The most common question I get asked about habits is, “How do I break a bad one?” Now, there could be a number of things right with your daily coffee break (I’m a big fan of walking breaks throughout the day!), but if you notice that your afternoon cup of Joe also comes with a cookie or has some other negative consequences, it’s worth doing some testing to find out exactly what you’re looking for when you leave your desk at 3pm.
Habits work on a simple loop of reminder, routine, reward. And even when we know what the routine is, like buying coffee every day at 3pm, it turns out many of us are really bad at identifying our own reminders and rewards. In fact, research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows we’re much better at making up stories about the rewards for our behavior than actually figuring it out the trigger.
Let’s take your 3pm coffee habit, for example. It could be triggered by low blood sugar, but it’s probably just seeing the hands of the office clock pointing to 12 and 3 that bring on the urge for coffee, and “low blood sugar” is the excuse you’ve made up to give yourself permission to buy an espresso and a cookie. Other habit studies show that when you take someone out of their scheduled routine, the habit is forgotten, leading researchers to believe the trigger is simply that we usually do the same things at the same time every day. Think about it: how many 3pm coffee breaks do you need when you’re on vacation?
Your 3pm-coffee-habit reward could be caffeine, that tag-along cookie you buy, the people you interact with along the way, the break from your desk, or the cute barista who remembered your name 3 years ago—and now you’re just on autopilot. However, once you pinpoint the trigger and the reward, you can piggyback healthy new habits onto them. Here’s a simple way to break down this:
Step 1. Simulate your coffee break Today at 3pm, get up and do everything you normally would, short of buying the coffee (and the cookie). Talk to all the same people, even walk into the café and take a look around. Then leave, walk back to your desk, and ask yourself, “How was that?”
Step 2. Repeat step 1 several times If you do this for a few days and still feel compelled to do it when the clock strikes 3pm, you’re still being rewarded, and it wasn’t just the coffee. Now you can start exploring other things that might be rewarding during your afternoon jaunt, like the refreshing walk itself, the people you talk to, or that cute barista.
Step 3. Assess the reward If you do the loop for a few days, and still find yourself craving the coffee, then the caffeine probably was the reward. If that is something that bothers you, start cutting back by ordering 1/2 decaf and 1/2 regular, or try switching to green tea.
Step 4. Do a little time change Take the break later than usual, but do the exact same routine you would have done at 3pm. When you get back, ask yourself the same question, “How was that?” If you found yourself staring at the clock for that extra hour, your trigger was likely the clock. That’s a very strong cue that you can now use it to trigger a new habit.
Why all this experimentation? Because something is “working,” and if you can find out what’s cuing and rewarding you, you can start using this loop to your advantage. Try inserting a new, ridiculously small habit you want to start in between your trigger and your reward—like an additional lap around the block, and watch that bad habit turn into a good one.
What’s driving your afternoon coffee habit? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Coach Stevo is the nutrition and sport psychology consultant at San Francisco CrossFit. He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, holds a BA in Philosophy from the University of Chicago, and is finishing his MA in Applied Sport Psychology at John F. Kennedy University. His specialty is habit-based training and he contributed to Intervention by Dan John in 2012.