Note: I made up the following story. It does not reflect the ordeals of any real people, nor does it describe actual events. However, the general premise is taken from actual case studies, research, and medical journals from the 2009-2010 timeframe, as well as the excellent book The Power of Habit – Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg. This parable is merely a manifestation of the premises and ideas found therein. Hope you enjoy!

Here’s the parable:

Enter Doug.

Doug, a 45-year-old caseworker for the State of Delaware, had been trying to lose weight for most of his adult life.

He’d tried just about everything under the sun–diets, workouts, even therapy. At almost 300 pounds, he certainly wasn’t in immediate danger of heart failure or morbid obesity, but those were certainly stops along his current path.

He knew he needed to change, but nothing worked. Everything he tried seemed to go against his natural-born instincts, and he would ultimately fail.

Enter psychology. 

One day, Doug visited an institute that was starting a new research study, funded by the National Institutes of Health. He promptly signed up (“what do I have to lose?”) and after signing a large stack of disclaimers and waivers, was given one single task:

One day a week, the entire day, write down everything you eat.

Nothing more, nothing less.

At first dumbstruck, Doug decided to give it a shot. It was hard at first–and weird–to keep track of everything. He’d never been one to keep a journal, so he tried to list off all of the day’s food items just before bed.

Pretty soon, he got the hang of it. He carried around a small spiral notebook and wrote down every soda he drank (he long ago had started drinking only diet–whatever good that did), every trip to the snack machine, and every “quick bite” he’d grab for his three on-the-road daily meals.

After a few weeks, it was almost easy. He’d even plan out the meals he was going to eat at the beginning of the workday, writing down “McDonalds” or “Chipotle” before he’d clock out for lunch.

But he didn’t lose weight.

Even though he’d been told to keep the journal for at least two months, he knew after a month tracking his meals that he wasn’t actually losing any weight–the experiment, like all the others in a long line of trials, was a failure.

He did, however, notice that he could now predict when he’d be craving a certain food item each day. To be sure, he started tracking both Monday and Wednesday, then at least four days out of the week. A sample result for a normal Thursday might look like this:

  • 7:30 – McDonalds Egg McMuffin w/ coffee (on the way to work)
  • 8:15 – Candy bar or chips from the vending machine (before heading into the morning meeting)
  • 11:40 – Ordered Chinese takeout (for the afternoon department update meeting)
  • 3:15 – Another snack (Snickers and Twix bars; afternoon “pick-me-up”)
  • 5:45 – Piece of leftover cake when I got home
  • 7:30 – Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green-bean casserole (dinner w/ family)

Sure, the items he was eating weren’t the best in the world–but he had already tried to replace the high-fat meals with Lean Cuisines and the candy bars with fruits. Nothing worked.

Monthly check-in.

Doug was surprised when he went in for his check-in at the research center. The doctor asked him how things had been going, and he said, basically, it was a failure–he’d actually gained four pounds.

The doctor wrote down something on a clipboard and asked, “Well, Doug, I’m sorry to hear that. Talk to me about the journal though–when you write something down, do you notice any recurring themes, like what time of the day you’re snacking?”

Doug knew the answer to this–he’d seen it firsthand in his little notebook. “Sure. I have basically the same routine every day, at least during the week. I grab a quick breakfast in the car, then a snack before my first meeting. Lunch is usually out of the office, and then I snack throughout the afternoon.”

The doctor said little more, but asked Doug to continue journaling his food log, this time trying to do it every day.

Cue the habit loop.

Tracking his diet every day was a cinch–he was already doing four days a week. But when this, too, became routine for him, he noticed something peculiar:

He was finding habits in his daily routine he didn’t know existed.

Rather than just grabbing a snack before going into his morning meeting, he noticed that he was actually grabbing a snack almost every time he went to the restroom.

Since the restroom was right next to the vending machines, he’d pass it and the subconscious cravings for sugary snacks would set in.

His meals on-the-go were fast food because he usually woke up after his wife. She would eat a bagel while getting the kids ready for school, he would shower, and they would leave. He didn’t like to eat alone at home–he could be getting work done if he was in the office anyway.

He started to recognize these habitual eating rituals in almost everything–for every food item he ate, he could now see what had “cued” this response.

And then he started losing weight.

Doug kept tracking his food items–outwardly, he didn’t try to “diet.” Instead, he tried to replace the middle section of his habits–the eating part with something different. The cues (triggers) and rewards stayed the same:

  • Cue/trigger: going to the restroom, and walking by the vending machine.
  • Routine: instead of grabbing a snack, he kept a bag of animal crackers in his pocket and ate one or two when he walked by the vending machine.
  • Reward: surprisingly, the reward–feeling satisfied; satiated–was still there.

By focusing on replacing the central, routine segment of his daily habits–leaving the cues and rewards intact–he was able to change his overall diet for the better.

He hated the idea of eating at home after his family left for the day, so he just woke up and took a shower first–giving him time to eat breakfast with his kids and wife.

