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The Wisdom Of Atomic Habits (Part 2)
Wisdom Letter #76 | The Cues
Hello and Welcome to The Wisdom Project. Your weekly dose of human curated wisdom in a world full of algorithmic noise.
This is the second part of our 4 part series — The Wisdom Of Atomic Habits.
We are reading the book ‘Atomic Habits’ all through this month and will be sharing our insights every week.
Today we talk about The Cues
The 4 Steps of Habit Formation
“Habits are simple, reliable solutions to recurring problems in our environment”
Our brain is a lazy moist computer. It’s hell bent on optimizing its energy use. The last thing it wants to do is ‘waste’ energy in ‘thinking’.
The conscious mind is a roadblock for our brain.
The result is the many small and large habits we pick up in our day to day lives. Habits that we perform on autopilot without even ‘thinking’ about them.
There’s been plenty of research on this, and many books written, but the simplest way to breakdown how our habits work is like this, in these 4 stages👇:
Cue > Craving > Response > Reward
Cue 👉 The triggers that initiate a behavior. (You wake up in the morning)
Craving 👉 The Desire to change your internal state. ( You desire a clean mouth)
Response 👉 The actual habit you perform (You brush your teeth)
Reward 👉 The end goal, the ‘satisfaction of your craving’ (You have a clean mouth)
These 4 steps combine to form a Habit Loop. Each is essential.
A standalone behavior cannot become a habit if anyone of the 4 steps is missing.
The 4 Laws of Behavior Change
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.“
James Clear transforms the 4 steps of habit formation into a practical framework that he calls the 4 laws of behavior change.
And the framework can be applied to building good habits as well as breaking bad habits.
4 steps to build good habits:
Make it Obvious (The Cue)
Make it Attractive (The Craving)
Make it Easy (The Response)
Make it Satisfying (The Reward)
You invert these steps to break bad habits.
4 steps to break bad habits:
Make it Invisible (The Cue)
Make it Unattractive (The Craving)
Make it Difficult (The Response)
Make it Unsatisfying (The Reward)
If you’ve been struggling to build good habits or break bad ones, the reasons might lie somewhere in these 4 laws or their inversions.
“Every goal is doomed to fail if it goes against the grain of human nature.”
The 1st Law — Make it Obvious
“This is one of the most surprising insights about our habits: You don’t need to be aware of the cue for a habit to begin.”
Your brain is a fascinating object, it’s continuously taking split second decisions on your behalf based on your surrounding. And you don’t even realize it.
This is both a good thing and a bad thing.
This is good because you don’t have to “think” before brushing your teeth every morning, its an involuntary act.
This is bad because you don’t have to “think” before you start scrolling through your favorite feed first thing in the morning.
Your brain identifies the “cues” in your surroundings, “craves” a reward, performs a “response” and gets the “reward”.
And without even realizing you are doom-scrolling through Twitter for 30 mins straight, feeling miserable first thing in the morning. (Yes this has happened to me!)
This means that to bring about any positive change in our lives we must be super aware of the cues we are acting on.
To be aware and conscious of our habit cues, we must spend active mental energy in to think and process them.
A simple exercise to increase awareness is to write down your Habit Scorecard.
The Habit Scorecard
It’s a simple list of all the your habits(small and big) with a 3 way categorization.
An example morning habits scorecard goes like this:
Wake up =
Brush your teeth +
Check Phone -
‘+’ are the good habits over the long term and ‘-’ are the bad ones.
“Good” and “Bad” here are subjective terms. Ideally you should optimize for the identity you want to achieve. (we talked about identity last week)
And it’s okay if you have more negatives than positives.
The goal of this exercise is just to build awareness.
“People who make a specific plan for when and where they will perform a new habit are more likely to follow through”
There can be plenty of different types of cues to perform a habit. But the most obvious and natural ones are Time and Location.
We are genetically hardwired to trigger certain behaviors according to time and location.
A simple tool that leverages time and location to build effective habits is Implementation Intentions.
It’s simply a plan you make beforehand about when and where you intend to implement a particular habit.
Try to fill this sentence for habits you wish to build, and write it down somewhere:
I will [Behavior] at [Time] in [Location]
No, “I will workout weekday mornings” doesn’t work. You must write — I will workout 7 AM every weekday at the local gym.
Be as specific as you can. Specificity will help you in following through with your intentions.
“Give your habits a time and space to live in the world”
Stack Your Habits
“No behavior happens in isolation. Each action becomes a cue that triggers the next behavior”
One of the best ways to build a new habit is to identify a current habit you already do each day and then stack your new behavior on top. This is called Habit Stacking.
This is a specific case of implementation intention. It goes something like this:
After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT]
Eg. After I brush my teeth, I will do 10 pushups every morning.
The reward for one habit becomes the cue for the next one. This way you can stack many habits on top of each other.
Again, specificity is key in defining the cues for the habits. Be as specific as you can be.
“Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior”
Our surroundings are perhaps our biggest cue to trigger any behavior.
We are changed by the world around us. Every habit is context dependent.
Psychologist Kurt Lewin put it brilliantly in a simple equation: Behavior is a function of the person in their environment.
B = f(P,E)
It makes sense then to work towards designing our environments to enable the best of our habits.
Some simple example of effective environment design:
Keep your phone far away from your bed at night.
Keep you fridge stocked with only healthy eating options. Getting rid of stuff that makes you unhealthy.
Have separate tools/places for different tasks. Like a Kindle of reading, a tablet for Netflix and YouTube and your phone just for social media.
Keep a book at your night stand to read right before sleeping.
“If you want behaviors that are stable and predictable, you need an environment that is stable and predictable”
Breaking Bad (Habits)
You can break bad habits, even addictions if you can break the cues that trigger them.
You must change the environment that triggers bad habits.
But beware, you can change the cue and break a habit, but you are unlikely to forget it, if the cue returns, the habit will also return with it.
You must practice the inversion of first law of behavior change. Rather than make it obvious, you must make it invisible.
“In the short run, you can choose to overpower temptation. In the long-run, we become the product of the environment we live in.
To put it bluntly, I have never seen someone consistently stick to positive habits in a negative environment.”
Signing off for the week, here’s my favorite quote about environment design from Atomic Habits —
“Most people live in a world others have created for them.
But you can alter the spaces where you live and work to increase your exposure to positive cues and reduce your exposure to negative ones.
Environment design allows you to take back control and become the architect of your life.
Be the designer of your world and not merely the consumer of it.”
Thank you for reading🙏
Hope this post helped you understand the cues of your habits better.
Next week we will move deeper into the 4 Laws of behavior change.
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This Week Last Year 👉 The Infinite Scroll | Wisdom Letter #24
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This was Wisdom Letter #76. In case you want to revisit any of the previous 75 letters, checkout our entire archive.
Aditi & Ayush