Master the Habit Cycle and Achieve Your Goals

What if you could turn making good choices into a habit?

It’s easy to set a goal.  It’s much harder to actually achieve it.  Part of the problem is that to make progress, every day you have to choose to put in the effort.  If you don’t make that choice, failure is just around the corner.  But if you master the habit cycle, you can put your brain on auto-pilot and make the right decisions automatically.  Here’s how.

NOTE:  This video and transcript are excerpted from the “Building Habits that Stick” lesson in my on-line course entitled Goal-Getting:  How to Build Your Framework for Success.  For more free video previews and information about the course, go here.

Like Mice in a Maze

Back in the 1990s, behavioral scientists at MIT were looking into how the brain works and what the role of the basal ganglia is in habit formation.  They did their research by watching mice in a maze and monitoring their brain activity as they learned the route.

When the mice first started learning the maze, their entire brain was lit up with activity – it was using all its senses to sniff and scratch and explore its way to the treat at the other end.

The interesting thing was that as the mouse learned more and more about when and where to turn, activity in the cerebral cortex – the big part of the brain – dropped way off.  The mice didn’t really have to expend any energy thinking about what they had to do any more.

Instead, all the brain activity focused in on the basal ganglia, which had essentially memorized the pattern the mouse needed to follow.  A habit had formed, and the mouse was running on automatic.  It wasn’t spending energy making decisions any more, it was just acting.

Riding the Habit Cycle

How does the brain know when to stop thinking so hard and just fly on auto pilot?  I’ll put more about this in the work book (provided as part of the course), but the short version is there are three steps:

First, there is a CUE – something triggers you to do something.  Second, there’s the ROUTINE you perform right after the cue.  Third, and most important, there is a REWARD – that’s something good that happens when you do the routine after the cue.

Every time you go through this cycle your brain recognizes that the sequence leads to good things happening, so it stops trying to evaluate it, and just does it.

So, if we can get a good pattern of activity going involving Cues, Routines, and Rewards, eventually we don’t have to even think about doing it any more, it just happens.  We take the decision out of the loop and go straight into execution of the thing we need to do.

Putting it on Auto-Pilot

I’ll use myself as an example.  For over 10 years I was doing a lot of triathlons.  I love to run, biking is a strength that I enjoy, but swimming…well let’s just say don’t look for me where all the fast fish are swimming.  Swimming was my broccoli.

So following some of the tips we’ve already talked about, I did it first thing in the morning on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.  The alarm would go off at 4:45 (that’s the CUE), and by 5:30 I was first one in the pool and putting in my laps (the ROUTINE), after which I got a free cup of coffee on the way out the door (the REWARD).

I took a break from racing triathlon, but six months after I stopped racing, I was still going to the pool three mornings a week.  The habit of swimming had become so deeply ingrained that even when the need to train in the pool went away, I was still putting in those laps.

Habit Cycle – The Takeaway

Establishing good habits can be a very powerful way to keep you on track towards your goal.  If you think in terms of the Cue/Routine/Reward loop, and develop patterns your brain can do on auto-pilot, you remove the decision from the process, and you just automatically start to do the right thing.  How cool is that?

Right now, go ahead and grab that work book and add in your notes, then answer the exercise questions to see how you can make habit a part of your goal getting plan.

When you’re done, I’ll meet you back here, where we’ll switch the focus from what we’re thinking about to what other people are thinking, and how that can drive us towards amazing accomplishment.

Achieve Your Goals

IGoal-Getting Coursef you want to achieve that goal you have always dreamed about, you need to establish positive habits that stick, and build a framework that will keep you motivated and moving forward.  It’s a challenging business, but with the right tools, you can make it happen.

For more free video previews and tips on how to make your goal a reality, be sure to check out this Goal-Getting Course to help you get on track and stay on track towards achieving your goals.

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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