It begins with the little things. Failing one small goal. Failing another. Trying again and failing again. We start to think that life isn’t made up of a series of successes, but a series of failures interspersed with the occasional success. We fail before we learn. We fail many times before we succeed at the big things. The big skills in life – learning how to read, write, cycle, swim took many years filled with many failures and small successes. Sometimes we see the failures, particularly when it’s tough times and there are many of them.

Our wise six year old, recently diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes, told me a few days ago when I asked her why she wasn’t showing more interest in something, ‘Why bother. I don’t think I can do it no matter how hard I try.’ And I said ‘Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.’ She frowned at me. ‘What does that even mean?’ I explained. It made me think about successes and failures.

We often think thank change is difficult. Doing things differently requires more effort, more energy and more time than following old habits.  Often, the road to success is to change our habits – it’s the things we do every day that leads to success or failure.

Harvard scientists discovered The habit loop whilst experimenting with rats running mazes. It consists out of three elements: The Cue, The Routine, The Reward.

The cue

The Cue is something or a combination of factors that triggers a craving that is satisfied by carrying out a certain routine – it can be anything: location, time of day, mood, the day of the week, associated activities. For example – always having take-out with a movie on a Friday night or deciding to go for a walk after dinner daily.

The routine

The routine is the behaviour you want to eliminate or reinforce – ordering take-out/going for a walk – which satisfy the craving.

The reward

The reward is the reason why you follow the routine. Take-out on a Friday night is a common way of trigger relaxation after a busy week. The reward could be one of many things – it’s often best to experiment (remove different parts of the routine – for example, have the movie without take-out, have the take-out without a movie, shift to a different night of the week) to isolate which reward removes the craving.

Eliminating bad habits

Sometimes we’d like to stop unhealthy behaviours, like ordering take-out every Friday night. Making use of the habit loop, the chance of success goes up quite a bit.

Identify the cue (7 pm on a Friday night), identify the routine (order take-out), identify the reward (in my case it’s not having to set foot in the kitchen and enjoying a guilty pleasure).

Now change the routine without removing the reward. I’ve done that by adding a luxury, healthier ready meal to the weekly grocery order. It’s cheaper and healthier than take-out, the husband is quite happy to cook it and I don’t have to set foot in the kitchen.

Building better habits

Success often requires repeating something many times in order to master it. The habit loop always works very well for this type of goal setting. Pick a cue, pick a behaviour and add a reward.

Different rewards work for different people – for some it’s enough to have a long-term result of feeling fitter, others do well by keeping score – place a token in a jar or a sticker on a chart for every success and sometimes, if the behaviour is highly enjoyable, it’s a reward in and of itself. When it comes to children, giving them undivided attention, praise and positive feedback is often the best reward.

One step at a time

It’s hard to make permanent changes – it does require more energy and it is time-consuming – but once new habits are formed, they are harder to break than to just keep going in a positive loop. Our rule is never to try to change more than one thing at a time. Overhauling life in one week isn’t going to work and is more likely to lead to more Why bother moments than I can do this! successes.

Habits take time to form and it’s important to make sure that the reward doesn’t level off – which is its natural tendency. Everything is easiest when we first begin, but persisting over time gets harder and harder as motivation dwindle and rewards seem to have less of an impact. Artificially adding a reward outside of a complicated long-term goal is a quick cheat to keep us on track.

It’s harder to go for a walk after dinner daily when the goal is to lose weight. It’s much easier to go for a walk after dinner when the reward is being able to listen to an audiobook for half an hour without interruption. (If audio books are your thing). The habit loop is about making the action the reward rather than making the goal (achieved by repeating the action) the reward. That’s why I love it.