The challenge of changing behaviours pt2

Liggy Webb concludes her two-parter about behaviour change. 

In his book ‘The Power of Habit’,Charles Duhigg explores the science behind habit formation which describes a three-part psychological concept called a ‘Habit Loop’. This is essentially a neurological pattern that governs any habit. It consists of three elements:

  1. The cue – This is a cue that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and let a behaviour unfold.
  2. The routine – This is the actual behaviour that has been triggered.
  3. The reward – This is something that your brain likes that helps it to remember the bit loop in the past.

So, a simple example – and possibly a familiar one – could be this scenario:The cue is feeling bored with a task at work or home, the routine is to go and get some chocolate the reward is the momentary pleasure that you get from the sugar high.

Understanding these components can help in understanding how to change bad habits or form good ones. So an alternative response to the cue could be feeling bored with a task at work or home, the new routine is to go outside and get some fresh air for a few moments, and the reward is feeling refreshed and energised.

The habit loop is always started with a cue, a trigger that transfers your brain into a mode that automatically determines which habit to use. The epicentre of the habit is a mental, emotional, or physical routine.

Making changes

Changing habits and behaviours takes effort though and can be an uncomfortable experience. One psychologist, Edgar Schein, describes human change as a psychological process that involves painful unlearning and difficult relearning in an attempt to restructure our thoughts, perceptions, feelings and attitudes.

Some scientists have concluded that are our brains are programmed to resist change. Habits use just one part of the brain and, therefore, require much less energy and it is only when we change our behaviour that other parts of the brain become activated.

One of the cornerstone models for understanding behavioural change was developed by Kurt Lewin, a social psychology pioneer in the 40s. Lewin’s model is known as Unfreeze – Change – Refreeze.


For Lewin, the process of change entails creating the perception that a change is needed, then moving toward the new, desired level of behaviour and, finally, solidifying that new behaviour as the norm.

There are studies that have identified that it takes 28 days to create a new habit. The idea is to establish new neural pathways (nerve cells that transmit messages). The idea is that if you travel down the same road enough times, the pathway becomes more and more solid.

As Warren Buffet, the business magnate and philanthropist once observed, “Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are two heavy to be broken”. So unpicking some of our ingrained behaviors can be a bit tricky as it is easy to give up or even fall back into bad habits and it takes dedication, faith and perseverance.

Embedding behavioral change

Here are five steps to help you with the challenge of changing your behaviours:

Step one: Identification

You need to be really clear about what it is that you want to change and most important of all to understand your motives and why you want to change those behaviours, and the positive impact they will have on your life. If you know what the benefits and rewards are you will be far more motivated and committed.

Step two: Focus

Make sure that you are not overwhelming yourself with attempting to change too many things at the same time. Breaking things down into easy digestible chunks is really important and to tackle one thing at a time. Marginal gains are a great way of simplifying even the most complex goal.

Step three: Use persistence over resistance

This is about accepting that you won’t always get it right first time and being prepared for setbacks along the way. It easy to be thrown off track, however it is important to be patient and persistent and to keep putting yourself back on track with what you are trying to achieve and not fall into the all or nothing mindset.

Step four: Take the 30-day challenge

It takes about 28 days to embed a new habit/ behaviour so manage your expectation and don’t expect it to happen overnight. Repetition is the way to gradually entrench your habits and the 30-day challenge is a great challenge to set yourself to begin rewiring those neural pathways. Remember it all begins with the very first win!

Step five: Reward yourself 

The habit loop is very much reinforced by the reward part of the cycle so it is important to strengthen the habits by consciously acknowledging celebrating your success. Positive reinforcement through treats and giving yourself a huge pat on the back will build your confidence and actively encourage you to embrace and stay on track with your behavioural change.

“We first make our habits and then our habits make us” – John Dryden


About the author

Liggy Webb is a best-selling author and the founding director of The Learning Architect, an international consortium of behavioural skills specialists.


Read more from Liggy here


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