The conceptual framework for a man's search for meaning

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The Structure of Behaviour

September 1st, 2014 by dimpledbrain

The closest thing we talked about habit is probably the concept of the elephant and the rider (click here for the post) although there is an earlier occasion where we joked about habit (click here for the post). In my preliminary assessment of the topic, I stumbled upon

NLP (i.e. neuro linguistic programming), and a variation thereof, i.e. Anthony Robbin’s system, a topic which I sincerely think may well worth exploring. The only thing holding me back then is probably just cost. Possibly I have a strong conviction that the best things in life are often free. Often because these are categorically the things which we tend to overlook.

See I have developed a bad habit of picking at the skin on my finger (left index finger to be exact) for years now and I have tried various methods to overcome such habit but to no avail. The closest I have come to overcoming this habit is probably via Tony Robbins’ brainwashing technique (something like picturing what the ideal situation is and the current situation I’m in and slowly fading the latter and replacing it with the former). I must say the concept works well until the habit relapses, after which repeating the technique will simply not yield any desirable results.

Until someone* shows me that (a) 40% of our daily actions weren’t actual decisions but habits and (b) habits can be changed if we understand how they work.

(1) The structure of habit

  • A trigger or a cue that drives towards a reward via something that we do (i.e. routine or habit).
  • Cue + Routine = Rewards
  • To fuel this loop, the cue will trigger a ‘craving’ for the reward and voila the routine (habit) will be automatic.
  • It is the expectation of this craving that makes it extremely difficult to change any habit!
  • The sad thing is that we are not conscious of the cravings that drive our routines (behaviours).
  • In the language of the elephant and the rider, an unsatisfied craving is what exhausts the rider and eventually allows the elephant to run amok (i.e. lack of self control).

(2) The concept of willpower

  • If the above sounds simple (and it should be), does it mean we can eliminate all bad behaviours? The short answer is no as there is a possibility for the habits to relapse.
  • This is where willpower is important and the belief that we can change.
  • To achieve this, we need small wins, i.e. changing one/more simple unrelated habits will lead to greater changes. E.g. making your bed in the morning will make changing harder habits easier.
  • At a deeper level whenever we change a bad habit, we are also changing how we think. (cumulative advantage and small wins leading to larger wins will kick in). 

(3) Update – I have not been picking at my finger since then

  • The cue to picking at my finger is similar to someone biting his/her nail. Say the cue is anxiety, stress and uncertainty. The reward is perhaps temporary distraction from the issue at hand and a feeling of control.
  • I keep the cue and the reward similar. I change the routine whenever the craving kicks in. So instead of picking at my finger, I rub my palms now (which has the extra benefit of massage by the way) to create similar sensation.
  • It gets easier with time – now the entire habit of picking at my finger is replaced. (nevertheless the temptation of picking at my finger still arises although it diminishes with time).
  • The difficult part is identifying which craving is driving the routine.


p/s: *highly recommended read – Charles Duhigg The Power of Habit -Why We Do What We Do. There are other important concepts like the familiarity loop that I didn’t mention here (e.g. how companies can manipulate our behaviours/routines).

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