Habits — Introduction and Understanding

This is the first article in a series of articles on habits, how we can understand them, how we can improve our chances of creating new habits that stick, and how we can challenge our bad habits.

Habits are the things that we do. They are things that we do and decisions we make, actions ingrained into us that require little thought to start or carry out. Each day, so many of the things that we do are down to our habits. Whether it be brushing your teeth twice a day, eating your three meals a day, choosing which foods to eat at any given time, getting dressed, exercising however many times each week, commuting, reading the news, reading books, watching TV, drinking alcohol, etc.

Everyone (except very young children) will have a long list of daily habits that we barely even notice but play a crucial role in our lives. If we know of all the habits someone has, it will paint a clear picture of who that person is and what they value most. Many habits are positive, many can be negative — but creating new positive habits and getting rid of negative ones is generally very challenging.

Your life could be improved vastly by creating new regular habits, such as reading non-fiction books, exercising, setting aside time to organise your life, spending more time productively, waking up earlier, learning a language, journaling, meditating, or communicating with friends more often.

Likewise, getting rid of bad habits can make a very noticeable improvement in your overall life satisfaction. Some bad habits you might have and could consider trying to remove or alter could be: buying too much alcohol, binge eating, consuming too much sugar, procrastinating, spending too much time watching TV or playing video games, spending too long on social media (or checking it too often), checking the news too often, or spending too much time sitting down each day.

Removing bad habits and installing good ones will be the focus of this series of articles on habits. By the end of this series, you should be able to formulate strategies for integrating good habits and for eliminating your bad habits. I don’t think it’s possible to remove every single bad habit, but even if you could put an end to a single bad habit or establish a single good one, then the time spent reading these articles should be worth the time investment. Well, I’d like to say reading the articles on this website regularly is a positive habit too. 😁

The Basics of Habits

In general, habits tend to follow the same basic pattern: a cue, followed by a craving, then a response (action), and then receiving a reward for your effort.

Cues are things that you notice (often unconsciously) that signal you to feel a certain way or cause you to respond. A cue could be an alarm clock, telling you that it’s time to wake up. Another example could be seeing your boss, which might cause you to focus or feel a certain way. In our world, there are thousands of cues that our brain is picking up on and causing us to react in certain ways.

Then follows the craving, where we want to react to a cue to take action, and our minds think that taking action will lead to a reward. When your alarm goes off, you may want to get out of bed (or stay in bed a little longer). This is the craving. When you go to your kitchen in the morning, you get the desire to eat breakfast. Without a craving, there is no motivation or desire to take any action at all. This might be due to feeling that the work required to get the reward is too much in proportion to the level of reward.

Followed by the craving is the response (or action), where you try to satisfy your craving to feel the rewards afterwards. And after you have acted, you generally get a reward. This can be in the form of feeling good after tasting something sweet, it could be getting affection from another person, or getting money. In a lot of cases, the rewards are not immediate —such as revising for an exam (where the reward is getting a good score on the exam or even the distant reward of a higher-paying job) or learning a language (which takes a large time investment to get any practical value from). For the actions where rewards should come in the distant future, we want to create immediate rewards for those actions so we’re more inclined to do them.

Here’s a complete example of all four components of a habit: when you feel a slight sense of boredom (cue), you want to get your phone out (craving), then you get your phone out of your pocket and then proceed to check for messages or start scrolling down some feed (response/action), and you temporarily alleviate that sense of boredom and might feel slightly better (reward).

Another example could be with people who like to drink coffee soon after waking up. When you wake up (cue), you want to drink coffee (craving), so you make a cup of coffee and drink it (response/action), and then feel good from the taste of the coffee and will feel more alert after a short while (reward).

While this deconstruction of each habit into these four categories may not always work, or it might be hard to pinpoint a clear cue, generally any habit can be looked at through this lens.

When we’re creating a new habit, we want to optimise each of the four components to have the greatest chance for the habit to stick. If we want to start a habit but we never get prompted to act, then we need to improve the cue. If we don’t want to start to take action, then we can make it easier to do (improving the response/action). We can also improve the reward which in turn should improve the level of craving.

The opposite can be used for bad habits, by making the cues less visible, by removing rewards or adding bad consequences, or by making the response more difficult.

In the next article, we’ll look at methods we can use to build new habits by optimising each of the four components of the habit we’re trying to establish. Further on in this series of articles, we’ll look at ways to get rid of bad habits, sticking to habits until they become long-term habits, ways of preventing the loss of good habits when the going gets tough, and any other things that are useful for getting a better understanding of habits.

Stay tuned. 😊