We all know we have both good and bad habits. It’s the bad habits, of course, that cause us heartache, and most of us would be glad to have the tools to knock those bad habits on the head.
We know that having helpful habits helps us have a healthy mind and body and a happy and productive life. Helpful habits make our goals and our dreams easier to fulfil, and helpful habits ensure we have a mindset of flexibility. We are more resilient when we have habits that are helpful.
Sometimes, though, we have habits that we are ashamed about or even embarrassed to admit to anyone. And if this is you, just know that you are not the lone ranger.
Habits are really just a repeatable solution to recurring problems. They are a natural process of learning, so if you’re feeling like you’ve got habits and sometimes you’ve got ones you are ashamed about or embarrassed about and wouldn’t admit to anyone, just know that you are not the lone ranger.
Habits, both good and bad, are created over time – not overnight. What’s more, our habits are firmly stored in our unconscious mind, so changing them can be very challenging and very difficult.
There are four stages to habit development. Some people call these stages the Habit Loop.
- Stage 1 of the Habit Loop is the cue
- Stage 2 is the craving
- Stage 3 is the response to that craving
- Stage 4 is the reward for that craving
Thus, the cue is literally the trigger to contemplating a reward. The reward is essentially linked to a basic desire, such as feeling calm, successful, powerful, feeling ok or just wanting something nice at the time.
The craving is the desire for the reward, and it’s very, very motivating. You actually don’t crave a cigarette. You crave the calm that smoking brings you. You don’t actually crave the coffee; you crave the feeling that coffee gives you. You don’t crave scrolling through Facebook; you crave either the numbness or getting out of your own problems and not thinking about yourself.
You crave the actual outcome that the habit gives you.
So in Stage 3, the response, it’s the actual habit that you perform – how you’re responding to your cue and your craving. It’s what you actually do to get that reward. The reward, of course, is the last stage in the habit loop, and it delivers some form of contentment. It is satisfying, and it actually closes this feedback loop. It closes the loop of the cue – you’ve got the cue, you crave something, you have a response, and then you get what you were craving.
So from Stage 1 to 4, you have then closed the loop, and sometimes one also gets a dopamine hit from that process, e.g. the cue. I wake up in the morning, and I crave a coffee; in fact, I crave a coffee before my feet even hit the tiles, my response is to get up, make the coffee and drink the coffee, and my reward is that I’m feeling alert and feeling awake and ready for the day.
But this just needs a few repeats, and very soon – now, drinking that coffee first thing has become a real habit for me. The same with the habits you would like to change – well, really, the same with all your habits; it’s the same loop with the habits that you have that are helpful for you.
Another example could be making the bed. The cue is that I look at the bed, and it’s messy when I get up. I crave to have a nice tidy bedroom. My response is to make the bed. My reward is my bedroom looks nice and tidy, and I feel organised for my day.
So that in itself is exactly the same loop for a habit that can be very helpful.
We know that when we have helpful habits, we are much more highly functioning. Helpful habits also help us to be more who and how we want to be as a person more often. When we have a ‘bank account’ of helpful habits, it goes a long way to helping us believe in ourselves more, have greater self-worth and have greater self-confidence.
So what can we do to look at this loop a little bit differently? Let’s change the names of the cue, crave, response and reward’. In a book called Atomic Habits by James Clear, he says instead of calling Stage 1 a cue, actually call it notice. So actually notice the cue you are experiencing. What are you feeling? Because noticing this will greatly increase your self-awareness. And we all know that self-awareness is key to change.
So instead of doing some of those unhelpful habits in automatic pilot mode, start to notice what is going on rather than being in automatic pilot. Ask yourself what is my cue for eating that Tim Tam or what is my cue for wanting that champagne or cigarette, or what is my cue for wanting to sit on the couch and scroll through Facebook. Observing and noticing our personal cues is really what can help us to create a plan to do something differently.
So ask ourselves what we are going to do differently. Create a plan.
To see the real benefit of this, take yourself six months ahead – look back over the last six months and think about your life. ‘If I haven’t changed this one habit or two habits, how am I going actually to feel at this point?’
This process is almost doing a habit failure, a changed habit failure post-mortem, if you like. This will enable you to notice a cue in the next few days – to sit and scroll or to go and have that cigarette or to reach for that drink or whatever else it is, or to go and raid the fridge – ask yourself if I do this right now, (because you’re now noticing it), if I do this right now then how is this behaviour going to impact my life over the next six months. If I choose to do something different right now, then what is the more long-term impact that this then will have?
So when it comes to the second stage and the actual craving, this is about making the habit irresistible. The craving is about really increasing your wanting – so ask yourself, what will that give me? What will that mean for me? When you stop and look at exactly what you want, you’re not then just having a short-term view of things. Looking six months ahead of the same behaviour pattern presents a very different long-term picture. You see more clearly that the craving effect is not just for the here and now. We can see the long-term effects, and they can be ugly.
We know that helpful habits resource us positively for the future and can often be hard in the immediate to create. Unhelpful habits can take a quick and sneaky hold. They are easy to do, yet they can stuff up our future. And unfortunately, all too often, we humans tend to want instant rewards. We want it, and we want it now.
In Stage 3 – the response – we talk about making change easier for ourselves. So this is about what we can do to simplify the habit change. If you plan to change your eating habits, then get the chocolate out of the house. Make sure you’ve got healthy food choices readily available. If you want to feel fitter and stronger and you plan regular visits to the gym or for a walk every day – or whatever it is, then make the change easier for yourself. Attend the gym nearest you. Take your workout gear to work with you; when you go to bed, put your bike pants and your runners out so that first thing in the morning, you are actually seeing them. The trick is to make the planned change as easy as possible for yourself.
