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The Habit Cycle: Cue-Action-Reward-Cue-ReplacedAction-Reward


By Diane Gold

In the past several weeks, I’ve been talking about and looking at habits, reading about them, examining my own. There are so many different factors, but there seems to be one common cycle.

The Habit Cycle


We get a CUE.

It can be visual such as the photo of an apple pie to a dessert hound.

It can be olfactory where we walk into a bar, smell a whole array of alcohol tonics and can’t resist them.

There are so many cues that result in habitual action. Anything can set off someone who gambles to excess to create gambling by saying,

“I’ll bet you $10 that it won’t rain today.”


I was reading about a nail biter and how examining the cue and looking at the reward might help with the habit of biting. Then I realized that I bite my nails, not as much as I used to. But I do, from time to time. I have still not identified the cue, that is, what signals me to execute my nail behavior; but it has something to do with working. As I begin to concentrate on work, I am driven to start to bring my hands to my mouth. I have been able not to bite my nails because I am enjoying the control of not biting, because I examined the behavior and because I was rather surprised that I hadn’t counted this behavior in my list of negative habits.

The REWARD for this nail biting was that I like the feel of biting. Or maybe it is a soothing behavior. I am not sure yet. My NEW REWARD, though, is laughing at myself because I am controlling this behavior. The reason I can do this is because I have lots of experience with changing habits. And I have learned to replace the bad ones with good ones. They are all still there, just waiting for the right cue.


Take a look at what you do that is in excess and that you want to change. Look for the cue that starts your craving feeling. Look at the reward that makes you feel euphoric. Tell someone about your self-examination, and say that you BELIEVE IN YOURSELF and commit to successfully being a different way – out loud. Go do the different behavior every time you get the cue. Even if you can’t figure out the exact cue, which I can’t with the nails, whenever you find yourself craving, keep looking at it as you do your new activity.

The explanation will show up. While you’re looking, though, doing what’s new will replace the trigger activity and become the new habit.

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I am still reading Charles Duhigg’s The Power Of Habit. He mentions all the research about the fact that a habit doesn’t go away when we replace it. It’s easy to see this when people go back to old habits under pressure or lost focus. Have you experienced this?

If you can’t imagine addiction or being out of control with some habit, I am going to describe an allergic, physiological behavior to make a point about being out of control.

Imagine getting poison ivy with its toxic oil. The urushiol oil binds to the under layer of skin and stays there for 2 to 4 weeks. It affects 80% of people who come into contact with it.

After getting poison ivy many times in New York, I thought I was free of it when I moved to Florida. Ha! Little did I know that the precious mango tree that hung over the fence was loaded with the very same toxin. Cashew and pistachio, too, but I haven’t come into contact with those.

So we get a cue. The itch. We take action: we scratch and scratch. This behavior is not addiction, but it demonstrates how we can be out of control and the driver is similar. It is also not an antisocial behavior, so we are not stigmatized if we scratch. Everybody does it, across the social, ethnic and self-control lines. It illustrates being driven in ways very hard to control.

When I come into contact with the air that is near the powerful poison ivy plant, or if I touch the plant by accident, I break out into a rash and am doomed for a few weeks. I came up with a strategy for not scratching which is parallel to my strategy for controlling self-destructive habits. First, there will be a small little itch. When I get an itch on the wide part of my arms or my hands or feet; this is a cue for me to examine the area to see whether I have exposed myself to urushiol. It used to be the cue to scratch, but I know the feeling so well that I control it and determine whether it is the dreaded poison.

Bandaged LeafFor years, I have been covering the dermatitis rash with bandages. This was for 2 reasons: 1) to keep the rash from spreading when the blisters broke and 2) to keep me from scratching it.

I just found out tonight that covering the area protected it from infection and scratching only, but that we can’t spread the rash on our own bodies, are not contagious once we are rashing and the blisters contain our own immune response to the oil and not the oil, itself.

So the bandages themselves created a new cue for me, even though I had them on for the wrong reason. Every time I touched the bandage, I remembered not to itch. I replaced my bad habit with another cue (the bandage) which led me to a good habit , not scratching. The reward? Not hurting myself with scratching.


