Let’s take Ruchie. She bites her nails, but has no idea why. When asked to think about it and record when she does it, she realizes that she bites them when she is bored. When put in a boring situation, Ruchie worked through all of her nails and felt a “sense of completeness.” That physical stimulation or sense of completeness, at its root, is the reward for the Ruchie’s nail-biting habit.
The cue for Ruchie’s nail biting is boredom and is usually signified by a slight tingling in her fingers, her routine is biting her nails, and the reward is the physical sensation of completeness. In order to change this habit, Ruchie can keep the cue (the tingling sensation) and the reward (the sensation of completeness), but change the routine. Instead of biting her nails, when Ruchie experiences the cue, she could sit on her hands. With enough repetition of cue, routine, and reward, Ruchie’s brain will eventually be “reprogrammed” to habitually sit on her hands rather than bite her fingernails.
That being said, it is important to note that changing deeply ingrained habits such as overeating or smoking is not easily accomplished. Changing a habit requires determination, but understanding the way that habits work helps people attack the problem at its root and gain insights into creating new habits.
Change Your Routine, Change Your Life
Often, we do not understand what reward we are seeking when we follow a routine. If you want to stop snacking at work, you should ask yourself, “Is the reward I’m seeking to satisfy my hunger? Or is it to interrupt boredom?” If you are snacking in order to relieve boredom, taking a quick walk or taking three minutes to talk to a colleague can provide the same reward without the extra calories.
The same goes for any habit that you wish to change. Once you figure out the reward that you are seeking, replace that routine with something that will give you the same reward. Through the power of habit, Duhigg gives his readers words of hope, “We know that change can happen. Alcoholics can stop drinking. Smokers can quit puffing. Perennial losers can become champions. You can stop biting your nails or snacking at work, yelling at your kids or staying up all night worrying over small concerns.” With the power of habit – and the power of knowing the science of habit – you can change your life for the better.