We all struggle to develop good habits and break bad ones at times.
That’s often because we don’t understand how habits form in the first place. Changing your habits is much easier when you know the mechanics of how they form in the first place..
According to James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, habits develop when four essential factors come together in the right circumstances. They are Cue, Craving, Response, Reward:
We don’t develop habits randomly. Habits take root because we learn to associate a certain behavior with a certain reward.
This is true of both good and bad habits. For example, if you decide to take up jogging and find that it helps you calm down at the end of a busy day, it ‘s more likely to become a habit. Your brain has learned to connect the act of jogging with a positive experience.
On the other hand, you might choose to deal with your stress by indulging in fast-food. Although this isn’t good for your health in the long run, the immediate dopamine boost the taste of the food delivers certainly feels good, and thus, you become more likely to eat too much fast-food habitually in the future.
A cue is the signal that tells us a reward is attainable. It’s a trigger that lets us know if we take action we may get something we want.
Those last few words in the above entry — “something we want” — are very important.
Habits form because we learn that specific positive experiences result from specific actions. Of course, we need to have some desire for those positive experiences to take the associated action in the first place.
We don’t actually crave an action (that may turn into a habit). We crave the results of that action. You’re not eating fast-food because you enjoy the experience of giving someone money and getting food in exchange, you’re eating fast-food because doing so triggers the release of neurotransmitters that make you feel good.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re walking around with an intense craving for fast-food every waking moment of every single day. A cue needs to trigger a craving. In this example, you might spot a sign for your favorite fast-food restaurant down the road. This could potentially activate the craving.
A response is the actual action you take in response to a craving. You see the sign for your favorite fast-food restaurant, and you decide to pull into the drive-thru, place your order, and start eating.
That said, it’s worth noting that not all cravings will trigger a response. Your craving, your motivation, needs to be strong enough to make you decide to act on it. Additionally, ability comes into play. Regardless of how badly you may want something, if you’re simply unable to take the action necessary to get the thing you want, there’s not much you can do about it.
To recap, a cue makes us notice a potential reward, a craving is our desire for it, our response is the action we take, and, in theory, this all leads to the reward itself. The reward is the good feeling a certain action delivers.
That said, rewards don’t just make us feel good. We experience them because rewards tell us that certain actions lead to certain benefits. They played a key role in the survival of our early human ancestors.
To some degree, they still play a role in our own survival too. The problem is, our lives aren’t very similar to those of our early ancestors, and because of this, some of the rewards we experience can make us more likely to develop bad habits.
You get a pleasurable boost of dopamine from overeating because (among other reasons) our ancestors couldn’t roll up to a fast-food spot and easily grab a burger and fries. When an opportunity to fill up on essential calories came along, they needed to do whatever they could to take advantage of it. The rewarding feelings they experienced when they did get the chance to fill up resulted in a craving that gave them the motivation to continue pursuing food. Those who had this motivation were more likely to seek out food, which made them more likely to eat, survive, and pass on their genes.
Of course, now, the chance to overeat isn’t a rare occurrence for many of us. The pleasant feelings you experience when you eat too much fast-food might have been crucial to the survival of your ancient ancestors, but now, that experience can promote habits that are not only unnecessary, but harmful.
What can you do about it?
Luckily, when you understand this process, you can consciously use that knowledge to break bad habits and develop good ones. To break a bad habit you need to eliminate one of the components somehow, whether it be the cue, craving, response, or reward. You can find ways to prevent yourself from noticing a potential reward, find ways to make that potential reward seem unappealing, find ways to make taking the action to get the reward too difficult, or even find ways to make the result of your actions unsatisfying. To develop a good habit, you can make a potential reward more noticeable, make it appealing, make pursuing it easier, and learn to love the reward.
The specific nature of this process can vary from one person to another in many, many ways. For instance, not everyone craves fast-food, or responds to the same cues. However, the main point to keep in mind is simple and encouraging: you’re much more likely to change your habits when you remember where they come from.
Photo by Joshua Earle