The habit loop provides a practical framework for behavior change. Unfortunately, by the time we are adults, we rarely examine our habits. In the case of good habits, this lack of mindfulness isn’t a problem, but it can be disastrous when applied to bad habits. The neurological feedback loop, Cue, Craving, Routine, and Reward is responsible for creating all our habits. We are continually learning to link actions with outcomes. If the outcome is unsatisfying, the behavior is forgotten. If it is gratifying, the Routine is remembered and repeated until it becomes a habit. Once it becomes a habit, our conscious mind recognizes a cue; we feel a craving, which initiates a response. Each habit solves a problem. The primary issue our ancestors faced was survival. They needed food, water, shelter, and sex to survive. These rewards provide immediate gratification. This is why our reward system heavily favors instant gratification and discounts delayed gratification. Our ancestors didn’t have 5-year plans. Anything that took more than a few minutes wasn’t considered. While we have evolved, our reward system hasn’t. It still favors immediate gratification. This bias is the reason we are all so susceptible to bad habits.
Our conscious brain, in charge of executive function, decides which habits to perform, but it doesn’t execute them. It sees a familiar Cue and determines which Routine to execute. Our primitive brain executes the Routine. Habits live in our primitive brain, which learns through repetition. We condition it like we would an animal, through repetition and rewards. Like a beast, it is powerful but impulsive. It is always looking for a quick payoff. If we want to interrupt bad habits and replace them with good habits, we must understand the habit loop and the tendencies of our two minds.
The Four Laws of Behavior Change developed by Atomic Habits’ author James Clear is designed to encourage good habits by reinforcing each component of the habit loop:
- Cue: Make it Obvious
- Craving: Make it Attractive
- Routine: Make it Easy
- Reward: Make it Satisfying
He reverses these four laws to break a bad habit. Make the Cue invisible, the Reward unattractive, the Routine harder to execute, and the Reward unsatisfying. He does a fantastic job of providing practical suggestions on how to accomplish each law.[i] James Clear’s book complements Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit. The Power of Habit helps us to understand habits, but it isn’t a manual for behavior change. Atomic Habits fulfills that role, providing actionable strategies in a simple to follow format. Our book has an even narrower focus. It seeks to combine the strategies of behavior change with tactics designed to produce a leaner fitter body. “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” Sun Tzu
[i] James Clear, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, Avery (October 16, 2018)
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