“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
— Will Durant, summarizing what Aristotle had to say on the subject of habits
It was decades ago, an unseasonably hot spring day in a high school chemistry class. Along with my fellow students, I was already having trouble concentrating on the droning voice of our dour teacher, Mr. Barkley, when a loud motorcycle came roaring to a stop right outside our window. Eager for distraction, we rushed to the open window and saw a cyclist dressed from head to toe in black leather. He’d stopped to pick up, of all people, a nun in full traditional garb. As she hopped on the back of the motorcycle, and it sped away, we students were amazed and delighted to hear Mr. Barkley sigh and remark in his usual dry monotone, “I guess it’s all right as long as he doesn’t get into the habit.”
So, although “habit” can refer to a nun’s costume, today we’re focusing on those behaviors we engage in automatically in response to certain triggers or cues, like brushing our teeth because it’s bedtime or lighting up a cigarette in response to stress. According to at least one study, such habits comprise about 40% of what we do on a daily basis.
Habits are reassuring in their ritual-like continuity. They “take care of business,” freeing our minds to think about other things. Many of them are good and useful. However, most of us have some bad habits we’d like to change, and some good habits we’d like to adopt. As you probably know, changing habits is easier said than done.
Fortunately, quite a few scientists and popular writers have taken up the challenge of how to free ourselves from negative habits and establish good habits that stick.
They’ve broken habits down into four component steps:
- A cue or trigger. This would be a bit of information coming from outside (like your phone buzzing with a text message) or inside (like getting sleepy or hungry) that prompts...
- A craving or desire. Some habit experts collapse this step into the cue, but others separate it out to emphasize that the cue creates a desire that motivates your subsequent behavior. Like wanting to know who’s texting when you hear your phone, or the desire for sleep or food.
- A response. A behavior that we’ve learned from experience satisfies the craving or desire. In the examples given, answering the phone, going to bed, or getting something to eat.
- The reward. Your curiosity about whose calling is satisfied; your “sleep hunger” or “food hunger” is satisfied.
As habits expert James Clear puts it:
All behavior is driven by the desire to solve a problem. Sometimes the problem is that you notice something good, and you want to obtain it. Sometimes the problem is that you are experiencing pain, and you want to relieve it. Either way, the purpose of every habit is to solve the problems you face.
To form a good habit, Clear recommends using these steps by asking the following questions:
- Cue. “How can I make it obvious?” I want to form a habit of stopping work every 20 minutes to get up out of my chair and move. I make the cue obvious by setting a timer.
- Desire. “How can I make it attractive?” I can move in a way I enjoy, like moving to music; or doing some yoga.
- Response: “How can I make it easy?” I can have my radio nearby tuned to the classical station I like. I can have my yoga mat ready.
- Reward: “How can I make it satisfying?” I can focus on the pleasure of stretching, breathing, noticing how my body is feeling, and being present for my body and what it is wanting at the moment. I can feel gratitude towards myself for providing these short respites.
To break a bad habit, you would invert these questions:
- Cue. How can I make it invisible?
- Desire. How can I make it unattractive?
- Response: How can I make it difficult?
- Reward: How can I make it unsatisfying?
Most of our habits have arisen unconsciously. If we want to live an intentional life, it’s worthwhile looking at our habits and changing those that aren’t serving us, especially when it comes to our health.
The above steps are a good framework for analyzing and changing habits. However, in practice, there are some pitfalls to be aware of. We’ll look at these next time.