We all want to fulfill our potential and achieve our goals. However, sometimes the distance between our current selves and the person we would like to be is too far. Change feels daunting and overwhelming, but it is necessary to be a better version of ourselves.
So, what creates change? Believe it or not, our habits can help us change who we are. Although many of us have an idea of how important habits can be, we often struggle to create better habits. Why do you think many people try and fail to accomplish New Year’s goals?
It is not due to a lack of motivation or will. Creating and enforcing new habits is difficult when you don’t know where to start. So, allow this article to serve as a guide.
What are habits?
Habits are a series of automated behaviors that depend on a series of internal or external factors. It is easy to say what you do often becomes a habit. Although true, context also matters in habit formation.
Before we delve into habit formation, let’s look at our brains.
The human brain is a supercomputer with approximately 86 billion neurons to help it carry out order via neurological pathways. Because your brain is in charge of many functions, it consumes about 20% of your total energy, so it tries to make things easier for itself by choosing preformed pathways. It doesn’t spend more energy than it needs to.
What does this have to do with habits?
Habits are also neurological pathways. A habit becomes a link between neurons, and the more it is repeated, the stronger that link becomes. So, in order to change your habits, you will have to change the order or chain of neurons.
To do so, let’s start by analyzing how a habit is formed. We know that habits are repeated behaviors, but where does the behavior start?
In the 1930s, psychologist B.F. Skinner coined the term “cue, craving, response, and reward.” This framework describes the habit formation process.
Cues are triggers that lead you to act in order to reach a reward. Humans have always responded to rewards, such as food, shelter, water, and sex. These rewards are instinctual and necessary for survival. However, as we’ve progressed through history, we have developed secondary rewards such as fame, wealth, status, and praise.
We naturally scan our environments looking for cues because we know they eventually lead us to a reward.
Once we’ve identified a cue, the craving comes next. Allow me to give you an example. Try to go back to when you were a kid. You just got out of school and were on your way home. On your way home, you and your parent walked past a Mcdonald’s or a fast food chain. Didn’t the craving immediately kick in?
That is an example of a cue and craving response. The cue might have been the golden arches or the smell of greasy fast food, and the craving was the desire to eat. The reason this cue-craving response works well is that the reward satisfies a primary need- food.
Cravings are the motivation behind every habit and rely on a dopamine feedback loop. Meaning, that your brain releases dopamine twice. The first time is when the craving kicks in, and the second time is once the craving has been satisfied. These two doses of dopamine ensure that you repeat a behavior.
Cravings and cues are different for everyone. Some are cues are emotional, interpersonal, or environmental, but the mechanism is the same– a craving will always follow a cue.
The next step in the habit formation process is the response. The response is the action. What you do in response to the cue. This is the actual habit you form. Many people think that habits are set in stone, but a habit depends on how easy or achievable it is.
Like I said before, our brains our quite lazy. If something is difficult, your brain is less likely to repeat it. If the response is something you are capable of doing, then it will likely become a habit.
Finally, our response delivers a reward. Our brain releases dopamine. and we feel a surge of fulfillment or satisfaction We chase rewards to feel satisfied or content, but also to know about ourselves because each habit is a presentation of an aspect of our identity.
But, what if I don’t like the habits I have? How do I get rid of them?
Now that we know how habits work, let’s work on creating better ones.
Steps to create better habits:
- Create awareness
The first step to changing your habits is awareness. Why? Many of us roam around on autopilot throughout the day and don’t realize that many of our actions keep us stagnant.
A great way to develop an awareness of your habits is to write down your habits for one week. Write down everything you do in a day, whether good or bad. In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear calls this a habit scorecard.
Writing down your current habits for one week allows you to observe what you do each day and where there is room for change. Additionally, a habit scorecard may help you identify your cues. Sometimes, a habit can become a cue for another habit. For example, grabbing a bag of chips can become a cue for a Netflix binging habit.
- Work with habit formation formula.
Once you’ve monitored your habits for a week, it’s time to hack your cue, response, and reward. To hack your cue-response-reward system, make your new habits easier.