Admitting there is a cue is really important, even if you are still in the dark about it, as I am about the nails. But taking the time to examine behavior with no defense is a good thing. Defense only prolongs the bad habit. Examining it starts a new cycle with a new behavior.

Confident WomanThe belief part of the equation comes from inside. We need to believe in ourselves to get the job done because we must be strong enough to remember our self-examination. Statistics say this is done in a group, even if it is a group of 2.


So, whether you call someone a sponsor, an accountability partner, a friend, a mentor, a coach or a consultant; go tell someone about what you are self-examining and what direction you want to take with your habit.

Almost anyone will listen and be interested. So don’t use having no one to talk with as an excuse. Find an ear and talk about your behavior out loud. Whether it’s Weight Watchers’ or Overeater’s Anonymous, or just that one other person, get your story written by telling someone today.

See your cue. Talk about your cue. Talk about what it makes you want to do. Talk about the reward when you follow your old pattern. And pick a new activity for the old cue that brings the same or similar reward.

Good luck to all of us!

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Diane Gold, Founder of Warriors of Weight, Moms For Healthy Daughters, is a mentor in tai chi, kung fu and meditation, a music, fitness and stress expert and a dedicated mom.
She is fascinated by the habit process. These are such strong pathways that are branded into us, difficult to change, and requiring our focus. Diane says,

“We are very powerful, we humans. We have the ability to set and reach tremendous goals. These are achieved, for the most part, by will power. When we climb a mountain, it is more with our mind than our body. Just the same, when we change a part of ourselves, we are, in essence, climbing the mountain of our own strength. Give yourself the benefit of the doubt. Keep going for one more minute. That minute will make the change. ”

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Anatomy Of A Habit: 10 Excuses That No Longer Work. Or Do They?


By Diane Gold

A habit is a fascinating little “acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it becomes almost involuntary,” according to the dictionary from (owned by InterActive Corp., new owner of, bought from The New York Times last week. Understanding the credentials of the dictionary I am using somewhat helps me evaluate the definition I am putting to print).

Since this definition of “habit” correlates well with Charles Duhigg’s The Power Of Habit, which I am reading, I am satisfied that it is a good representation of what a habit is.

GorillaSince I am about to speak on animal experiments, let me say that I applaud any research that does not involve the use of animals (gorillas already have rights) , that any animal should have the right to live a leisurely life in a posh facility as a reward if s/he has donated her time to human science;
computer simulation or sculpture as education should be used instead of working with animals; and any facility that uses animals should have a mandatory residence with services and staff for aged-out animals that has been paid for up front in case the facility loses funding. Now on with the article.

Mouse mazeIn Charles Duhigg’s book, cited above, he talks about experiments done by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, where they studied habits using mice. They gave the mice a cue  – which is the first of the three-part make-up of a habit – and, thus, created a habit. When the mice had learned to successfully respond to the cue, in this case, pull a lever, they were rewarded with food. This went on until it was quite routine for the cue, the action (the second part in the habit cycle) and the reward (the 3rd piece of the cycle).

Phase 2 in the study involved poisoning the food so that the mice got sick upon eating it. The floor that led to the food was also electrified, causing a shock to the mice if they walked on it. They stopped going for the food and walking on the floor. Until they were shown their cue again. Then, automatically, because the habit was so ingrained in them, they walked on the floor, got shocked, ate the poisoned food and vomited.

This behavior is so common in humans, and we now know it is the pathways in our brain that get embedded with habits, not all the environmental stuff we always blame. When we feel the rise of a particular hormone in our bodies, this is our cue. We begin craving whatever it is we have trained ourselves to crave. We have two choices. Go get the reward we have trained ourselves to get, or go do something that will replace the old reward. Yes, we can create new habits, but we have to begin doing just that.

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Duhigg, in his The Power of Habit writes an accounting of Wolfram Schultz, a neuroscience professor who worked with macaques. Using the same cue, acquired action, reward system; Schultz taught Julio, an 8-pound macaque, to touch a lever when he saw a particular cue.

