Habit Insights – Cue, Routine, Reward.

We all have habits. They can be anything from chores around the house to checking your phone too often, to exercise routines, to completing tasks at work. There are even the bad ones such as biting your nails or not paying you bills on time.

Most of the habits we do automatically, without too much thought. In fact research by universities such as Duke University in the US estimate habits, rather than conscious decision-making, shape 45 percent of the choices we make every day.

But when we stop to think of these habits in more detail, we can better understand how to change or stop our habits; or start new ones.

Other research has found the habit process within our brains is a three-step loop and this is usually the best way to fully understand habits. The first step is a cue. This is the trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. The next is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. The final step is the reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular habit is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop — cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward — becomes more and more automatic.

An example of this habit process can be seen by looking at a series of studies conducted at Columbia University and the University of Alberta on how exercise habits emerge.

256 members of a health-insurance plan were invited to university classes which stressed the importance of exercise. Half the participants then received an extra lesson on the theories of habit formation (the cue, routine, reward loop) and were asked to identify cues and rewards that might help them develop exercise routines.

Over the following four month period, the students which deliberately identified cues and rewards spent twice as much time exercising as their peers. The cues students identified where things such as putting on your sneakers before breakfast or leaving your running clothes next to your bed; and the rewards were a midday treat or the sense of accomplishment that comes from recording your miles in a log book.

They found after a while, a person’s brain will start anticipating that reward and there will be a measurable neurological impulse to lace up your jogging shoes each morning.

This principle is also similar to a habit I sure most of us have developed – checking emails, messages and social media accounts far too often (routine). When your smartphone chimes, vibrates or lights up (cue), our brain starts anticipating the neurological “pleasure” (even if we don’t recognise it as such) that unlocking and reading it provides (reward).

If not looked at, you often find yourself distracted by the thought of a message sitting there unread, even if you know it’s most likely not important.

We can solve this distraction by removing the cue. Once we disable the sound or vibration the craving is never triggered, and you’ll find, over time, that you’re able to work productively for long stretches without checking your phone.

Understanding habits as a business can also help you to market your products or services and better understand your customers, which we explore in our post: Finding the Right Audience – Febreze.


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