Building habits isn’t easy, but they can make even the most tedious task easier to bear — especially at work, where your day might be filled with repetitive, tedious, or mundane activities that could easily be carried out by an aardvark with a keyboard. How can you hack your brain to build a better habit loop at work?
Habits Start in the Basal Ganglia
Building habits isn’t just about repeating the same action over and over again until it becomes second nature. What you’re doing when you’re building a habit is reprogramming your brain. When you carry out a new action for the first time, the thinking part of your brain — also known as the cerebral cortex — activates. Your brain has to figure out the best way to do something new, and that requires active thought.
As it becomes a habit, your cerebral cortex starts to take a backseat to another part of the brain, known as the basal ganglia.
Scientists have observed this behavior in mice when they’ve been introduced to a new maze. In the beginning, their cerebral cortexes are active while they figure out the maze. As they continue to explore the same maze, however, the cerebral cortex takes a backseat and the basal ganglia go into overdrive.
What you’re doing when you’re making habits is actively reprogramming your brain to use your basal ganglia instead of your cerebral cortex. The only downside of this is that once a habit — good or bad — makes its way into your basal ganglia, it’s there for good.
You can create more powerful good habits to override the bad ones — like exercising whenever you get the urge to light up a cigarette — but those bad habits will always be there, looking for the cues to trigger them. That’s where habit loops come in.
What Is the Habit Loop?
Following a habit loop helps you build new habits, but what does the phrase mean?
A habit loop refers to the phases that help you to reprogram your brain and turn a task into something that you can do on autopilot. It’s broken into four parts: the cue, the craving, the response, and the reward.
The cue can be anything from the time of day to your emotional state. Bad habits tend to be triggered by a person’s emotional state — reaching for a cigarette after a stressful day at work, or eating poorly when they’re depressed.
The next phase is the craving. What does that cue make you want to do?
Phase three is the response. Do you give in to the craving and strengthen a bad habit, or carry out a task to build a good one? This leads to the reward. When you check your phone at your desk, for example, the reward may be the break from the monotony of your workday.
This sounds fairly complicated, but it’s something that we do unconsciously. Until you recognize the loop for what it is, you can’t build one that will serve you.
Building a Habit Loop at Work
What tasks do you do every day that could be handled by your basal ganglia? You might not be able to respond to emails on autopilot, but setting up your workstation, receiving your assignments for the day and other mundane tasks can be delegated away from your cerebral cortex.
Start with a simple habit, like organizing your workspace every morning. This doesn’t just get you in the right mindset for work, it can help keep your stress levels down. Chronic stress caused by disorganization can negatively affect your physical, mental, and emotional health and make it harder to buckle down and get to the task at hand.
Break down that habit into the four phases. First, the cue, which would be the beginning of your work shift. Your craving is for a clean workspace, so you take a few minutes to organize everything. Your reward is also a clean workspace, and the serotonin that your brain releases as a reward for a job well done.
If you do this every morning for a few weeks, you’ll find that you don’t have to think about it anymore. That means that you’re on autopilot and your basal ganglia have taken over. Congratulations — you’ve just created your first habit loop.
Now you can take what you’ve learned and applied it to other aspects of your workday and your life.
Hacking Your Habit Loop
Of course, we experience this habit loop for bad habits as well as good ones. That’s where hacking the habit loop comes in — and don’t worry, you don’t need any programming experience for this sort of hack.
The trick goes back to the four phases of the loop — cue, craving, response, reward. To hack your loop, you need to change the response. Everything else, from the cue to the craving and the reward, stays the same. Start small, even ridiculously small.
If you want to start flossing every day, start by flossing one tooth. If you want to stop eating junk food when you’re bored, change your response when you feel that hunger cue — nibble on grapes or other sweet fruit when you’re craving a chocolate bar.
Hacking your habits will take as long, or even longer, than building new ones because those cues and responses have become so ingrained in your psyche.
How Long Does It Take to Replace Negative Habits with Positive Ones?
Now you know how to replace an old, negative habit with a positive one using the loop. And you can rest assured knowing that eventually, the neural pathways we no longer use tend to atrophy — meaning as time passes, automatically reaching for our healthy habit becomes routine, and negative patterns diminish.
But if they don’t disappear, how long will it take for things to get easier? Will willpower always play a role? How long does it take to transform the cerebral cortex?
Conventional wisdom taught us it took anywhere from 21 to 28 days to replace an old habit with a new one. However, recent research indicates it may take much longer.
A recent study published in The European Journal of Social Psychology indicates it takes 66 days on average to form a new habit. However, in the 96 individuals polled, the time varied from 18 to 235 days until the new routine stuck.
In short, how long it takes for your new habit loop to feel more natural may take less time than thought, or it could take much more. Your habit loop is as unique as your fingerprint — so, instead of despairing, celebrate your efforts toward progress. After all, whether you begin building a new habit loop today or next week, the sooner you embark, the sooner you finish.
Don’t Give Up
The best advice we can offer is this: don’t give up. Creating new habit loops and hacking old ones is hard to do even on the best of days. It’s not something that will happen overnight, but making those changes to your brain’s pathways can help you live a happier, healthier, and more organized life.
Start small and work on those changes first — and don’t forget to reward yourself along the way. If you make a good choice, you deserve a treat.
Creating a habit loop might seem like it’s more trouble than it’s worth, but when it comes down to it, we’re all caught up in these loops.
At least this way you can recognize what is triggering each of your habit actions, and figure out how to proactively change them rather than reacting to them.
While it may be hard to resist the impulse to check your phone or inbox throughout your workday at first, slow progress can help you tackle your unproductive habits.
Learn to identify your cues and triggers and you might be surprised by how much better your workflow becomes.