James Clear outlined the four ways to create better habits, so I will summarize them.
- Make it Obvious
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” – Carl Jung
A habit scorecard is a great way to make your habits obvious. It lets you see what you do throughout the day. Another tactic is the “pointing-calling” method. Audibly call out what you are doing. It brings awareness to a whole new level.
Another way to make good habits obvious is by changing your environment. Margaret Mead famously said, ” we are the product of our environment.” Although this quote relates to anthropology, the quote can also apply to habits.
Because cues are all around us, what is within reach impacts our behaviors. For example, you see your phone on your desk, which prompts you to pick it up to check your notifications.
Psychologist Kurt Lewin best summarized the relationship between environment and behavior with this quote, ” Behavior is a function of the person in the environment.” This is where choice architecture plays a role. Choice architecture is typically applied in marketing strategies, and for good reason. Next time you are at a supermarket, note where the soft drinks and unhealthy snacks are versus where the granola and organic foods are.
But the concept of choice architecture can help you create better habits.
- Make it Easy
Choice architecture gives us a nice segue into the next step- making it easy. When you reshape your environment and change up your cues, it becomes easier to establish a new habit. Of course, the term environment is a broad term. Your environment does not only refers to the physical things around you but also your relationships.
Think about it. Many people consider themselves to be non-smokers, but at a party, they may partake in the activity. It’s all a matter of where we are and who we are with.
A great way to make things easy for yourself is to piggyback a new habit off of an older one. This works because you no longer have to find new cues for each new habit you want to create.
One last suggestion to make your habits easier is to use the five-minute rule. The five-minute rule means to do the new habit every day for five minutes. In the long run, you will notice that you are spending more than five minutes on your new habit.
- Make it Attractive
The other step in creating better habits is to make them attractive.
When going through a habit, our brain releases dopamine during two different stages- the craving stage and the reward stage. To make a habit attractive, you need to stimulate a release of dopamine. Dopamine serves as motivation and ensures that you repeat something again. So, how do you make an unattractive habit, such as running or studying, attractive?
Interestingly enough, dopamine is released in larger quantities during the anticipation of something rather than during the reward phase. One solution that Mr. Clear provides in his book is bundling. He suggests that you combine a habit with something that brings you happiness. For example, work out for 30 minutes and then watch an episode of House of Dragons (or whatever other show). This causes a release of dopamine which urges you to get through the exercise.
Another way to make good habits attractive is to surround yourself with people who match your future you. As humans, we want to be welcomed by our social groups; hence we emulate their behaviors to fit in. When creating new habits, surround yourself with people who already are what you wish to be. If you want to be an entrepreneur, surround yourself with entrepreneurs.
- Make it Satisfying
Now that we’ve covered the groundwork for creating habits, how do you make them stick? The best way to make a habit stick is by making it satisfying. The best way to make something satisfying is by tracking it.
Tracking a habit works because we love numbers. We all love to have visual cues that tell us how much we’ve progressed–be it charts, line graphs, or percentages. These numbers affirm and validate our progress. But measuring habits can be a bit tricky.
Many people rely on habit trackers and it works for them, but there are simpler ways to track habits. You could use a jar and drop in a coin whenever you complete a habit. By the end of the week, you will see a collection of items that represent your progress.
The last tip to creating a habit is to work with your genes and predispositions.
This tip may sound a bit counterintuitive, but when you work in an environment where the odds are in your favor accomplishing goals becomes a lot easier.
How do you find out what things are in your favor or not? Trial and error. We do it all the time. Whether it is in relationships or academics, we figure out what works and what doesn’t and eventually lean towards the things that work best.
Figure out what brings you happiness, contentment, fulfillment, and success, and stick with them until they don’t anymore.
We all want to change and become the best versions of ourselves. But the distance between our dreams and goals is an action-filled with repetition. Repetition is a form of change. The more you repeat something to more you change. Habits form based n frequency, not duration. The more you do something, the easier it becomes.
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