Your brain loves to make life easy. So it hard-wires your frequent actions and thoughts into habits. That saves you time when performing everyday routines. But it makes it difficult to replace habits you know aren’t helpful, like overreacting in certain situations or fighting every change.

Research has shown every habit has a three-part “loop.” First is a cue or trigger that tells your brain which habit to activate. Next is your routine, what you do or think. Last is the reward, the payoff that reinforces the habit.

When a loop is repeated it “becomes more and more automatic,” Charles Duhigg writes in The Power of Habit. “The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges.”

Cues and rewards
The first step in changing a habit is to define your routine. As an example let’s use a routine Duhigg wanted to change: Walking from his desk to the cafeteria every afternoon, buying a cookie and eating it while visiting coworkers.

Step two is to identify the reward. Was it the cookie? Taking a break from work? Visiting with coworkers? Duhigg experimented with new routines, buying a donut instead of a cookie or talking to coworkers without going to the cafeteria. Fifteen minutes after getting back to his desk, he would ask himself if he still wanted the cookie. If he did after eating a donut, he says, it wasn’t the sugar he wanted. Ultimately he determined what really drove his habit was visiting with coworkers.   

Next is to “isolate” your cue. Duhigg says nearly all cues fit one of these categories: Where am I? What time is it? What is my emotional state? Who is with me? What action preceded the desire? Answer these questions when the urge strikes, then look for patterns. When he answered these questions over several days, Duhigg found the most consistent trigger for his habit was time of day.

Once you identify your loop, create a replacement plan with a new cue, routine and reward. To replace his cookie compulsion Duhigg chose: “At 3:30 every day, I will walk to a friend’s desk and talk for 10 minutes.” Initially he set an alarm to activate his cue but over time it became automatic.

A new habit sticks when the cue triggers a strong craving. Thats why, when establishing a replacement loop, it’s important to anticipate and celebrate your reward.

Learning to Be There
Replacing unhelpful habits can help you be more effective and adjust to change. It can also help you build relationships through The FISH! Philosophy. Let’s look at a habit that often gets in the way of Be There: When people talk to you, your phone signals you have a message and you become distracted.

First let’s examine your reward. Are you waiting for news you must know immediately? Is it a general desire to know the latest? Is it the fear you might miss something important about work? It’s probably not just wanting to hear good news, since not every message is likely to be positive.

Now let’s isolate your cue. This seems obvious—when your phone or computer sounds off. But your cue could actually be when someone starts talking to you; when that happens are you fully present until your phone rings or do you find yourself looking at it and anticipating when it might ring?

Once you know the answer, you can design your new loop. Deciding not to answer the phone might not be enough; you’ll still be distracted. A more effective loop may be: When someone wants to talk to me (cue) I will turn off my phone or computer (routine) so I can Be There and hear they what are saying (reward).

It’s vital that this reward—being present—is satisfying enough to trigger your cue and routine. Otherwise you will continue to crave the reward of checking your phone and be distracted. Think about how much more you will learn by listening and how good the other person feels because you were there for them. If they thank you for setting aside your phone, soak it in. Tell yourself, “I did a good job by being there.”

And you can celebrate by treating yourself to a cookie from the cafeteria.