At this week’s Habit Summit in San Francisco, I talked about the role of engagement in creating new habits. I called my talk “Highway to the Habit Zone” not just to reference Kenny Loggins, but to emphasize that if you don’t engage people in an experience, they won’t experience enough repeated exposure to the cue-response-reward cycle to truly develop a habit.
In everyday language, we refer to anything we do regularly without really thinking about it as a habit. In a more academic sense, a habit is reflexive, something that is done truly outside of conscious decision-making or awareness. In the behaviorist perspective, habits happen when we are repeatedly exposed to a stimulus that evokes a consistent response, and that response is somehow rewarded.
In thinking about behavior change, I’d say we tend to apply the word “habit” somewhere between the two extremes of the loose colloquial use and the stringent academic one. Habits, for my purpose, are those behaviors that we repeat regularly based on some kind of cue without really making a conscious decision to do so.
Forming habits, in my sense of the word, can benefit goal-directed behavior changes by offloading some percentage of behaviors from conscious awareness. Rather than having to consciously decide whether or not to eat the healthy breakfast, you automatically reach for the high-fiber low-fat oatmeal because that’s just what you eat every day. Saturday mornings are for spin class, and sitting at your desk is for focusing on your writing. Making these behaviors habits–removing a decision point at which a less beneficial decision could be made–removes an opportunity for failure.
So how do these kinds of habits develop? I argue that many times, creating an engaging experience is key to having this happen. I think of it like a gear that keeps people involved in the habit cycle long enough for them to internalize the cue-response-reward sequence:
It comes down to: If someone isn’t engaged enough to learn the connection between triggers, actions, and rewards, then the actions will never become habitual responses to the triggers. Even if your goal is to get people to perform a set of behaviors without thinking about it–to get them to form habits–it’s still important to craft a satisfying and compelling experience to get them there.