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Change is Hard: Cue, Routine, Reward is Easy

For many people, January is the month for making change. The beginning of a new year is seen as a great opportunity to begin anew. Unfortunately, the numbers are against us and our ability to make successful change – 80% of all New Year’s Resolutions fail.

But this year it could be different. Beginning with this post and for the next few posts, I will present different frameworks for change that are backed by science to help you find a technique that could help you make this year – 2017 – you best year ever.

This post will look at the change model introduced by Charles Duhigg in his book, The Power of Habit.

Most of the things we wish to change are habits – usually bad habits. We tend to believe, consciously or unconsciously, that habits are easy to change. All we have to do is start doing something differently. You want to lose weight, start walking for 15 minutes every day. You want to cut back on drinking, have only one drink after work each day rather than three.

We start off with lots of enthusiasm and determination and for the first few days everything seems to point to successful change. But soon enough, we find we’re back to our old ways, our old habits.

It Takes More than Willpower

Unfortunately, it takes more than determination and willpower to change a habit that has been ingrained over a long period of time. It takes an understanding of how habits are formed and what habits consist of.

According to scientists, habits are a sequence of actions that, through repetition, become automatic routines. Think back to when you learned to drive. At first, just backing out of the driveway seemed like a daunting task, what with adjusting the mirrors, putting your foot on the brake, moving the gearshift into reverse, looking for traffic, letting you foot off the brake, keeping the wheels aligned, estimating the exact moment to turn the wheels in the right direction to get yourself into the street facing the right way. All these little actions seemed endless and so deliberate. And I didn’t even mention all the estimating of distance and speed that is part of the process. But over time, all these separate action became automatic and backing out of the driveway became a habit – a mindless habit.

Now, once this automatic series of actions, this mindless habit, starts unfolding our brains are freed up to think about other things – like where we’re going to go for lunch today.

Science tells us that habits come about because our brains are constantly looking for ways to conserve energy. As a result, our brains will attempt to make any routine into a habit.

It would seem therefore, that changing a habit would be as simple as creating a new routine. But not so fast grasshopper. We still have the old routine in place which will fight, and usually win, to remain in control.

This is where Duhigg’s model comes in.

Dughigg says that habits can be broken down into a three components of the habit loop. Habits are triggered by Cues which then lead into a Routine and the routine ultimately culminates in a Reward.

A Cue is an action or event that is a signal for you to do something. A Routine is a set of normal procedures that are often performed mechanically or automatically. The Reward is the result of an action, whether good or bad. Visually it might look like this:


To understand your habits, you first must identify the components of your particular habit loop. Once you have analyzed your habit behaviors, you can look for ways to replace old behaviors with new routines. It is usually easiest to start with the Routine as that is generally easy to recognize.

Let’s use a habit of mine as our working example. I’m a world-class chocoholic. In my mind, there are few things better than a piece of 72% cacao dark chocolate. Most days around 3pm I get a craving for a piece of my favorite chocolate. So, I get up from my desk, head down the hall to the refrigerator where I keep my stash of the food of the gods. I select a 1/3oz square of the precious stuff, break it into 4 small pieces (so that the wonderful taste treat can last longer) and finally enjoy my chocolate for the next 5-10 minutes.

So we have the Routine. Now let’s look at the Reward.

It doesn’t take much to assume that the Reward is a piece of chocolate. But let’s take a deeper look.

Upon first examination, my routine consists of a short walk to and from the refrigerator for a high calorie, succulent treat. However, if we look more closely we can see that a major reason for this routine is as simple as giving myself a 10 minute break to stand up and walk around everyday at 3pm to get the blood flowing and clear my head. It just so happens that the route my walk takes is toward my chocolate stash.

If you’re staying with me, you might be thinking that if I modify any one of the three components of the habit loop – cue, routine, reward – I could easily change or even eliminate my afternoon chocolate habit. Well, you’re on the right track, but because we are dealing with the brain, there always seems to be a caveat.

The Elimination Process

Let’s look first at complete elimination first. Science has found that eliminating a habit that has been reinforced frequently over time and is now a part of your life, like mine has, is VERY difficult if not impossible. Here’s why.

When you first start creating a habit, the neuronal pathway in the brain (neurons are the things that transmit signals in the brain) is small because it has not be used much. You might think of like a cocktail straw – very narrow opening and hard to get anything out of.

But each time you repeat (reenforce) your new habit, the neuron gets larger. Over time and repeated use, the neuron would grow from that small cocktail straw, to a drinking straw, to a small garden hose, and finally to a fire hose. Trying to stop the flow in a fire hose is difficult.

These fire hoses-like neurons are what make changes habits so difficult. They are thick, heavily used and fire pretty much automatically whenever the cue is triggered.


This is one reason why a New Year’s Resolution to stop doing something usually fail.

Duhigg suggests that the easy way to deal with habits is to change part of it rather than trying to replace it completely.

The question is, which part of the habit loop do we change – Cue, Routine, Reward?

To answer that question we will call upon Duhigg’s Golden Rule of Habit Change which states: “to change any habit we must keep the old cue, and deliver the same old reward, but insert a new routine,”

So using my earlier example, my habit would look like this:

Cue: 3pm, bored, low blood sugar.

Routine: Take a walk that just happens to lead to the refrigerator for chocolate.

Reward: A break, a small amount of exercise, something to eat (chocolate in my case) and perhaps some fresh air resulting in a clearer head.

So if I wanted to reduce the caloric quality of my habit while staying within the confines of the Golden Rule of Habit Change, a change might look like this

Cue: 3pm, bored, low blood sugar,

New Routine: Take a walk that leads to some fresh fruit and then outside for a few minutes.

Reward: A break, a small amount of exercise, perhaps some fresh air, a clearer head.

As you can see, my well ingrained Cue will trigger normally and I will get my established Reward. The only thing I need to change is the path my walk takes to help me reduce the unnecessary empty calories.

Based on this, habit change does not need to be difficult. All we have to do is follow these 5 simple steps:

1. Determine what habit you want to change.
2. Determine the existing Cue that triggers the habits Routine.
3. Determine the Reward you derive from the habit.
4. Determine what about the Routine you want to change.
5. Change the Routine.

In short; find a cue, create/modify the routine, reap the reward. It really can be as simple as that.


Are your dreams of change not quit working out the way you hoped?
Has your New Year’s Resolution lost its resolve?

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