There’s a feedback loop behind all human behavior: try, fail, learn, try differently. But what happens when something that’s toxic for you makes you feel too good to resist? What happens when you make it a habit? Or rather, when your behavior becomes so ritualistic that it becomes a part of your everyday routine?
According to #1 New York Times Bestseller, Atomic Habits, a habit is a behavior that has been repeated enough times to become automatic. The process of habit formation begins with trial and error, and the habits you build can either lead you to incredible success, or immense agony. There’s so much I’ve learned from James Clear’s phenomenal book, but my favorite part was learning about the science of why the brain builds habits. Whenever we encounter a new situation in life, our brains have to make a decision: how do I respond to this? This is with everything. Every thought, every movement, and every action. Neurological activity in the brain is high whenever we’re forced to make decisions, and this is why carefully analyzing situations and making conscious decisions about how to act is extremely vital. Every moment in life, your brain is busy learning the most effective course of action. And like our external receptors, the brain also wants to be rewarded and to “feel good”, or rather, at equilibrium. Hence, it’s not a matter of which habits you adapt, but rather why you adapt them; because they make you feel good.
Based on information from the CDC, in 2019, nearly 14 of every 100 U.S. adults aged 18 years or older (14.0%) smoked cigarettes. This means an estimated 34.1 million adults in the United States currently smoke cigarettes. And more than 16 million Americans live with a smoking-related disease. This is tragic, to say the least, and as someone who used to have a nicotine addiction, I can totally attest to the fact that anxiety and stress is consuming this country, and as a result, people are resulting to drugs and alcohol to heal their discomforts in life.
Whenever you face a problem repeatedly, your brain begins to automate the process of solving it. How you felt when using a certain solution determines whether or not you will repeat that pattern of behavior. As behavioral scientist Jason Hreha writes, “Habits are, simply, reliable solutions to recurring problems in our environment.” As habits are created, the level of activity in the brain decreases. Meaning, the more a habit sticks to your routine, the more automatic the habit becomes. This is why a change in one’s habits leads to a change in their life. Habits are embedded in the core of humanity, and as earthling beings, we have the choice of which habits will be engrained in our lives: good ones, or bad ones. When you feel anxious, do you go for a run… or pick up a cigarette? When you feel tired and not in the mood to do anything at all, do you pick up a book, or scroll on social media for hours? When you’re hungry, do you eat a balanced diet, or chose fast food because it’s “easier”? These are all a few questions that I’ve designed to help you understand the simplicity of the brain when it comes to habits: if this, then that.
So what are the 4 easy steps to changing your habits? I’m glad you asked. We’ll be getting into that in a bit. But first, let’s understand why our brains function as they do.
According to Atomic Habits, a book that should be on everyone’s shelf, the process of building a habit can be divided into four simple steps: cue, craving, response, and reward. This four-step pattern is the backbone of every habit, and your brain runs through these steps in the same order each and every single time.
The first step you must master and deeply comprehend is the cue. A cue is simply a prompt/reminder. It’s something that triggers your brain to initiate behavior. It’s a bit of information that predicts reward. There are primal cues for survival and genetic reproduction such as the need for food, water, and sex. However, the world we live in today has made it such that we crave other things in life: status, wealth, power, approval, friendship, etc. Cues are the first indication that we’re close to a reward. And this goes hand in hand with the second step: craving.
Cravings are the second step, and they are the motivational force behind every habit. This is where we see energy being transmuted into ACTION. Your brain might receive a cue that you’re hungry, but the craving of food is what will motivate you to get up and get something to eat. What you crave is not the habit itself, but rather the change in state it delivers. As a wise man once said, you don’t crave a cigarette, you crave the feeling of relief/satisfaction it provides. You don’t browse social media “just for fun”, you browse it because crave to be entertained. Though cravings change from one person to the next, EVERY craving is linked to a desire to change your internal state. This is trivial to remember.
The response is just that – your response to your craving. For a Heroine addict, for example, the sight of a needle can be a potential trigger that sparks a wave of desire to use. For a gambling addict, the sound of slot machines can be a potent trigger. As we discussed earlier, every habit starts from building blocks of cues and cravings; but what you do with those cravings determines your response. In order for someone to change a bad habit, they MUST first crave a change as badly as they crave whatever habit(s) they want to break. This is because from the moment we are born into this world, the brain is constantly analyzing every situation and creating a system of response. If a particular action requires more physical or mental effort than you are willing to expend, you simply will not do it. You must crave change in order to have it.
Rewards are the end goal of every habit; they’re the foundation of life. The cue is about THINKING of a reward; the craving is about WANTING the reward; and the response is about OBTAINING that reward. We chase rewards because they serve two purposes: 1) they satisfy us, and 2) they teach us. Food and water satisfy our mortality; getting a highly paying job satisfies our need to not live paycheck to paycheck (if you manage your money properly); and getting in shape improves our health and satisfies our self-image and even dating prospects. You probably catch the drift by now: EVERY ACTION HAS A REACTION. Never forget this. Everything you do will either provide satisfaction or teach you a lesson. You’re just responsible for the outcome(s).
Your brain is a reward detector. As you go about your life, your sensory nervous system is continously monitoring which actions satisfy your desires and deliver pleasure. This is happening even right now as you’re reading this. You more than likely saw the title of this article (cue) and your brain started craving insight for self-improvement, which is now leading you to respond to the cue/craving by reading and getting the reward of knowledge. Rewards close the feedback loop and complete the habit cycle. Simply, you’re rewarded according to your habits.
