Why do we struggle to keep a certain habit? Why is it so hard to maintain momentum? We might not realize it, but our brains are in constant reward-seeking mode, looking for opportunities to gain the thing we most want. When we realize some of these processes, we can learn to recognize it and understand how habits can be achieved.
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According to James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, there are 4 stages of habits which he calls a “Habit Loop”:
These 4 concepts are followed by your brain in the same order every time. The final result is to always get the reward. If one of these concepts fails, the whole thing fails. Without the response, there will be no reward. Without craving, there will also be no reward.
A cue triggers your brain to perform a behavior. It predicts that a reward is involved. Cues take place all the time in our day-to-day life. The alarm goes off, we get up for work so we can get a paycheck. The dog jumps on our bed, we get up and feed the dog. The reward is that the dog leaves you alone. Cues are the first trigger that signals we will be rewarded for our behavior.
Because we’ve been triggered and we are scanning for rewards, it’s natural that craving would be the next logical step. James Clear states,
Cravings are the second step of the habit loop, and they are the motivational force behind every habit. Without some level of motivation or desire—without craving a change—we have no reason to act. What you crave is not the habit itself but the change in state it delivers.
This is also true of bad habits. Habits aren’t just healthy. They can negatively impact us too. When we crave sugar and junk food, the reward is that we get to be temporarily satisfied with foods we enjoy eating. If you lay around in bed all day, you are rewarded with extra sleep and ignoring your responsibilities. But in creating good habits, cravings can be motivational too. We might eat better and the reward is we fit into our jeans and feel better. Cravings can work both ways.
It’s also interesting that not everyone has the same cravings. Some might crave a cigarette, while others think it’s repulsive. A person might crave being alone, while someone else craves being around people. Cravings are unique to each person.
A response is usually a thought or action that you take that is triggered by the craving. Let’s say you see an add for weight loss pills (cue) and then you decide you want to lose weight (craving). You know the reward will be that you will look better in your clothes and you will feel better, so you decide that you will go to the gym 3x a week (response). If at anytime during this “loop”, you decided it wasn’t worth the effort or you just didn’t have the ability to do it, the habit would not stick and you would not respond in a way that would bring success.
Everything in the loop has led up to this one step. It all relates to the reward. We chase rewards all day long because they bring us pleasure and satisfaction. They answer the question: “Is this going to satisfy my craving?” They also teach us something about ourselves. They answer the question, “Is this worth remembering in the future?” Rewards are the final step in the habit loop.
The 4 Laws of Behavior Change
James Clear also created 4 Laws of Behavior Change based on the above Habit Loop. You can read more about this at his blog, but for brevity, here’s the run-down:
- (Cue) Make it obvious
- (Craving) Make it attractive
- (Response) Make it easy
- (Reward) Make it satisfying
In other words, when you want to create a new, healthy habit, use the above list to guide you. This also works on bad habits you want to change.
- (Cue) Make it invisible
- (Craving) Make it unattractive
- (Response) Make it difficult
- (Reward) Make it unsatisfying
Say It Louder for the People in the Back
You’ve heard the buzz about self-awareness, right? It’s the new trend in self-care, so you better “get it while it’s hot!” I’m not criticizing it. Self-awareness is key in our emotional intelligence when properly understood. Most therapists define self-awareness as how you monitor and view stress, emotions, beliefs, and thoughts. But I want to take it down to a more fundamental level.
Think simpler, my dear.
Self-awareness is useful in a more practical way when it comes to building new habits.
Do you talk to yourself? I do all the time. Sometimes it’s just to remind myself what I’m doing. I have so much going on in my head at all hours of the day—it’s constant. So sometimes to straighten up my thoughts, I’ll say things like, “Now what was I doing? Oh yeah, getting coffee.” It just helps me remember what I was doing in the first place, especially if I’m distracted. This is a form of self-awareness.
The first way you can truly recognize that your habits aren’t the greatest is by self-awareness, even if it means saying them out loud.
Knowing Your Habits is Half the Battle
What’s the first thing you do when you get up? Then what?
If you wrote a list of things you do every single day, how would that look?
I’m not just talking about your good habits. Take a non-critical eye and jot down the things you do each day. Maybe it’s getting up and making coffee, then eating breakfast, then brushing your teeth. Perhaps it’s stopping at the gas station for junk food. Or you swing over the gym at lunch every day. Whatever your day-to-day habits are, start to write them down on paper.
