1.Trigger 2.Routine 3.Reward
I want you to keep that simple formula in mind as you start new habits. You are going to use it to rewire your brain. It’s quite astonishing how much force for change comes “pre-wired” into you. This formula will activate those circuits. You’ll wonder why you ever depended on willpower alone.
Psychosocial research into habit and behavioral change has identified this 3-step cycle. It is a self-reinforcing cycle that can be virtuous (good habits) or destructive (bad habits). The same motor that drives your bad habits can drive your good ones. Before we jump in to the three steps we need to understand the science that underlies habit.
Not surprising, this is all controlled in our nerve center, the brain. Not at the level that helps us to think and reason – but much deeper, in areas known as the brain stem and dorsal ganglia.
Here we find primitive circuits that regulate cravings. Two chemical systems are involved. The dopamine system evokes desire and motivation. It drives us to seeking and searching behavior. The other system is the opioid system. It evokes sensations of pleasure. To build new habits, we want to activate dopamine desire circuits and reward them via the opioid system. This drives us to recurrent, automated healthy behavior (or habits).
Got it? Dopamine system > makes us want things. Opioid system > makes us happy when we get them. Now back to our formula.
The three steps in action.
Mr. Nelson arrives home at the end of his day (trigger). He walks to the kitchen, opens the refrigerator and cracks open a beer (routine). He puts his feet up and relaxes as the alcohol calms him down (reward).
Familiar? Now, imagine how we can turn this around, using the same underlying science! Mr Nelson arrives home at the end of his workday (same trigger). He greets his wife and walks to the bedroom to put on his exercise clothes (new routine). He adds 7,000 steps to the 3,000 he already achieved at work, flooding his blood with endorphins that make him relax and feel good (new, but similar reward).
If you can build bad habits, you can build good ones.
- Identify your triggers and think how you can flip them. Look for the moment or moments before you engage in a behavior you want to change. There may be some helpful patterns to understand.
- Look at the reward you are seeking. Sometimes they are much simpler than we think. Not food, but comfort. Not television, but a calm, quiet mind.
- Now look at the new routines and habits you want to build and make sure they are preceded by the right trigger and giving you the right reward.
The Rule of 7s – A Path to Success
The first seven days are critical to break the inertia of the old. Starting the engine is more work than keeping it going. Good intentions wane quickly. It’s helpful to have a solid plan. Watch out for excuses these first seven days. You may find yourself saying “well, it’s so far to go, and it’s cold in the mornings now, so I’m going to skip tomorrow” … and the day after … and then you’re done.
After the first week set your sights on the next milestone at 7 weeks. During these 7 weeks, some crucial chemical and behavioral adaptations are taking place. Once you have practiced your good behaviors for 7 weeks, you’re well on your way towards fundamental life change.
After a healthy celebration on reaching the 7 week marker, look toward the 7 month milestone. If you can maintain the discipline and enthusiasm to meet this next goal, then you will understand how to transform your life. You will have laid the tracks for enduring lifestyle modification.
Below are some resources I have put together that will help you get through the first 7 days and 7 weeks. I found them invaluable in my transformation. Take all the guesswork out. These resources are built on the Science of Habit and will get you results.
Dr. Roddy Carter MD