How do we begin to formulate new habits? The first thing we must do is understand the psychology behind habit formation. Author James Clear has published one of the foremost books on the topic. His book Atomic Habits is a comprehensive review of habit formation and how to correct our habits to match our desired goals.
In his book, James breaks habit formation down into four key steps. They are the cue, craving, response and reward. He suggests that every reaction to an event in our lives is actually a habit loop driven by these 4 steps. For example, when you walk into a dark room and cannot see, you immediately, you turn on the light and continue on doing what you were going to do. Even this simple act is a habit that you have not even recognized. The very first time you walked into a dark room (cue) you wanted the ability to see what is in the room (reward), therefor you turned on the light and were rewarded with the ability to see and assess what was going on in the room. Thus, in the future each time you entered a dark room you adopted this behavior due to its beneficial nature.
The simple act of turning on a light in your room is a formed habit.
The cue in this scenario was the dark room; which acts as a trigger within your brain to begin a habit loop. Our brain uses cues such as these to indicate potential rewards without us even having to process the entire sequence of events required to acquire the reward. This process is conducted continually within our subconscious brain, and once our subconscious detects a cue for a specific reward it stimulates us to take action on it by enacting a craving.
Cravings are the first part of the habit process we are usually able to identify consciously. Our hunger, our exhaustion, our longing or other needs are due to a craving our subconscious brain has put in our mind due to a cue. Many people confuse the craving step of the habit loop with the action required to fulfill the craving. Cravings are the perceived need in our brain for the end reward. The craving has little to do with how we achieve this end it only conveys how we will feel at the end of the habit. How we achieve this reward takes place in the third step of habit formation; response.
Our responses to cues and cravings are driven by our ability to act on them as well as the level of motivation we have to achieve the end reward. Think of this as the part of the habit that determines how strong the habit will be. Habits that have complex, difficult or resource demanding responses are likely to be practiced less. This is why exercising is so hard; it requires a large amount of resources in terms of energy and time and is often difficult, therefor our brains often strongly resist following such a habit. This will continue to be true until you make the reward greater than any perceived resistance.
Our habits result in a response our subconscious brain desire. This comes in the form of a reward that satisfies us or teaches us, resulting in a positive-enforcement neuro-chemical release. This in turn fulfills the craving we had at the beginning of the habit process. This is the critical part of the entire process. When formulating new habits we need to focus on increasing the rewards which will re-enforce the habit and increase the overall craving. However, focusing only on the end reward will ultimately set you up for failure in this system.
When we focus only on the reward, we forget the importance of the cue, craving and response. Without an easily triggered cue the habit will never even be started! Without a suitable craving there is no drive to act. Without a drive to respond or with too much resistance against that response we will not act. Therefor it is important that when we form new habits or break old habits, we access each step of the habit loop along the way and try to make each step as easy or hard as possible.
The habit-forming loop is happening continuously within our lives whether we know it or not. It may be as simple as our dark room example or as complex as our reaction to a medical case. Making or breaking new habits to improve your professional development can be quite simple once you know the common components to the habit loop and how to alter them in an appropriate way.
Carry on OTO’ers
Ps. If you liked this article checkout the book that inspired it; Atomic Habits on Amazon! James Clear’s widely acclaimed Amazon best selling book has provided me with a ton of insight into habits and routines I never knew I practiced before. From things as simple as flossing my teeth to things as complex as how I approach a D/A surgery this book has had a huge positive impact my daily habits!