The Habit cycle
According to research presented in James Clear’s book Atomic Habits (New York Times Bestseller) building a habit has 4 stages:
- Cue – a cue is a trigger that elicits a reaction in your brain. An expectancy reaction that we will be rewarded
- Craving – this is the motivation or desire to make a change because of the expected outcome of making that change, & most importantly how that change will make you feel
- Response – this the habit behaviour or thought itself, whether this happens depends largely on the amount of friction associated with the behaviour, the strength of the craving and your ability to actually do what you are setting out to do
- Reward – the end goal of the habit, satisfaction of the craving and ultimately giving your brain feedback about what behaviours or thoughts are worthwhile or not
When I first looked at this, it was glaringly obvious to me that this is similar to the addiction loop that individuals who struggle to get out of alcoholism and drug abuse fight against. Which makes this feel like a brain hack right? We can choose to use a powerful mechanism for good instead of for bad when it comes to our wellbeing and lives.
Why is it helpful to understand the Habit cycle?
By understanding the Four steps in a habit cycle, you understand how to automate habits that can literally change our lives. Because a huge chunk of what we do every single day is habitual. If your habits are disempowering you, are limiting you, and hurting you, then things are inevitably going to get worse. However, if your habits empower you, expand your energy, help you to achieve your goals, then life is going to improve.
We first make our habits, and then our habits make us. – John Dryden
How to change your habits?
Identify the target problem & desired outcome
Before we make a change we need to identify what the change specifically is that we want to make. We want to get clear what the problem is. Why is it a problem? What habit would you prefer to have? How would that change in your habits change your life? & Why is that change in your life meaningful to you personally? Leaving shoulds at the door. What values does this habit align with?
Set ourselves an achievable goal with a stretch goal for when you start to gain momentum & want to take things up a notch
I recommend choosing one habit at a time. When we try to do too much all at once it can be too overwhelming and we are more likely to go into procrastination and distraction rather than taking the action we want to take. So choose one habit that is going to make a big impact on your life.
And start there. If this goal feels too big, assign yourself a smaller, more manageable chunk to get started, because you will feel more motivated once you’ve started anyway. So then you can set yourself the stretch goal of establishing a more audacious habit.
Make it so easy that you can’t say no.
During the planning phase, determine what will be your triggers/cues that you can have set up to elicit a craving to get yourself into the habit loop. Something that will be in your face. This is why some people use vision boards or something similar to cue our brains to want to take the action to make these rewards happen.
Reduce any friction that may make it harder to go through with it. Example, say you want to start going to do a workout before work each morning. We may wish to lie our clothes out the night before. If we are challenged by getting up in the morning we may wish to increase friction for undesired behaviours such as snoozing our phones by putting it on the other side of the room so we have to get up to turn it off.
Accountability & support
The more accountability you can set up for yourself the better, people who will know and say something if they see you aren’t doing the habit you have set out to create. Continued support over the time it takes to create the habit is an important ingredient for success.
Track & reward
Research about how people develop habits shows that it takes an average of 66 days of practice for an action to become automatic, missing a day here and there is not a setback, but overall remaining committed to the habit change is made easier when we have a accountability, when we set ourselves a reward for making the change or very clearly highlight the innate reward received from it & remind ourselves of this frequently. Studies show even when you identify a goal as important and meaningful this isn’t enough to change it on its own, you need to track changes. We normally unintentionally take in some pieces of information and ignore others so having a way to see and measure progress objectively supports change.
Author: Samantha Sheppard, B Psych (Hons).
Samantha is a registered psychologist with experience working with children and adolescents (and their families), young adults and adults. Samantha empowers others with their mental health using a non-judgmental, compassionate approach and particularly resonates with the social and emotional wellbeing framework.
To make an appointment with Samantha Sheppard try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129.
Clear, J. (2018). Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones. Random House.