The “oh-so-good” taste, the endorphin high, the great feeling you get from the number of “likes” on your Facebook post, are all rewards.  Good or bad, our craving brain – well, craves them.  We have a very efficient brain.  It wants to funnel any routine into the inner most part called the basal ganglia.  This action turns the routine into a habit, which allows the brain to focus on more important stuff – like thinking.


The basic learning pathway is: cue →routine→reward.

We all use this habit loop for learning.  Remember Pavlov’s theory which involved a bell, a dog, and some food?¹  The unconditioned response becomes conditioned.  The bell, or the smell of McDonald’s french fries, or the time of day are cues (or “stimuli” as Pavlov named them).

“It’s 10:00 a.m. – time for my snack.  Crud, my patient is here.  Hmmm, can I wait until 11:00 or will I die if I don’t go eat something right NOW?”  Yes, this is a common scenario.  Don’t roll your eyes; I know you’ve been there.  The time on the clock, may trigger the habit loop.  Other common triggers could be:

  • The chime sound alerting you to an important email, text, or Facebook post.
  • The smell of Cinnabon at the mall?
  • The excited feeling you have 15 minutes before the group run Monday night.

What about rewards?  Using the previous trigger examples, these might be the rewards:

  • Social interaction (witty conversation).
  • Burst of energy (sugar high . . . even though short lived).
  • Pride of accomplishment (completing the hilly running route with friends).

How can we change a habit loop?  First we need to know ourselves (Habits-The Four Tendencies).  Next we need to identify the routine.

My snack cue is the time on the clock.  10:00 a.m. signals my stomach, which leads me to the kitchen, which leads me to a chocolate-zucchini muffin (the routine), which leads me to the reward of a small energy burst.  I do the same thing at lunch – 1:00 p.m.  But this time my reward is reading, after I eat slowly to 80% full.

Let’s use snack time as an example for changing the routine.  Instead of walking to the kitchen, I’m going to do something different for five days.  Then after each new activity, I’ll record the first thought that comes to mind?

  • Day 1 – Drink 8oz. of water.  Now I have to pee.
  • Day 2 – Walk outside and breath deeply for 2 minutes.  I smell honeysuckle – nice.
  • Day 3 – Call a friend and talk for 5 minutes.  I’m glad she wants to walk tomorrow.
  • Day 4 – Do 25 jumping jacks.  Wide awake now!
  • Day 5 – Read one news article.  That’s depressing.

Wait fifteen minutes, then ask yourself if you still feel the urge.  When the answer is “no” – then you’ve identified the reward your brain is craving.  My reward is feeling energized, thus walking outside and deeply breathing, or doing 25 jumping jacks gives me the same reward as the muffin.

. . . oh look, the time on the clock is 12:56.  Four minutes until lunch and then READING!

Question to think about: What are your cues or triggers?

Until next time – embrace the day.  Be ageless!

*If you want to learn more, read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.

¹McLeod, S. A. (2013). Pavlov’s Dogs. Retrieved from