After two weeks of habitually tracking, every day, his food intake, he had lost almost fifteen pounds. Within another month, thirty.

By focusing on setting a “keystone habit”–a habit Duhigg describes as “a habit that has the power to start a chain reaction, changing other habits as it moves through an organization.

My fictitious character, Doug, set a keystone habit–writing down and tracking, every day, his food intake. The results were that he was able to clearly see other cues, routines, and rewards–habits–in his daily life, as they pertained to food.

What’s the point?

Obviously, using a fake example of a man struggling with his weight has much less impact than if I were say that by focusing on habits and reconstructing their routines, I was able to lose over fifteen pounds in 30 days–without working out.

Since it does have more impact, though, I’ll say it again:

I lost 15.5 pounds in 30 days–without lifting a weight, running, or any other strenuous exercise.

And I did it by focusing on habits. 

Now, let me be clear: I participated in a 30-day fast from most food items. It was difficult, challenging, and very rewarding. You can read more about my experience in these posts:

Suffice it to say–changing habits works. I’ve experienced it first hand, when I first started studying music, when I first started working out, and when I began blogging.

If you want to really change your life (and change the world in the process), start looking at your habits, deconstructing them, and building new ones.

Here’s how to do it.

I’m all about actionable, usable advice, so I’ll include here a few key steps you’ll need to focus on in order to get the most out of setting habits.

Focus on “keystone” habits. Your daily rituals can be shifted, changed, and altered, but the best way to focus on one particular habit you’d like to change is to build a keystone habit by measuring it.

Let’s say you bite your nails. A great way to get out of the habit of biting your nails isn’t to rub hot sauce on your fingertips, use bandages to cover the area, or other methods. Instead, try keeping an index card with you throughout the day, and placing a single checkmark on it every time you bite your nails.

This routine will quickly become a habit. And notice, too, that the cue-routine-reward loop hasn’t changed–the “routine” has just been replaced instead:

  • Cue: The desire to bite your nails (caused by stress, wanting something to do, whatever)
  • Routine: Instead of biting your nails and carrying on about your day, you now must tally it up on the card.
  • Reward: The reward of biting your nails (less stress, anxiety, whatever) is still there.

After this becomes a habit, add one more step: start adding dashes (“–“) whenever you think about biting your nails, but don’t. Now, the cue-routine-reward loop looks like this:

  • Cue: Desire to bite your nails ensues.
  • Routine: Instead of biting your nails, you actively remember your task and mark a dash on the index card.
  • Reward: You’ve given yourself the small satisfaction that biting your nails once provided–without needing to bite them.

See how this works?

Once you understand how the cue-routine-reward loop works, you can substitute any habit, good or bad, and break it down into its key components.

Start with a list.

Like my fictitious friend Doug, setting habits often starts with writing a list (there are numerous studies out there already about why you really should write out the list, rather than try to keep it in your head or even on a computer, but I’ll let you discover those).

I like lists. They’re simple to keep, simple to manage, and simple to understand. I can see at-a-glance where I’ve succeeded, failed, or not done anything at all, and therein lies their power.

Lists let you focus on keystone habit-creation:

Getting to a point where keeping track becomes routine.

Use the keystone habit of list-writing to track your miles jogged, words written, blog posts commented on, or anything else that might be helpful in creating more habits down the road.

Like I mentioned earlier, I used habits to lose a lot of weight in a short amount of time. Sure, there are better, more effective methods, but I did this for reasons other than just trying to look awesome. Specifically, I created keystone habits around my eating schedule and the items I usually ate:

  • First, I set a list of the only items I would eat (there were seven items on it, based on this book’s premise).
  • Second, I figured out what times of day I was vulnerable to cravings (lunchtime and just before bed).
  • Third, I set up little helpers throughout the day. Apples were on my list, so I made sure apples were close at hand during “snack” times at work.

Altogether, these things helped me figure out my real eating habits. Only once I discovered my natural inclinations toward eating could I really change the cue-routine-reward loop.

And it worked. After a few weeks’ time and visiting every stop along the spectrum of human emotions, I made eating my seven food items a habit–and the pounds fell off.

Since it was a fast, I was also able to make my personal, one-on-one dealings with God more a part of my daily ritual.

Other examples.

There’s a good chance that if you’re reading this page, you’re a writer in some way. Maybe you run a blog, are writing a book, or have to churn out reports for a job. Either way, you can certainly put this habit loop research into practice.

Let’s say you need to hit a certain amount of words each day. You could try using motivational tactics, productivity boosters, or other schemes to “trick” your mind into wanting to write each and every day.

Or, you could build a habit loop around writing.

Or about getting a certain amount of required reading done.

Or about checking in with your emails–only twice a day.

The sky’s the limit.

Seriously, take it from someone who’s built habits the easy way–by using the cue-routine-reward loop–and the hard way. You can “reprogram” your brain in amazing ways, and it’s all possible through the use of habits.

Leave a comment below, and let me know what kinds of habits you’re working to build, or have built in the past. Try to break them down into the respective cue-routine-reward loops if you can.