Got cravings? Tame their lightning with the habit loop.

Cravings have triggers, and addiction is no different. Learn to recognize them so that when they appear again, you can redirect cravings away from what you’re trying to quit. From smoking to sugar to porn, interrupt automatic habits with this.

wizard shoots lightning from his palm

(Disclosure: I may be slightly compensated if you purchase items I recommend through links on this page.)

(This article also available as a slideshow!)

In this article, I’ll adapt from Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit to explain how to break these habits. He does caution, however, that everyone’s needs, desires, and situations are unique, so he can’t offer a one-size-fits-all prescription. Still, it’s a general, all-purpose place to start.

(The book has lots of useful case studies and alternate methods, if this one doesn’t work for you.)

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg cover

What is the habit loop?

Cue        >
Routine    >
Reward

The cue, or trigger, is the spark that kindles the fire.

The routine is the chase or quest. It’s an action, and it can sometimes be the reward itself.

And the reward is the positive emotional state it puts you in, whether that’s happy and satisfied or just not discontent, stressed out, afraid, or deprived. (All rewards are emotional states.)

Once you understand this, you’re ready to look for your cravings triggers. But a note of caution first.

Don’t try to avoid cravings triggers

Triggers are unavoidable. If you spend all your time and effort trying to avoid them, you’ll be less prepared to face them when they hit.

Website / app blockers (here’s my curated list of the best of the best) are helpful training wheels. They slow you down and make it harder for you for fall over, but with dedication and desperation, you can get around them all. Still, you want them when you’re learning to ride.

But you don’t want to be dependent on them.

Plenty of research studies show that suppressing feelings leads to a paradoxical increase in whichever ones you’re trying to avoid. Stress, depression, boredom– it builds up like a poison.

You’ll also be more sensitive to potential cravings triggers: you’ll see them everywhere. The tiniest of things could trigger you, now that you’re more sensitive.

Cravings everywhere! A man bombarded by parachuting beer bottles.
© Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Psychologists call this a threat mindset. It gives you anxiety at the repeated thought of being fragile. And if you don’t have a plan to redirect that “I want it now” energy, you are fragile.

Take it from a former porn addict: you’ll need a plan. It’s easy to not want something when you don’t want it. But when cravings strike and you do want it, all those logical reasons, those emotional reactions of disgust, hate, or indifference, crumble away and don’t matter anymore.

Don’t worry, predicting your cravings is a simple process.

1. Identify the behavior

This is the easiest one. What behavior do you want to stop?

Is it incongruent with who you are? Does it hurt, and you regret it every time? Maybe it keeps you trapped in the shame cycle?

I suggest writing this by hand (it helps you remember better and feel the intention) at the top of a blank page or on a sticky note that you stick somewhere you’ll often see it. In the Lodge I’ve got a file for this: the Remember Your Why worksheet & poster.

2. Identify your cravings triggers

(I’m switching numbers 2 and 3 in the book here for my purposes.)

Duhigg lays out five categories of cravings triggers that spark all habit loops:

  • Location
  • Time
  • Emotional state
  • Other people
  • Immediately preceding action

Here are some examples:

  • in the shower with the water running so no one can hear
  • binge-watching after work because you’re tired and sore
  • feeling bored in class, physical or virtual, and checking your social media again
  • hanging around friends with the same problem who don’t see it as one
  • opening image search, even for innocent reasons

And worse, these villains can collaborate in their own hijack.

For instance, my porn addiction used to be 2-8 a.m., at my old desk, my first day off from work (so I was tired), and with the rest of the world asleep (no one to bother me). That’s four!

It’s not always easy to pinpoint your cravings triggers, especially if one of them is the immediately preceding action. Emotional state is the easiest to assess: stress, anxiety, and depression are common triggers.

So Duhigg suggests writing on a notepad or sticky notes how you feel the moment cravings pop up Pre-populate the page with these questions:

  • Where am I?
  • What time is it?
  • What’s my emotional state?
  • Who else is around?
  • What action preceded the urge?

Answer each question when cravings hit. After doing this 3-5 times, you might see a pattern emerge. Then once you’ve got your problem, you’re ready for your solution.

3. Identify the reward you’re craving

Duhigg suggests experimenting with different rewards. That is, when your triggers kindle cravings, interrupt the habit loop by giving your brain a different snack.

To demonstrate, let’s talk about Kara.

A majestic female warrior with a glowing broadsword.
image by Mark Frost from Pixabay

College student Kara averages 2-4 hours a day on her favorite MMORPG, Opal Realms.

She’s a quiet player who hates group quests, is in an inactive guild, and likes to collect achievements. [in an upcoming article i’ll discuss gamer motivations but for now] Kara says it feels good to complete quests, slay monsters, and earn new loot.

