A Year Studying Abstinence Hasn’t Reset My Habit Loop. It’s Shattered It.

Earlier today, I received a rejection. The kind you wish you could poker face your way out of, but that has you immediately reaching for a crutch instead.

“I want a cigarette.”

I haven’t had a cigarette in many months. I question the desire: Yep, I really want one – just one – to suck in while I ponder. My hands are shaking, and my heart too. Instead, I grab Mitra’s leash, leave the phone and wallet, and head outside.

I’ve broken my Habit Loop.

According to Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and in Business, there are three key components in how habits play out known as the Habit Loop: Our brain receives a cue, we instinctively react, and then are rewarded with a sensation. It looks like this:


Cues are everywhere.

Our phones vibrate, and we immediately pick them up for the message or “like” our brain anticipates. We drive by a McDonalds — a purposely reproduced visual cue — and suddenly find ourselves ordering food we intellectually know we shouldn’t have. We feel lonely, so we go on social media to connect. Or at least that’s what l later realized I faced in my first My Year of Abstinence Challenge.

I’ve been reading Duhigg’s book, contemplating the habits loops broken down this Year, identifying the cues and my shift in routine. So I ponder as I walk…

What cue had me reaching for a cigarette?

Clearly, the cue was a rejection in the form of an email: It told said that my work was not wanted. My ability was questioned. This keeps my financial and artistic future in flux. Immediately, I questioned all the typing I’ve done so far today, and all the typing still on my schedule. Yes, the cue was the rejection I get over and over and over in my work as a freelancer.

So what is the habit?

The habit is anything that I reach for to distract from the hurt: the rare single cigarette, a Tate’s gluten-free brownie, jumping on Twitter, or self-soothing with retail therapy.

What is the reward?

The reward is my brain forgetting for a second that I feel hurt and, instead, feels the glorious wash of quick pleasure. An artificial dopamine hit. A release of all this effort for a few minutes.

According to Duhigg and the many sources and studies he sites, you shift habit by replacing the routine part of the loop. Using the example of AA, the individual gets their cue, but instead of picking up a drink he or she goes to a meeting, finding there a reward of pleasure and connection. It looks like this:


Then there’s intentionally fostering positive habits, as many people do with the kinds of self-help program I’m contrasting with this Year: You create the cue and, sometimes, the reward too. For someone who wants to run three times a week, the cue is leaving running shoes by the door, the routine is running, and the reward is then something they’ve set to look forward to like a latte or television time.

My problem — well, not the problem but the reality, anyway — is that this Year I’ve removed the routine part altogether. Sure, last week I replaced television with reading or podcasts or just going to sleep. But regarding this Year in entirety, I’ve learned how to identify my cues, acknowledge that rewards exist, and then… just face it all.

I reach the Hudson. I look out at the water. I’m facing it all.

But I still feel sad.

In this moment, I have to deal with the possibility that the project will never sell. I have to weigh out choices yet to make which might increase the odds it does. I fear what it will say of me if I don’t ever get the gig. And what it will mean financially if those rejections are true on a grander scale and all of the pitching and applying I’ve been doing recently goes to naught… How will I pay rent? Medical bills always piling up? The teeth cleaning Mitra needs? Anything of valuable pleasure?!

Winding our way home, we encounter a neighbor and his two tail-wagging dogs — Alberto, I learn, with Kita and Canela. Mitra’s not impressed, but their bright puppy eyes and excited pawing up my leg for a pet distract me. Saying goodbye, we continue up the block, and I realize my brain feels a bit lighter from the interaction. I now smell the burst of spring I hadn’t noticed ten minutes before. I keep pondering, but my thoughts feel clearer. And by the time I get back to my desk, I’ve realized this:

I’ve removed not just routine, but also the expectation of reward.

Photo Apr 27, 2 03 36 PM (1)

With the No Social Challenge… I recognized I was reaching for a connection with other humans. I’d go online, hoping to make contact. Since that habit has broken, I see cues but, instead, face that I’m joyful/sad and alone at the moment. I accept that feeling those things are okay, and both good to sit with.

With the No Shopping Challenge… I would buy a thing to “fix” another thing, cued by feeling out of control. Now, I only buy when “I need this”. I have no routine as to how to find this. Aside from this, I accept that there are some things I can’t control…especially not with a new lipgloss.

With the No Sugar Challenge… something made me hurt, and I self-soothed with a brownie or glass of wine to physically feel better. Now I either just hurt or, as learned my TeleWonderWoman Challenge, flip my negative thought process entirely.

So what do I do now?

What was today’s cue? A work rejection.

What do I want the reward to be? Landing the work.

What routine will get me closer to that? Ay, there’s the rub.

There are layers of questions and choices to be made. There are people to ask for advice. There are to-do lists to pen. There’s the Habit book to finish, and pondering lessons that might overlap with Stumbling Upon Happiness.

These involve time, thought, and action. They do not involve cigarettes, chocolate, wine, or Amazon.

Now that I’ve worked this out, I no longer feel sad. Reading back on my journaling, a word sticks out that has over and over again this Year: acceptance. I realize today that acceptance doesn’t mean giving into a feeling and doing nothing to change it. It doesn’t mean just waiting for something or someone else to change whatever triggered the cue, either. It just means accepting what I know in this moment. Making a plan to collect the tools that might help me spring into action. Already, I know that when I return the rejection email, I’ll be speaking from a calmer, stronger place.

I think back to altercations of the last few months and… yes, the same pattern:

Receive cue. Feel the feelings. Identify desire.

Plan action. Disregard immediate award.

I think I’m onto something here.


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