21 Days: Building Healthy Habits Throughout Winter

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Understanding the Cue, Routine and Reward in Habit Design 

According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, research shows that 40-45% of our daily habits are sub-conscious behaviors and feel almost automatic. 

This is because they have been consistently repeated over time to the point our body knows exactly what to do at the exact time; for example, brushing your teeth or putting one shoe on before the other in the same way each time. 

The habit loop can be explained by three components—the cue, a routine and the reward. However, when the cue or reward is altered, the loop is broken and a new habit may be formed or the old habit may be altered. 

So, what exactly is a cue, routine and reward? 

The Habit Loop Breakdown 

The Cue 

The cue can be anything that triggers the habit. Cues most generally fall under the following categories: a location, time of day, other people, an emotional state, or an immediately preceding action. 

For example, every day at 2 p.m., some people get the urge to get a piece of chocolate from the kitchen, or arriving to work and seeing coworkers get on the elevator. The cue tells the brain to go into automatic mode. It takes effort to resist the cue versus getting satisfaction from the cue. 

The Routine 

A habit’s routine is the most obvious component of the habit loop. It is the behavior you wish to change or reinforce. 

The following are examples of routines one may look to change or reinforce: 

  • Drinking more water instead of soda 
  • Getting more sleep or reducing distractions before bed 
  • Taking the stairs instead of the elevator 

The Reward 

The reward is what helps create the pattern. When you reward yourself for the good habit, the brain stores the habit as something worth remembering and over time it becomes a habit. The reward is a positive reinforcement for the desired behavior, making it more likely that you will produce that behavior again in the future. 

The reward can be anything, from something tangible (such as a new pair of new shoes, or a fruit popsicle), or something intangible (like a home-cooked meal, or a night at the movies) . 

The reward can also be the feeling you get from partaking in the habit. Yoga may bring a sense of calm or relaxation; a quick walk may bring you energy to your day. 

Corey Cenate is a certified health coach with the the Employees Wellness Department at the UVM Medical Center.


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