Your life today is essentially the sum of your habits.
How in shape or out of shape you are? A result of your habits.
How happy or unhappy you are? A result of your habits.
How successful or unsuccessful you are? A result of your habits.
What you repeatedly do (i.e. what you spend time thinking about and doing each day) ultimately forms the person you are, the things you believe, and the personality that you portray.
But what if you want to improve? What if you want to form new habits? How would you go about it?
The best way to address this is to understand how habits form to begin with.
The process of building a habit can be divided into four simple steps: cue, craving, response, and reward. Breaking it down into these fundamental parts can help us understand what a habit is, how it works, and how to improve it.
First, there is the cue. The cue triggers your brain to initiate a behavior. It is a bit of information that predicts a reward. Today, we spend most of our time learning cues that predict secondary rewards like money and fame, power and status, praise and approval, love and friendship, or a sense of personal satisfaction.
Cravings are the second step of the habit loop, and they are the motivational force behind every habit. Without some level of motivation or desire — without craving a change — we have no reason to act. What you crave is not the habit itself but the change in state it delivers. You do not crave smoking a cigarette, you crave the feeling of relief it provides. You are not motivated by brushing your teeth but rather by the feeling of a clean mouth. You do not want to turn on the television, you want to be entertained. Every craving is linked to a desire to change your internal state. Cravings differ from person to person. In theory, any piece of information could trigger a craving, but in practice, people are not motivated by the same cues. For a gambler, the sound of slot machines can be a potent trigger that sparks an intense wave of desire. For someone who rarely gambles, the jingles and chimes of the casino are just background noise. Cues are meaningless until they are interpreted. The thoughts, feelings, and emotions of the observer are what transform a cue into a craving.
The third step is the response. The response is the actual habit you perform, which can take the form of a thought or an action. Whether a response occurs depends on how motivated you are and how much friction is associated with the behavior. If a particular action requires more physical or mental effort than you are willing to expend, then you won’t do it. Your response also depends on your ability. It sounds simple, but a habit can occur only if you are capable of doing it.
Finally, the response delivers a reward. Rewards are the end goal of every habit. The cue is about noticing the reward. The craving is about wanting the reward. The response is about obtaining the reward. We chase rewards because they serve two purposes: (1) they satisfy us and (2) they teach us.
The first purpose of rewards is to satisfy your craving. Yes, rewards provide benefits on their own. Food and water deliver the energy you need to survive. Getting a promotion brings more money and respect. Getting in shape improves your health. But the more immediate benefit is that rewards satisfy your craving to eat or to gain status or to win approval. At least for a moment, rewards deliver contentment and relief from craving.
Second, rewards teach us which actions are worth remembering in the future. Your brain is a reward detector. As you go about your life, your sensory nervous system is continuously monitoring which actions satisfy your desires and deliver pleasure. Feelings of pleasure and disappointment are part of the feedback mechanism that helps your brain distinguish useful actions from useless ones. Rewards close the feedback loop and complete the habit cycle.
Come back next week when we discuss how to break bad habits.
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