She claims her need is for excitement, escapism from a boring life. And that can be part of it. But playing twenty hours every weekend starts getting in the way of her homework, chores, and job. It’s obvious to everyone around her she doesn’t want to be there, and she puts in minimum effort. They don’t appreciate that.

And the struggle to cut down her time in-game leads her to adopt Duhigg’s strategy below.

Experiment with rewards

Duhigg says to change up the reward when cravings hit. You might understand the triggers, but your reward is harder to grasp.

So after you substitute the reward, write down three emotions, random thoughts, reflections, or whatever pops into your head.

For instance, yours might look like this:

3 sticky notes: "felt good to stretch," "looked outside," "bored"

Then set an alarm for fifteen minutes. When it dings, ask yourself if you still want the thing you’re trying to avoid. If so, the substitute failed. If cravings are weakened or nonexistent, you’re on the right track. Above all, remember:

Addictions fill a hole. If you eliminate but don’t substitute, you will fail.

So in Kara’s case, she tries:

  • doing something else she finds exciting (let’s say cycling– she’s a college student)

She felt a brain buzz, but she still wanted to play after. It wasn’t for excitement.

  • meditating

It wasn’t to relax after a long day.

  • watching an episode of Lord of the Wings

Nor was it for immersion in a fantasy setting to escape reality.

You get the point.

And in this hypothetical scenario, at the end of the reward experiments, Kara found one thing remained: the feeling of pride at achieving something. She didn’t get opportunities to prove herself in her RL (real life).

With a few mental tricks, she turned her studies, work, and everyday scenarios into opportunities to practice a challenge mindset. She set up mini-wins and her own achievements and “quest loot” to feel more accomplished in her everyday life.

She still plays, but less; it’s intentional now. Since experimenting with rewards, she plays when she wants to, not when life makes her feel incompetent and she needs a boost.

If you want to experience the benefits of Quests, check out my ebook by that name. Packed with over 30 references from leading scientists, completing Quests may shrink depression, stress, and anxiety and grow meaning in life (MIL), measurable hope, self-control, self-efficacy, and resistance to cravings.

Click here to learn more about Quests: Habit Change for Addicted Warriors.

Accurate representation of cravings

Common rewards

  • social interaction, which can be easier behind a screen
  • praise / validation / feeling competent, smart, or attractive
  • just to pass the time / escape boredom
  • stress relief
  • anger relief
  • the discomfort of going without it relief
  • to relax / be able to sleep
  • a burst of energy
  • entitlement
  • pure habit
  • coping with a bleak or bad home life (oof)

4. Make a plan

Habits are automatic, not something you think about. Remember the habit loop.

Cue        >
Routine    >
Reward

Your cues, or triggers, spark the cravings fire without you thinking. In the same way, to prevent the bad reward you don’t want (the result of the routine you defined in step one), you snap into automatic action when you shift the routine.

Just remember not to think about it. Never question why, or cravings will override your logical brain and appeal to the emotions, which’ll say something like “why not?” and surrender right away.

And it must be automatic! (I’ve written walls of reasons why not to watch porn, Notepad documents on my Desktop. Years later, that tactic never worked, because I didn’t want to read something long. You need something fast-acting, or you will fail!)

Photo by Killian Eon on Pexels

Just a distraction from cravings?

Some will criticize this technique for just being a distraction. But distracting yourself isn’t a sustainable strategy unless you insert a new, comparable reward. That’s the crux of taming lightning.

“To change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.” – Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

Pushups are useful for many people, since when their arms are tired or jelly, it’s harder to use their hands as much. Brief meditation is nice (like with “leaves on a stream“) for stress-related cravings. Some find it useful to channel their emotions into music, or anything creative– they get otherwise-impossible inspiration.

Then there’s chugging a tall glass of cold water, listening to a specially-relegated song or playlist, even furious dancing or shadow-boxing the cravings away. (physical stuff is great)

The point is, do what works for you. Create some reward that you don’t otherwise get unless you have cravings. Then you’ll look forward to it.

Without a reward, you won’t care, or stand a chance.

Taming lightning

sage takes lightning into his body and shoots it out through his fingertips
© Viacom 2005-2008 (Avatar: The Last Airbender)

Depending on the strength and frequency of your cravings, this process may take a few days or weeks to become automatic.

But once you click into it, as Duhigg says, “you gain power over it.”

You can tame the lightning.

The demon of addiction doesn’t have to control you anymore. Tame your triggers, hack the habit loop, and regain power over your life.

“Only when your brain starts expecting the reward… will it become automatic… the cue, in addition to triggering a routine, must also trigger a craving for the reward to come.” – Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit


Got cravings? Tame their lightning with the habit loop.

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