Ever since it was first published in 2012, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg has become something of an icon of personal development books, cited by many — including myself — in numerous blog articles on how to change or build habits.
In simple terms, The Power of Habit claims that habits are governed by a neurological loop that consists of three elements: a cue, a routine, and a reward. The cue is anything that triggers the routine, the routine is the action that makes up the habit, and the reward is the benefit that comes out of the routine. To change or build a habit, you must manipulate the habit loop, changing the cue and the routine to achieve a similar reward as your original habit.
In the years since I first read The Power of Habit, I had tried applying this advice in my own life many times, and had failed, many times.
What I eventually realized was that in the times that I had failed to change or build a habit, I was simply just picking a habit that I had wanted to change or build, and then in an ad hoc manner choosing a new cue or routine to try and replace or build a new habit. Of course, this would always fail, because the new cue or routine was never the right one for changing or building the habit.
In the times that I had been successful in changing a habit, such as when I kicked my Facebook addiction, I had never actually consciously chose a new cue or routine. Instead, it always came by accident, after countless attempts at experimenting, and trying new things until I stumbled on the right combination of a new cue and routine that would lead to a new or changed habit.
I learned that changing habits is not as simple as just picking a new cue or routine. It comes after numerous attempts with experimenting with many different cues and routines, before you find one that “just clicks”.
All of this is to say that changing or building habits will always be a struggle, and not a trivial matter. To change or build a habit, you will have to experiment — sometimes for a very long time — before you find the right conditions that will allow you to truly change or build a habit.
The purpose of the habit loop is not to offer a magic pill that will allow you to change or build any habit — and in fact, this is exactly what Charles Duhigg says. Instead, the habit loop is like a tool that will provide you with better insight on how habits work, and will help you know how to approach changing habits, and when you have found the right formula to change or build a habit.