MacaqueFor this action, he would get a reward of juice. After repeating this cycle – cue, acquired action (Duhigg calls this “routine”), reward – touching the lever to get his reward became an ingrained habit.

Brainwaves From A New HabitSchultz had had an electrode placed in Julio’s brain to read his neurological activity. It showed that Julio would get excited or happy when he got his reward. More activity at reward time in this simulation.

Brainwaves After A HabitAs Julio’s habit became stronger, from more time doing the same behavior, his neurological activity changed.  The spike in activity came from anticipating his reward. So the cue became the trigger. The excitement that used to come from the reward was now coming when he saw the cue (in this case, it was visual). Ah, primates! How alike we all are.

This sounds like all of us who have walked through fire to satisfy our habits, whether candy, drugs, bread, gambling, being late, staying lethargic, a relationship, a lifestyle. Of course, everyone is different. And changing a behavior is different in each of us. And there are so many factors involved as there are chemical levels in our body, tendencies in our heredity, environmental cues that are habits we are not aware of, and more.

There are so many questions that arise from hearing about habits. Why does one of two twins raised in the same household have a more difficult time changing a habit than her twin? So many reasons.


Let’s talk about excuses. Many of us come up with reasons why we are habitual. How true can these be if our neurons change automatically with repetition? Does that mean that all the following excuses have to be thrown out?

1)    I drink because my mother was mean to me.
2)    I overeat because I was an only child.
3)    I gamble because we were poor.
4)    I have excessive behavior because I was sent away to boarding school.
5)    I compulsively shop because they fed us junk food in school.
6)    I hoard things in my house because my friends didn’t like me.
7)    I overmedicate because my grand aunt did.
8)    I steal clothing all the time because I was abused.
9)    I will always be late because we ate fast food at home every night.
10)  I have an excuse because my parents weren’t ever home when I came home from school.

We all have used an excuse for our behavior. Most of us have, anyway. Can an adult habit be attributed to a childhood experience? Probably yes, but proclaiming it is not going to change the habit.


Weight Of A HabitLet’s talk about Julio, the macaque, again. He had a strong habit. When the professor took away his reward or reduced the sugar content in his juice, he would become angry or depressed. He was hard to distract even when he was given the opportunity to go out of the experiment area and socialize with others because he was busy having an urge for what had been taken away. He continued to stay near his computer monitor which had given him the visual cue, continued to press the lever that had previously given him his reward, craving his reward.

Other macaques who had gone through the same sequence of creating the habit but who did not reinforce it over and over again through a long period of time were easily distracted and broke the habit immediately. When given the chance to go out and socialize, they were just as happy to do that as to push a lever and get juice.


The only way to make a change is to do it consciously. According to Duhigg’s Change A Habit chart, when we feel the cue, we need to choose a different reward. That’s why deprivation is so hard. That’s replacing something with nothing. That doesn’t usually do it. Replacing what we used to do with something new like reaching out, talking, dancing, doing martial arts, meditation, running, swimming, eating salad, drinking water, just might do it. We are so different, but we are so much the same.

Knowing that all our excuses are not the real reason we crave shouldn’t matter. Our experiences, wrapped up in these excuses, certainly have an impact on the habits we have formed. If we are too sad to go to school, we never get to college because we don’t have a high school diploma. If we were not taught about nutrition, we probably have hugely unhealthy habits. This lack of food education does not create the craving, itself, but because of the lack of education, we may have created certain pathways in eating habits we may need to change.


There’s no way around it. No matter why we have a habit, if it’s time to change it, DO IT NOW. The sooner we start, the sooner we change.


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Diane Gold, Founder of Warriors of Weight, Moms For Healthy Daughters, is a mentor in tai chi, kung fu and meditation, a music, fitness and stress expert and a dedicated mom.
The more she reads and talks to people, the more she sees how much we are the same. Diane says,

“Today is the day we can change one habit. It won’t happen overnight, and it will take conscious effort. It doesn’t have to be difficult. It just has to be consistent. Easy and consistent. That’s it. Pick a habit, and plan a new move in advance. That way, the next time that physical trigger (the cue) starts the habit cycle, we can instantly start forming our new habit.”

