the ABCs of habits

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.





2 thoughts on “the ABCs of habits”

  1. I like the concept of cue, routine and reward. I’ve done well to change the reading of the cues. I don’t crave wine anymore just because it’s 5 o’clock and I’ve changed the routine to sparkling drinks. I’m not sure what my reward is for doing so other than feeling better the next day. Yours? But I still have the cue of stress and how I react to it. I think I am going to take another long break and reevaluate in awhile. The first time I quit I just ignored the stress because I was in the throes of quitting. I had that 100 day goal so vivid in my view. This time, during a break, I want to sit with my stress more and try to deal with it, acknowledge what I am feeling, find other ways of dealing with it. Wish me luck! Then, I’m hopeful that once I tackle developing coping mechanisms, that the next time around I might be able to moderate lightly, not daily, but for enjoyment, not need.


    1. I am definitely wishing you luck! But also, I think strength, determination, and thoughtfulness count more than luck, and you’ve got those things in spades. A break is a wonderful opportunity to clear your head and figure out the stress component.

      Re: rewards, it’s such a tricky topic that I have about a dozen started-and-never-finished posts about it. A good reward is a timely one (meaning it actually has to follow the routine pretty promptly). So anticipating a good morning could help, if we can summon up that feeling of anticipation at the right time. Or if I can concentrate on feeling proud, that is a huge reward.

      Summoning up feelings at just the right moment is hard, but if I wait until evening and then write a blog post, or post a “success story” on the MM forum, or just tell my partner, I find it really concentrates my feelings. My partner has learned (because I explained it to him!) to chime in with lots of sincere praise of his own.

      I’ve also used my Abstar row (which is the website where I count my drinks) as a reward system. It probably sounds dumb, I know, but entering a zero gives me a real boost, even now. I feel good about the ones and twos too. I make sure to wait until the evening has mostly passed, so it’s coming after my new routine, and then I log in my count, and it feels surprisingly motivational.

      But it’s hard to figure out, because for most of us (well, for me anyway), there isn’t one triumphant moment each evening. Back when my evenings were a big struggle, it was more like moment after moment of half-hearted success (and now, it’s more like just normal evenings, most of the time, so what am I rewarding, exactly). I think success starts to be its own reward, eventually, if we keep celebrating it, but it’s definitely tough at first.

      I’ll try to finish at least one of the reward posts, since this comment keeps posting itself and may or may not make sense after I manage to edit it. There’s a lot we can do, I think, it’s just that it doesn’t always feel natural at first.

      Liked by 1 person

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