There are three basic ingredients for making a habit: a cue, a routine, and a reward. Behavioral science calls these three parts the Antecedent Stimulus, Behavior, and Consequence — the “ABCs” of my title. But cue, routine, and reward work too, and can be read about at greater length via links like this.
It’s really just a way of describing how all of us learn through experience, and how our brains are predisposed to look for patterns in the world around us. Once a particular behavior is found to be rewarding is some way, we tend to want to repeat it, and our brains seek out clues for the right time to perform the same routine for maximum reward. A habit that gets repeated often enough simply becomes automatic. Works great when we end up with a productive habit, but the same mechanism kicks in to make unproductive habits harder to change than we’d like.
That’s why wine o’clock is such a challenge. The circumstances of my day provide cues that it’s time for me to perform my drinking routine (pour, drink, repeat!). In my case, like with most of us, there isn’t just a single cue. There are many: the time of day, my arrival home, the arrival home of my partner, dinner preparation, eating, sitting down on the couch, and more. And there are physical/emotional cues too, like hunger, tiredness, and so forth. All of those cues tell me that it’s time to drink…which is to say, they trigger drinking urges. The fact that I practiced my drinking routine over more than a decade means this particular habit loop has worn a pretty deep groove in my brain.
Habit loops seem far too simplistic to really explain complex human behavior (and they are — when it comes to how we learn, and how our brains work, this is a ridiculously tiny fraction). When I started trying to moderate, tools like counting, delaying, and urge-surfing seemed appallingly simplistic too. They really are. But, as with anything complicated, if we start by learning the basic building blocks, we can eventually build increasingly complex structures. We might start by painfully practicing our ABCs, and later find ourselves capable of writing entire paragraphs and pages.
Changing habits is the subject of books, articles, websites, podcasts, TED talks, and more, and even with all those different sources of advice, most of us struggle with it. I certainly do, anyway, despite the fact that I’m reasonably familiar with Behavioral Science 101 (and, for the record, I don’t think anyone has to be familiar with this stuff to effectively change their behavior). It’s one thing to have a broad understanding of what’s going on, entirely another to be able to reach into our own lives and start deconstructing triggers, constructing alternate behaviors, and changing our habit loops for good. But it does help, I think, to at least understand that behavior can be changed. Our behavior is the product of our learned experience, and as long as we are alive, we’re learning. To me, that’s a pretty good reason for optimism.