Bad Habits: How To Change A Habit


By Diane Gold

I have been studying bad habits for some time, but closely since I realized that what was not addicting to me in my first and second decades felt different in my fourth and fifth decades. And after having lived a period of time as the girlfriend of someone self-destructive to someone emulating the behaviors myself and getting through that.

Eating too much in college or drinking a lot when I was studying jazz in school and going to the clubs at night were no big deal to eliminate from my life at the snap of my fingers. Everything was fun, experimental and easily controllable. As luck would have it, there were no addictive triggers. (showing at that time).

True, I did gain 20 pounds during college and struggled to get it off, but it did not feel the same as later in life when I began to develop chemical triggers with deep cravings. So I learned that one’s capacity for habit (like an addictive trigger) can alter itself or turn itself on or off at various times in one’s life.

Teaching and consulting in music, tai chi and stress relief have allowed me to study the habits of others. In general, what I found was that people change a habit by replacing it with a new one. I, for one, broke my cycle of excess by going to sleep early. When I woke up, my urge was gone.
The result? Eventually, a new habit is formed, that of immediately taking an action that takes us away from the behavior we want to eliminate.

ResultsWe have to keep in mind that when we do something over and over, our synaptic pathways get worn in a certain way to crave and satisfy, which is why we always have a tendency to that particular habit. That’s why we have to form “parallel patterns” (in the words of Julia Layton, contributing writer at How Stuff Works) so that we become satisfied, replacing the old with the new behavior, eventually.

Old triggers will still occur. It’s what action we take when they do that determines whether the new reward gives us enough pleasure to sustain the new behavior.
The expression

“build a life which is actually more enjoyable than substance use”

is quoted as the result we are looking for in a description of a substance abuse program at St. Jude’s. This is the similar to

“Build a series of habits that erase or greatly minimize the desire for bad habits. ”

To this day, though, I know that (I’m using alcohol, but this applies to any object of destruction) having one drink of alcohol will light up my synaptic pathways which are molded from habit, lying in wait to trigger cravings. I’ll have one drink on day one. Then, on day two, it will be easy to have one or two drinks. The third day, it will be three drinks. This pattern will occur exactly as outlined, as sure as the letter b follows a in the English alphabet, once the cycle of giving in to the craving has begun.

Then, I will have to go cold tofu and kick the cravings.


How? I will eat a salad and drink water at the first sign of any craving. This will stop the urge and calm down the urge cycle. This works for food in the same way. It changes the need for that greasy, salty, sugary food because we have nourished the body with
a blander, more wholesome taste. It will also mean agreeing with myself not to have the object of the craving for a few years, at least.

Having gone through the process of giving in to the craving and kicking it before, I won’t bother going through it now since the work is hard and, most of the time, borders on massively hard. I can go do tai chi, stick my feet in the ocean, write an article, call an offspring or friend, drink the water or eat the salad very happily. I can even ramp up the writing of my book on, you guessed it, cravings.

Getting back to studying others, I have watched people dance, play music, do tai chi, run, start a conversation upon feeling a craving they wanted to get rid of. As long as they stuck to the new behavior; they had a chance of forming a new habit and bucking the old.

The trick is to do the new behavior within 30 seconds of getting the urge so that it doesn’t build up in the mind. Not allowing time to lapse will help us not to get sucked into the behavior we want to dump. That’s the key.


So here’s an awesome action step. Carry a pocket watch or one of those timers the dentist gives us to time brushing our teeth. Immediately start it. This will make us aware that we have mere seconds to take action. This action should precede dancing, doing a kung fu form. It should not precede calling a friend or accountability partner for help. Always reach out first. But get busy and go for a run. Do it. New pleasure feelings will arrive. The previous craving should be gone.

Doing a movement activity works often because it produces a new set of chemical reactions which suppresses or lessens the “crave” hormones and increases the pleasure neurotransmitters.

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In doing research for this article, I came across this below flow chart by Charles Duhigg, author of the book, The Power Of Habit. He says,

“If you can diagnose your habit, you can change it.”

He talks about how he used to leave his desk and go buy a cookie every day. He gained weight and wanted to do something about it.

