Discovering the Reward for Your Habit

When we discussed habits previously, we learned they are composed of a cue (trigger), routine, and reward. Though the routine is the part we think about, it is really the reward which drives us to do the bad habit.


So what is your reward?

It is what you hope to receive as the result of your routine. You need to discover your reward to stand a good chance of changing your behavior. This drives the habit in the first place.

Let’s look at an example.

A young woman moves to a new city and is spending a ton of money on food and entertainment. She can’t afford this lifestyle and she knows it.

Determine the cue, the routine, and the reward. Where does overspending fit in?

Since something else likely triggers the desire to spend money, it is not the cue. We don’t fully understand the reward yet, so we can’t know the cue. Let’s leave the cue for last.

Overspending might not be the reward either, since there may be an ulterior motive behind this behavior.

Overspending, in this example, is the routine — the bad habit which she wants to change. It may help to think of the routine as a symptom of the root problem, the reward.

So what is her reward? This gets tricky.

Some digging reveals she is very lonely in the new city. She finds herself alone in her apartment too often and doesn’t have any friends yet. So she goes out for dinner and a show to be around people.

The cue, then, might be seeing a couple hold hands on the sidewalk or walking by a restaurant full of people.

Did you catch that?

Overspending is not the problem! The routine is the path to a reward. In this case, it is social interaction. Her desire for relationships (the reward) leads her to overspend (the routine).

Instead, she could use loneliness (the cue) as a reminder to call an old friend or join a club which shares her interests. And this will lead her to satisfy her desire (craving) for social interaction.

Does that make sense?

Changing a habit will be difficult without understanding your reward. Otherwise, it is easy to get stuck on the routine and miss the desire behind it.

Once you understand the reward, you have more leverage to change the habit.

For extra credit, read this article by Charles Duhigg. His example explains this concept further.

Think of a specific habit you have. What is the reward you are looking for?