How to break bad habits
First and foremost, you must consciously decide on WHY you want to change your bad habits. This is because if you decide that a behavior is insufficient in any of the four stages mentioned above (cue, craving, response, reward) it will not become a habit. Meaning, you have to truly believe that the behavior does NOT serve you, or any purpose in your life. Eliminate the cue and your habit will never start. Reduce the craving and you won’t experience enough motivation to act. Make the behavior difficult and you won’t be able to do it. And if the reward fails to satisfy your desire, then you’ll have no reason to do it again in the future. It won’t be easy, but you must create a deficit in your bad behaviors in order for you to actually pursue change.
2. All behavior is driven by the desire to solve a problem. The purpose of every habit is to solve the problems you face in life. However, after decades of mental programming, we automatically slip into certain patterns of thinking and acting: some good, and others detrimental. That’s precisely why breaking bad habits isn’t easy peasy. Habits are engrained into our bodies and routines. The second most effective way to break a bad habit is by being patient with yourself – and realizing that this is a matter of changing your MINDSET; not necessarily the habit itself. This will save you a lot of time, energy, and frustration.
3. Make your goal attractive. Creative a vision board with all your goals and the good habits you desire to acquire, and set it somewhere you can see it every single day. You can make a physical vision board with cut-out pictures from magazines – or create a digital one with resources such as Pinterest. It doesn’t matter. The most important thing is to make your goal so attractive to your mind, body and spirit that you can’t resist but want to attain that said goal. For example, if your bad habit is eating out and/or eating unhealthily, have a portion of your vision board represent your body/health goals. If your bad habit is biting your nails, have a picture of the perfect natural manicure in your eyes. If your bad habit is spending money too fast, print out a picture with the exact amount of money you dream to have in your bank account engrained at the bottom. SEEING truly is BELIEVING. Until you have a vision in mind, your goals are just that… goals. Having a vision and plan is what makes goals reality.
Lastly, KISS – Keep It Simple Sexy. The actual saying is “keep it simple stupid”, but I’d never call you stupid – so we’ll settle with sexy 😉 Keep it simple by 1) reducing exposure to your bad habit(s) and 2) making S.M.A.R.T. goals. The acronym for S.M.A.R.T. goals is explained in detail below.
S – Specific: make your goal very specific and particular, and focus on one thing at a time. If you’re sick and tired of spending thousands of dollars on cigarettes, make it your prime focus to specifically stop spending your money on cigarettes. Focusing on one thing at a time helps you feel like you’re making progress, which will in turn reward your brain into wanting more of that feeling.
M – Measurable. It’s important to have measurable goals so that you can hold yourself accountable, track your progress, and stay motivated. Assessing progress helps you to stay focused, meet your deadlines, and feel the excitement of getting closer to achieving your goal. Measurable goals means that you identify exactly what it is you will see, hear and feel when you reach your goal. It means breaking your goal down into measurable elements. You’ll need concrete evidence. Baby steps. Measurable goals lay out the foundation of the goal.
A – Attainable. This one is pretty self explanatory. Your goal needs to be realistic and attainable to be successful. In other words, it should stretch your abilities – but still remain possible. For example, say your goal is to run a mile everyday, but you haven’t exercised in months, maybe even years. Be kind to yourself and realize that since you are out of shape, it might take you a while to finally start running a mile in under 10 minutes. You can’t start running for the first time in ages and expect to be Usain Bolt. Setting unrealistic goals will only discourage you and send you right back to your bad habits. This goes back to the concept of patience. Be patient with yourself and with your goals, and don’t let other people’s progress define when/how you attain your goals.
R – Relevant: This step is about ensuring that your goal matters to you, and that it also aligns with other relevant goals. It’s about your WHY. This is a crucial step when it comes to breaking bad habits because it allows you to really delve deep and analyze why you want/need change so badly. We all need support and assistance in achieving our goals, but it’s important to retain control over them. So, make sure that your plans drive everyone including yourself forward, but realize that you’re SOLELY responsible for achieving your own goals. Reframe your mindset to highlight the benefits of your bad habits by making them relevant to your life…your NOW.
T – Timely – Set a time limit for yourself. Studies prove that it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days for a person to form a new habit, and an average of 66 days for a new behavior to become automatic, as we discussed earlier. Instead of saying, “I’ll start working out one day,” set a date for yourself and/or even start a gym membership so that your words are accounted for. Setting timely goals allows you to have a target date. Ask yourself questions such as: who do I want to be in the next 6 months, or what can I do six weeks from now? This will allow your brain to compartmentalize the heavy task ahead of you of breaking your bad habits while allowing the short-term goals to take priority.
There are many sets of rules we can use to build better habits. However, I’ve learned that understanding the roots of bad habits is the first step towards breaking them. The ultimate purpose of habits is to solve the problems of life with as little energy and effort as possible. And as we’ve seen on this blog post, any habit can be broken down into a feedback loop that involves four steps: cue, craving, response and reward. Setting specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely goals is only one step of the process. The rest requires total will and pure surrender to wanting to break bad habits. That’s the key word: want. Your mind, body and soul must desire to change before you can ever see the results you crave. That’s why understanding how the brain functions is crucial to breaking bad habits. I hope this blog post has been insightful in one way or another. Let’s start the week off contemplating on which bad habits we want to break, then work steadily toward changing them. Remember, slow and steady wins the race. Your only competition is yourself! So relish in the fact that you’ve been blessed with another day to become anything you want, and make the right choices. If you’ve read up to this point, you are the real MVP. Thank you for supporting my art.
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