He decided to log how he felt when he craved the cookie, what time of day it was and what the rewards were, following his flowchart

Click here to download.

So, he couldn’t kick the habit until he learned how his habit worked. He learned that every habit has a cue (a trigger), a routine (the habit you have) and a reward.

He spent time noticing when he urged for the cookie: 3:00-3:30 pm, it turned out (the cue). When he got this urge, he’d go get the cookie, and, upon further examination, he noticed he would also spend 10 minutes or so socializing with colleagues in the cafeteria while eating (the routine).

In order to figure out his reward, he did an experiment. One day, when the cravings arrived, he took a walk around the block. The next day, when he urged, he went to the cafeteria, bought candy and ate at his desk. The following day, he went to the cafeteria, didn’t buy anything and just talked to friends.

He realized his reward was the socializing. Now, at 3:00-3:30 pm, he gets up, goes over to a friend’s desk, hangs out for 10 minutes and goes back to his desk. The cookie urge is gone, and he is getting his reward, socializing.

We all want different rewards and crave things for different reasons. One person’s habit may be harder to change than another’s. It may take me 3 months to figure out that I was buying the cookie to have a reason to talk to my colleagues, when it took Charles a day to do it. The habit that we want to change may show up 10 times a day, instead of Charles’ habit, 1 time a day.

But, it is possible for us to change the habit. We just have to act quickly every time we have an urge.


Imagine if every time we felt an urge to eat, we walked out the door or got up from our desk and ran around the block. If we were of school age, we could ask permission to go to the women’s bathroom where we could run in place for 60-120 seconds instead.
We’d be burning calories, we wouldn’t be allowing ourselves to sit with our same old frustrating urges and do our same behavior and we would be strengthening and toning our muscles while running. (Wheelchair folks can do this, too.)


We can take many actions to change a habit. We can talk to people or we can do some type of movement or exercise.

All the actions boil down to the one key of replacing a behavior with a behavior. When looking for literature on how long it takes to change a habit, there is as much variation as there are people who write about it. That’s because we are all so different.

To change the habit of leaving a light on when we leave a room is far simpler to change than the habit of eating salty, oily, sugary foods with every meal. Adding a salad to every meal could solve both conditions. It could be the consequence of not turning a light off and the healthy action that helps us to change our bad eating habit.


Add a salad to every meal. If we already eat salad at every meal, add 2 snack salads during the day, or increase the size of 2 of the salads.

Back to how long it takes. I’ve heard 18 days, 3 weeks, 28 days, 30 days, 45 days, 60 days, 3 months, 6 months. These are all correct. It’s also correct to say that many habits are not broken but just suspended. This answer affirms the synaptic pathway scenario that cannot be changed theory.

The bottom line is that it is possible to change a habit. We have to act as if we are in a marathon. Because we are. As soon as we feel the urge to do whatever we don’t want to do; we have to run, jump, stretch, call a friend, lock the refrigerator and give the key to our neighbor. Whatever it takes, we have to do it now.

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Diane Gold, Founder of Warriors of Weight, Moms For Healthy Daughters, is a mentor in tai chi, kung fu and meditation, a music, fitness and stress expert and a dedicated mom.
She is convinced through research and through personal experience, that we have the power to change ourselves. We just have to do it. Diane says,

“We fuel ourselves with the power to change ourselves. Although the journey may be different for each of us, It is not dependent upon anything else. Even if our living quarters are no bigger than an automobile, we have the ability to become strong and change our body, mind and spirit through meditation, exercise and studying. It is up to us to take that opportunity. “

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Anatomy Of A Habit: 10 Excuses That Don’t Work Any More. Or Do They?

by Diane Gold on September 3, 2012.

A few weeks ago, there was an article on Habits. Due to the enthusiastic response and in preparation for the book on the subject, this week’s main article is Anatomy Of A Habit.

Also in this issue…

Bad Habits: How To Change A Habit

by Diane Gold on August 20, 2012.

This week’s main article is about Changing Bad Habits. We have included access to a flowchart with a step-by-step diagram.

Also in this issue…

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July 21, 2012. Consulting uses the philosophy that just one step moves us forward without chance of burn out from exhaustion or stress.

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