“That’s it! This is the last week I’m buying coffee from Starbucks!” I bet you've uttered these words many times. Then the next week you find yourself strolling out of the café with another steaming beverage in hand, like a ship on autopilot that resumes manual control only to find itself way off course. For many of us, coffee is a small indulgence. But if you're buying multiple $5 lattes every day, you could be spending upwards of $1,500 a year. It doesn’t matter whether it’s coffee, cigarettes, a 3 p.m. cookie or a stress-trip to the mall: We all have automatic behaviours — habits — that we’d like to change. And in a minute I’ll tell you how to do it.
Scientists define habits as automatic behaviours triggered by cues in our environment that have become self-activating due to repetition. When those behaviours become paired with some kind of desirable reward, that’s when habits really stick. What does this mean for you? It means that over time, some sort of cue — whether it’s the sight of the green Starbucks sign on your walk to work or the need for a mid-afternoon break — has become a trigger for you to go and buy a coffee. You’ve done it so many times and enjoyed the sweet caffeine reward that buying a beverage has become something you do without thinking.
Thankfully, psychologists have spent a lot of time studying how habits form and how you can change them. Here are five steps you can take to break not just your coffee habit but any unwanted routine:
1. Find your trigger
Got your phone or a piece of paper handy? Make a list of the events that typically happen right before you end up buying a coffee: What are you doing, who are you with, how are you feeling? Your trigger could be one major thing or a combination of things, anything from the time of day, your regular walking route or a social cue involving friends or co-workers. Write it all down as you may have more than one trigger.
2. Change your routine
Got your list of cues? Experiment with ways you can change your environment to avoid them. This is based on the psychological principle of stimulus control: People behave one way in the presence of a particular cue but act in a different way when it's absent. You might try taking a different route to the office in the morning, or ask your pals to meet you at a different time or somewhere other than the nearby Starbucks.
3. Make a substitution
This is where things get tricky. Your coffee habit may be partly fuelled by the sweet caffeine buzz or it could be a social reward. Identify the most reinforcing elements of your coffee purchase: Is it the physical pick-me-up, the ritual itself or the social break you get when you walk to the café? Write them down and think about how you would substitute those things if you stopped purchasing coffee. A travel mug filled with homemade brew may be a good fix for your caffeine needs, while a stroll over to a colleague's desk might be enough to satisfy your need to socialize. You should experiment to find what works for you.
4. Reward your new routine
One of the best ways to reinforce a behaviour change is to make sure there’s a reward each time you do this new, better routine. In this step, write down how you will reward yourself each day you achieve your aim of skipping the coffee purchase. A reward could be watching an episode of your favourite show on Netflix or just putting the $5 you didn’t spend into a jar on your desk.
5. Imagine yourself implementing your new plan
Now that you’ve written out a plan, you need to put it into action. Fill in the details of when and how you will get started. Now imagine yourself actually performing these new behaviours: Picture yourself taking that new route or setting up a meeting to avoid that 3 p.m. coffee craving. Don’t stop there. Imagine yourself successfully accomplishing your aim and putting that extra money towards whatever you are saving for. Sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of the reason you are resisting the coffee habit in the first place. Keeping the goal you are saving towards at the forefront of your mind helps give your actions purpose.
Follow these steps and see if they don't work for you. You may find that quitting buying coffee cold turkey is too hard, and that is OK. It can take several attempts to replace a habit. Until you do, set smaller goals: Plan to buy one less coffee than you did the week before. Each time you’re successful, up the goal and keep at it. Before you know it, you will have developed a sustainable money saving habit and boosted your confidence in your ability to change your behaviour.