward is the positive experience we have following the behaviour. Rewards typically trigger the release of a brain chemical called dopamine, which feels really good and makes our brains more likely to remember and reproduce the behaviour in the future.

Let’s look at a few examples to help clarify the habit loop. You’re driving down the highway around noon and you’re hungry. In the distance you begin to see McDonald’s golden arches on the side of the road. That’s the (visual) cue. Your brain calls up the McDonald’s restaurant script and next thing you know, you’re parking, ordering, paying, and eating. That’s the routine. The salt, sugar, and fat in the Big Mac trio you just consumed fills you with a sense of pleasure and satiation and you feel happy (for now). That’s the reward. Going through that loop reinforces the habit and makes you that much more likely to do it again the next time you see the cue.

A similar loop applies to your morning caffeine ritual. You wake up and notice groggy state of mind (internal cue), make and drink coffee (routine), and groggy feeling is replaced by sharp alertness (reward). Habit loops can shape helpful routines as well. If you’re having trouble staying motivated to go to the gym, keep your running shoes or gym bag somewhere clearly visible in your environment. So next time you’re walking in your home and you see your running shoes (cue), you’ll be reminded of the going to the gym routine, and be more likely to enjoy the relaxed, energized feeling you get after a workout (reward).

Habit loops are playing out all the time in our use of technology. See the notification of 13 unread emails on your mobile device (cue), open email app and scan new messages (routine), experience release of stress if there is nothing urgent to deal with (reward) or burst of excitement if you get some good news (reward). The habit loop is partly what makes email and social media addictive. The constant reinforcement we get from these apps strengthens the association between the cue and the reward and the habit gets stronger and more automatic. If we’re not careful, our lives can get overrun by a series of unhelpful habit loops.

So how do we take back control? The trick is to be mindful habit loops so that we can deconstruct the unhelpful ones and shape the development of helpful ones. Once the virtuous habit loops are in place, we can let go and let them run on autopilot. Here’s how.

When you come across a cue, you can usually observe subtle changes in your experience that indicate you are warming up to engage in a routine. For example, you might notice salivation when you see the golden arches, a sense of urgency when you see an email notification, or feeling of impatience when you feel tired in the morning. Bring mindful awareness to all of these sensations, by pausing and observing them with interest and curiosity, rather than jumping right into the routine mindlessly. This pause and change in perspective creates space to make a skillful choice about what you do next. You may choose to proceed with the routine anyway, if that’s what is called for in the situation. Or you may choose to pursue a different course of action, thereby establishing the foundation of a different habit loop. The important thing is that it becomes a choice, rather than something you do reactively.

The next step is to bring that same mindful awareness to the reward. Sometimes the dopamine hit following the routine is not as wonderful as we anticipated. Really tuning into the experience and aftermath of eating junk food or staring at a little screen sometimes exposes the unpleasant aspects of those routines, which can in itself help weaken the habit. Sometimes, the reward for other routines like exercise are more reinforcing than we anticipated and that awareness can strengthen the habit. And sometimes, simply choosing not to engage in an unhelpful routine feels empowering, which is rewarding in itself. Regardless, we need to actually bring awareness to our experience to see the impact of our habits clearly.

Now that you know the mechanics of habit formation, see if you can bring your mindfulness practice into the picture to take back control of your life!