Let’s say you want to make a habit of reading more rather than scrolling; well, when you make your bed in the morning, put your book on your bed. When you go to bed at night, your book is already sitting there. It’s not on the bookshelf; it’s not sitting next to the bed; it’s actually sitting right there and on the bed. It becomes a positive trigger.
In the fourth stage, it is time to think deeply about the satisfaction the new habit loop is giving us. Another trick is to add rewards to some of these new habits that you want to install.
Here’s a suggestion: for the month ahead, print out a table for each calendar day on an A4 sheet of paper – in four weekly increments. Stick it on the fridge or in a very obvious place for you. And every time the habit you want to create, whether it’s reading or exercising or choosing a healthy food option or whether it’s meditating for one minute, put a star, tick or cross to those days. Be vigilant and aim to start building a chain of the new habits that you want to install.
So rather than a calendar that has Monday tick, Tuesday blank, Wednesday tick, Thursday blank, aim to create a chain to the very next day – so it’s now Thursday tick, Friday tick etc.
When you wake up on Thursday, look at what’s on your calendar as motivation and do that habit again that day. Tick. Make up your mind that on Thursday you’re going to do it and then again on Friday. And so it goes. Lots of ticks at the end of the month. Far more ticks than blanks.
Do not focus on the finish line. Go in small increments. Say the finish line is that I want to lose 20 kilos, or I want to meditate every day, or I want to stop eating chocolate altogether. Let’s not focus on that finish line; instead, let us choose to focus on the start line. What little thing do I need to do each day to change this old habit loop?
Also, check out your environment. Have a look at changing your usual environment. As discussed, have the reminder of having a book actually on your bed, having a bowl of apples on your kitchen bench, and add the idea of moving things around at home. So let’s say in the evening you sit in the same chair, do the same scrolling or same drinking or the same ruminating – move the furniture around, change the environment, put something else on that chair as a trigger to do things differently.
These are small but powerful steps to changing habits. But through it all, and most importantly, be really kind to yourself as you recognise the need to change things, to remove bad habits and increase good ones.
Each morning it’s good to make a decision about who and how you want to be as a person that day. Who you are as a person is your actual identity. And it’s the helpful habits that help us create a much more positive identity.
Human behaviour is quite complex.
It can also be broken down into levels 1-4.
- Level 1 behaviour is the habits and actions that give us positive short and long-term pleasure. They feel good when we are doing them; they’re good for us, they’re good for others, and they serve the greater good, e.g. when I wake up every morning and stand in front of my bathroom mirror and put my hand on my heart and look in the mirror at myself and smile – and I know that is a Level 1 behaviour. It gives me both short and long-term pleasure. It feels good for me; it is good for me; it’s good for others because I’m uplifting myself, and it serves the greater good.
- Level 2 is the behaviour I conduct that gives me short-term pain but leads to long-term pleasure. This is the one that when wanting to re-invent our habits, can, in fact, be the most challenging.
If you’re wanting to start looking at yourself in the mirror and smiling at yourself and acknowledging yourself, the first time you do it, you might be looking in the mirror and going, ‘Oh my god, what am I doing… am I crazy?’ And you definitely do not feel good! It takes practice, and it takes time.
Another example could be for those of you who want to increase your fitness. The first time you go walking, you might feel little benefit. The first week of walking may see you wondering about the point of it. But you hang in there. You are now into week three and starting to feel some benefits. Maybe you’ve joined a walking group. You know what? You’re starting to feel good, you see it as good for others, and you see yourself serving the greater good (and perhaps making new friends to boot!)
So when we’re wanting to change habits, just know that in the immediate, it doesn’t feel good. Maybe it almost feels the opposite. But hang in there and look at the benefits for your future and for those who love and care about you.
- The Level 3 behaviour and habits we create give short-term pleasure but most often result in long-term pain. A bad habit can feel really good at the time – having that champagne, that second one, that third one, that fourth one, that fifth one, but it doesn’t feel good, it isn’t good for you, for others, and it certainly doesn’t serve the greater good.
Habits like binge eating, procrastinating, watching TV, scrolling, all of these things can feel good at the time, largely because it can be just numbing for us – easing our pain, our sadness, our dissatisfaction or whatever else we don’t want to feel at the time.
- Now Level 4 behaviour is both short and long-term pain and self-sabotage. It doesn’t feel good at the time, it’s not good for you, it’s not good for others, and it doesn’t serve the greater good. I’m talking about stress, about having a tantrum, being defensive, stonewalling, sticking in our comfort zone and not going for that walk. You then beat yourself up.
I encourage you to get that calendar month chart up on your fridge. Consider those four levels of behaviour and know that changing habits, the ones we know that we want to change, don’t feel good at first, but if we stick to it, it’s so worth it in the long run.
I would also encourage you to do another chart called a self-care calendar. Put Monday to Sunday across the page for a month at the top and down the side. List the things you know are going to take care of you and your well-being, such as walking, putting that down, such as drinking water, such as putting your hand on your heart in front of the mirror, such as connecting with friends – have the list down the side and for the whole month and tick on Monday those things you actually did to love and take care of you. Then, of course, do it again on Tuesday, so you soon have a record of building up the actions for taking to take care of yourself. It’s surprising how soon you see the benefits in so many ways.
You are the only person you spend every second, minute, hour, day, month, and year with for your entire life. Be loving to yourself, be kind to yourself, and be respectful of who and how you are each and every day. Treat yourself with love and kindness just as you do with those in your life that you love.
You are the most important person in your life. Love you…