Writing down your habits isn’t a task where you criticize or applaud yourself. It’s a task you do to be aware of your habits in a non-judgmental way.
Working With Our Brains
Every day our brains are working hard to cut down on having to remember things that we do all the time. That’s why we sometimes drive on autopilot, or we can’t remember what we even did in the shower, even though we came out clean. Our brains act a bit like a computer, running tasks in the background to free up space for things we need to focus on. These strong connections make us operate more efficiently and also helps us learn new things.
Why does this matter?
For starters, listing out your habits (good or bad) allows you to become self-aware of the patterns you currently have. Secondly, you can use your current habits to build new habits.
Using Current Habits to Build New Ones
When you use an old habit and attach a new one to it, it is referred to as “habit stacking.” This idea was created by BJ Fogg as part of a program he called “Tiny Habits Program” and reintroduced by James Clear.
The basic formula looks like this:
After / Before (the current habit you do), I will (the new habit you want to do).
- Before I get out of bed, I will focus on two areas of gratitude.
- After I pour my coffee, I will take my vitamins.
- After I open the door to come into the house after work, I will hug my wife.
This is building new habits based on habits you already do. It takes less brain space because you are already performing the old habit. The old habits are already stuck in your brain, and you do many of them on autopilot, so adding an extra step should be a lot easier than trying to do it without the cue.
The really neat thing about habit stacking is that you can create larger stacks by linking a bunch of small habits together. James Clear states, “This allows you to take advantage of the natural momentum that comes from one behavior leading into the next.”
Instead of just performing one habit, you can create a ritual like this:
- Before I get out of bed, I will meditate for 2 minutes.
- After I meditate for 2 minutes, I will throw in a load of laundry.
- After I throw in a load of laundry, I will take my vitamins.
Habit stacking allows you to easily incorporate habits into patterns you already do all the time. This spurs you on to actually accomplish the habit you are trying to achieve. Also, having a routine and a time each day helps you to keep it.
Select the Right Cue
If you want to truly succeed at keeping a habit, you need to pick the right cue. You need to pick a cue or trigger that is very specific, and you can act on immediately. It’s important to pick a “good” cue. If we stop at the gas station and get candy bars, that’s not a cue I’d use. But if we wake up and make coffee, that’s a cue that can be used to habit stack.
An implementation intention is a method that states the “when” and “where” of your actions. You create this before you try to start new habits. For instance, saying you will go to the gym on Monday, Wednesday, Friday at 9am at your gym. Implementation intentions remove the vagueness of your goal. Instead of “I’m going to eat healthier,” you create, “I’m going to eat a salad at 1pm in my kitchen.”
These intentions are automatically built-in for habit stacking, so you don’t need to think extra hard about the time. It’s already going to happen “before” or “after” you do something else.
Bust it down to 2 minutes
Instead of creating giant-sized goals, smash up that goal into bite-sized, 2-minute pieces. Simple things might look like:
- Research a blog post idea
- Write down ingredients for one meal
- Review your finances
- Update your monthly calendar
- Throw in a load of laundry
- Set a reminder on my phone to take vitamins
- Pay phone bill
- Send thank you card to a friend
- Find a printable template for a meal plan
- Clean out inbox
- Recycle paper on the desk
By creating easy-to-do tasks, you set yourself up to succeed. As you get better at habit stacking, you can increase the time needed to complete each goal.
Key Habit Building Take-aways
- Practice self-awareness by noting your current habits
- Pick “healthy habits” that you can use habit stacking.
- Break down your habits into small, 2 minute tasks
- Stack more habits together and build up a healthy lifestyle
By using things you do every single day and setting that as a cue to do something new, you will be able to create new habits that stick. Although setting new habits isn’t always easy, using the habit loop and the 4 Laws of Behavior Change concepts can help guide you to understanding your own habits and creating new ones.
Clear, James. “Achieve Your Goals: The Simple Trick That Doubles Your Odds of Success.” James Clear, James Clear, 4 Feb. 2020, jamesclear.com/implementation-intentions.
Clear, James. Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones. Cornerstone, 2019.
Clear, James. “Habit Stacking: How to Build New Habits by Taking Advantage of Old Ones.” James Clear, James Clear, 4 Feb. 2020, jamesclear.com/habit-stacking.
Clear, James. “The 3 R’s of Habit Change: How To Start New Habits That Actually Stick.” James Clear, 13 Nov. 2018, jamesclear.com/three-steps-habit-change.