How to Form a Habit
Understanding our habits and working to ingrain the ones that best serve us is essential for not only our productivity, but our mental health and contentment. In a way, our habits reflect the very nature of who we are. To quote the great Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, “Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny”. With this in mind, creating and shaping new habits can be a difficult and sometimes daunting task met with a lot of mental resistance. That being said, It’s important to have a well formulated game plan to ensure the habits we want to cultivate are well established, sustainable, and most importantly make us feel good upon completing! There are 4 main components to keep in mind to guide this: cue, craving, response, and reward.
The first and most crucial part of the habit loop is the cue, which is the trigger for your brain to initiate a certain behavior or set of actions. It’s important to be very mindful that cues often take the form of impulses that, when taking a step back and reflecting, may not trigger an activity we particularly want to engage in and continue to solidify in our routine. An example of this would be someone who’s starting to lose their focus on work and gets the impulse to scroll social media. This isn’t so terrible on occasion, but if you keep scrolling as a means of decompression every time your attention wavers, soon you may find yourself scrolling without question from that now almost automatic cue. The cue from work fatigue now causes a craving for the dopamine hits from scrolling social media, resulting in impulsive scrolling and feeling only temporary satisfaction followed likely by discontentment and some level of added stress. This is how cue, craving, response, and reward all form a feedback loop. Understanding how this works with bad habits is key to replacing them with good ones. That way we can be very intentional about recognizing what cues may exist in our life and whether they trigger actions we want to pursue. Let’s say you wanted to solidify the habit of writing in a journal or planner every morning to give structure to your day. If you intentionally set the cue the night before by putting your journal/planner out on your desk open to tomorrow’s date AND both visualize and plan for yourself to follow through with that action, it’s much more likely going to happen. If this behavior is withstained, you’ll likely find yourself having the impulse, or cue, every morning to complete this and feel more satisfied when you do.
Continuing on this morning writing idea, it’s important to note that many studies have proven that habits are more likely to be persisted if they’re pursued in the early half of the day. This is especially true in the tough initial stages of habit formation. Approximately within the first 8 hours of waking, our brains are primed and best equipped to strengthen new neural connections associated with the habit and overcome the resistance that may come with it. This should be considered in addition to one last concept: task bracketing. Task bracketing is essentially solidifying the idea that a certain task has to at very least be initiated at a certain time of day. It doesn’t have to be, and in fact shouldn’t be according to research, scheduled to the exact minute. Rather, setting the intention and visualizing the action at a broad time such as “early morning” or “before lunch” will allow flexibility and less guilt or self deprecation if missed. The important component of this bracketed time is that you at least initiate the first step to the habit. For example, if you want to make exercise a habit in the morning, at least initiate the warm up and take the first step towards the habit. To summarize, be mindful of what cues exist in your life, visualize yourself completing the habit, and bracket a time (ideally in the first 8 hours after waking) to at least initiate the first step. We wish you all the best in finding and solidifying the habits that best serve you!
– Justin Supnick