Habits influence us in various aspects of our lives, for the better and the worse. The great thing is, once you understand how habits work you can learn how to make them work for you and by doing so become a more productive and happier version of yourself.
Habits are often overlooked when thinking about making long term progress. The key to success often lies in consistency and habits = consistency. So in order to achieve your goals make sure you implement the right habits into your life. What is so interesting about them is the fact that they are often subconsciously impacting our daily actions and behavior in almost anything we do, this begins with getting out of bed in the morning, a quick shower, getting ready for work, and a coffee to-go from our favorite cafe. Most of these things we are doing without giving it a second thought as our brains are running on auto-pilot in these situations. They only become more obvious if we can’t follow our normal routine, e.g. we are running late and now we have to skip getting a coffee. All of a sudden we would feel the unsatisfied craving for it as we are walking past the cafe.
All habits are formed over an extended period of time. The right habits can be a strong driver for satisfaction and can promote permanent positive change in our lives. Now someone with a set of great habits, e.g. going to the gym regularly, eating healthy, and going to bed at a similar time every night, might almost seem like they have superpowers. The crazy thing is, once we have established a new habit, they almost become easy or effortless.
But there is a downside. Bad habits have the opposite effect, they often negatively impact our physical or psychological well-being and we perform them as effortlessly as we would with the good ones. Bad habits could be frequent smoking or snoozing your alarm-clock 3 times every morning, even though we all know that it means we are now running the risk of getting to work late, have to hurry much more and won’t be able to pick up a nice coffee on our way and so forth.
In order to actually establish new habits or break old ones it is crucial to understand how habits work. Thankfully, it is not rocket science and there are a few ways to trick our brains and our subconscious behavior to do as we wish. While not easy to always stay consistent, it is certainly worth trying.
First let's have a look at how the subconscious decision making progress in our brains looks like. In this context, it makes sense to have a look at what is called the habit loop. Every good or bad habit works the same way and follows the four steps seen on the right.
First let’s have a look at an example to make this a bit more tangible:
These are the 4 steps that can also be seen in the habit loop above:
Cue (trigger) → Craving → Response (action) → Reward
By dissecting habits in its individual pieces and understanding how each step is influencing us, we can also take the right actions to change our behavior. Aside from understanding the habit loop it is also helpful to know when habits are normally triggered. Cues are usually tied to one of the 5 following states:
Now we know that we can break down habits in four different steps and connect them to five different situations. This gives us the basic understanding needed to find solutions to either suppress bad habits or start great new ones.
Let’s look at the above example of phone use again. In this case picking up the phone was triggered by an “immediately preceding action”, i.e. the phone's vibration. However, this is certainly not the only situation that might trigger us to use our phone. It could also be an “emotional state” where we feel bored and want to distract ourselves, it could be triggered by “other people” who are on their phones next to you, maybe while we are all having dinner. As you see, there are plenty of situations that might randomly cause us to use our phone for various reasons. Even though the situations are different, the habit loop still runs through the four steps.
Now let’s say we want to stop picking up the phone every time it vibrates or every time we feel bored or in general use it less frequently, what are our options and how can we suppress that habit?
As with most habits you are left presented with 1-2 options:
Think about the following two scenarios: in the first the phone is next to you on the table or in your pocket. If you now feel the need to grab it there is nothing to stop you (except strong will power) and you usually go ahead and start scrolling. In the second scenario the phone is in a different room of your apartment or house. If you want to grab the phone now, you first have to make the very conscious decision of getting up, walking to the phone and doing whatever you want to do. The likelihood of “random” or “subconscious” phone use is therefore zero and you can continue focusing on your tasks at hand.
This is the case for plenty of situations and you will notice it once you start paying attention to it. For example, you want to eat healthier but you have sweets in the house. Now the action of getting and eating some is very difficult. If you had no sweets in the house in the first place you would have to go to the grocery store or gas station every time you want some chocolate. Even if you did go to the store 1 out of 10 times, it is still better than eating sweets the 10 out of 10 times you were craving them.
This brings me to my next and last point when it comes to breaking an unwanted habit - set yourself up for success. It is almost impossible to succeed with breaking a bad habit or setting up a good new habit when the external circumstances make it difficult. Just like with the example above and the goal to reduce phone use or eat less sweets: if the phone is always next to you or in your pocket it will come down to pure willpower to actually improve your screen time. This is very tiring and chances of success are low. What you should be doing instead is to create an environment that makes it easy to stop picking up your phone every time you feel bored or hear it ring. The “environment” you need for this case is simple - don’t have it next to you, but always in a different room when you are at home.
Now to the good part: I want to finish this article with one powerful method that can be used to establish good new habits. The method is called habit stacking and is quite simple. Instead of creating a new habit out of thin air use your existing environment and piggyback of already established habits. For example, you are not getting enough Vitamin C and you want to make sure this changes. One thing you could now do is to remember taking a pill every day at 3pm (a bit random, but to prove the point). Likelihood of always remembering this way is low. Instead what you could do is to combine taking the pill or drinking a glass of orange juice every morning during breakfast. In this case you are adding one activity to something you are already doing, i.e an existing habit. By combining a new habit with an already existing one, the chances are much higher that this new habit will also establish itself as a permanent addition.
In our phone example from earlier this could look like this:
You come home → you take off your shoes → you hand up your jacket → you put down your keys AND now you also put down your phone.
You basically took 3 existing habits and added a 4th one on top. This is easier than having no rules around when you want to put your phone away at home.
This brings me to the end of this blog post. I hope you enjoyed this brief introduction to the topic. Many ideas and concepts discussed in this blog post are from the book Atomic Habits by James Clear. In case you have already read the book, I hope this was a nice little refresher on some of its content. In case you are curious to learn please check out the link here, you can find his website and more information on the book.