Habits - Trigger, behaviour, reward

Sports Psychology, August 14, 2017

These are my notes on an interview conducted by Michael Gervais (World leading Sports Psychologist) with Dr. Judson Brewer on Habits. Dr. Brewer is the director of research at the Centre of Mindfulness and associate professor in Medicine and Psychiatry at UMass Medical school. He is also adjunct facility at Yale University, and a research affiliate at MIT.

All therapists and coaches want to build "facilitative" habits. These move people towards the best version of themselves. 

Habits are formed with the basic building blocks of trigger, behaviour, and reward/outcome. E.g - we see many cupcakes (trigger), we eat many cupcakes (behaviour), feeling a little better when feeling down (short term reward), feeling sick and guilty later (long term outcome)


The first step is seeing how the healthy or unhealthy habit is formed, then focussing on the results of actions and having a clear understanding of it.

The second step is unpacking what you get as a reward. Seeing it clearly as the reward will guide behaviour. E.g If I have 5 cupcakes I feel good for a short period of time, but then I'm left with an achy stomach and the main feeling I'm left with is guilt. It's not beneficial just to focus on the behaviour and say "Just don't eat 5 cupcakes". We can say DON'T only so many times and the pre-frontal cortex in the brain gets tired, and you zone out.


HALT - hungry, angry, lonely, tired

These are states when our pre-frontal cortex goes "offline". Basically, when we are stressed out our pre-frontal cortex doesn't work. So if we just rely on the basic "DON'T do this" on bad habits when you are in a stressed state it won't work when you are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired as the part of the brain that takes this info is asleep. We need to focus on the rewards or outcome (B.F Skinner - American psychologist and behaviourist : reinforced this with his "operant conditioning" approach - he believed the best way to understand behaviour is to look at the consequences of actions) as rewards guide behaviour


If we want to change a bad habit (eating cupcakes) don't just ignore it by putting your head in the sand and hope it will go away - have a good look at it.  So if the trigger is stress, and the behaviour is eating cupcakes, and the reward is feeling a little bit better we can then take the same trigger - stress and really "dig deep" into the behaviour of reaching for the cupcake (don't just block it out). Get curious, what does that urge feel like -tightness, tension, restlessness, mouth watering. Then flipping the reward from a quick fix dopamine hit (contracted, short term) to a JOY of letting that go (expansive, long term). You aren't getting caught up in that short term stress response.  As it's been shown that you are less likely to get caught up in that craving if you observe it. Looking to move from short term pleasure being the reward to joy and long term happiness. Tap into the reward to redefine your behaviour

How long does it take for a new habit to form varies depending on how deep the ingrained (how cemented) behaviour is, and how many layers of our own storyline we have layered on top. 


External reward and internal rewards

External rewards need to shift towards internal to get lasting change as you can't control the external factors. The expanded quality of experience HAS to be internal; we can't get it externally. 
Many people are externally motivated. It can help to work on this lever in the first instance to help shift them towards internal reflection as the internal drivers are far more likely to cement long term change. For many people working on the external factors is tapping into their "world view" or "core beliefs". For instance if someone speaks French you won't get far by not speaking in their language. So you might have to speak about external reward and then ask them how that feels to shift into the internal. If you are always chasing external validation you will never find happiness or true purpose or be complete. In buddist terminology it is named "samsara" or "endless wandering" as our minds will become habituated to getting MORE. Where intrinsic motivation is a different motivation.



FREE PDF download - The craving mind : From cigarettes to smartphones to Love - Why we get hooked and how we can break BAD habits by Judson Brewer.


Eat Right Now App - This is a daily programme based on mindfulness, backed by science with step by step guidance.  Your struggles with food are deeper than any "diet". Discover what triggers your cravings and undermines your best intentions.  Learn to feel comfortable in your own body again. This has been developed from over 10 years of research by addiction psychiatrist Dr. Judson Brewer and it has been shown to work in clinical trials.