“Insanity is doing the same thing again and again while expecting different results.”
Habits are formed when new behaviors become automatic. Your life today is essentially the sum of your habits. Someone who instinctively reaches for a cigarette after waking up has a habit as does the person who puts on running shoes and runs before work. Wise people release ineffective habits and adopts effective ones.
Learned habits, instinctive behaviors and routines occur automatically without conscious intention or thought. These begin to form at birth and by approximately the age of six, most of us have ingrained behaviors that will follow us throughout our lives.
Because behavioral patterns most repeated are etched into a person’s neural pathways, old habits can be difficult to break and effective habits can be harder to develop. I think of a thought as a thread that is strengthened every time it is repeated. Over time, the thread becomes a rope, the thought becomes a habit. The good news: through repetition, it is possible to break old habits and build more effective ones. Even long-held habits can be shaken with determination and a smart approach.
James Clear, author of the book Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, suggests that the process of building a habit can be divided into four simple steps. The steps are cue, craving, response, and reward. Breaking a habit into these steps can help you understand what a habit is, how it works, and how to improve it.
Clear explains the stages in the following way. The cue triggers your brain to initiate a behavior. It is a piece of information that predicts a reward. Cravings are the motivation behind every habit. Without some level of motivation or desire—without wanting a change—there is no reason to act. What you crave is not the habit itself but the change it delivers. The response is the actual habit you act on, which can take the form of a thought or an action. Whether the response occurs or not depends on how motivated a person is and how much pain is associated with the behavior. The response delivers a reward. Rewards are the end goal of every habit.
In other words, the cue triggers the thought of a reward. The craving is about wanting the reward. The response is about obtaining the reward. You chase rewards because they serve one of two purposes: to satisfy or to teach. The four stages of habit are best described as a feedback loop. They form an endless cycle that is running every moment you are alive.
As I understand the stages, an example would be: you have a headache (cue) and want to get rid of it (craving). You know from past experience that taking an aspirin has relieved the headache. When you took the aspirin (response), you get relief from the headache (reward). Each time you go through that cycle, you strengthen the habit and teach yourself that taking aspirin works for managing a headache. So, you take an aspirin the minute a headache appears.
Willingness, resilience, and resourcefulness play a role in a person’s habits as well. You must be willing to examine your habits and change them, you must be resourceful in finding more effective ways to deal with situation, and you must be resilient in adapting new ones.
My husband and I were married for over sixty years; you can imagine the strong habits we had in place. He took care of the finances, the computer problems, and the driving; I took care of the house, the meals, and our social life. We made decisions together and we were best friends.
Then he was diagnosed with dementia and our habits changed dramatically. He died recently from COVID contracted at a memory care facility. I had to be willing, resilient and resourceful not only during the four years when I was his primary caretaker, but after he went to the facility, and am now as I live on my own.
So, take a look at your habits and ask yourself how well they work for you.