The Science Behind Making and Breaking Habits

Musings with my future self (4 minute read)

The Science Behind Making and Breaking Habits

So this morning I woke up at 4:30 this morning—What The Fedunkerary!!

Why? Who knows… but one minute I was dead to the world, and the next I was awake and alert as a meerkat on sentry duty! I could have rolled over and attempted to snooze until my alarm went off, but I knew I’d wake up later feeling groggy and disorientated—don’t ask me why, but it happens every time.

Looking over at my bedroom curtains, I noticed a stream of sunlight breaking through a small gap that I can never seem to cover owing to the poorly designed curtain poles in our room. After a beautiful pink-to-red sky last night I figured it would be an amazing start to the new day. What’s the saying… Red sky at night; Shepard’s delight?! Anyways, that little ray of golden sunshine sparked a flutter of excitement—it was a carpe diem moment—it was time for a little morning adventure.

I got up quietly, got dressed, tiptoed downstairs, making sure I skipped the last step—which has a tendency to creak—grabbed my car keys and headed out to my car. In the boot were two big-boy toys I had been playing with in recent weeks, a 4k Mavic Pro Drone and camera rucksack housing my wife’s old Olympus DSLR Camera and a few accessories.

The nano-adventure I had in mind? To head out of our little village and over to a quiet, virtually unused bridge overlooking the local reservoir to record some landscape and wildlife footage… although I must confess it was more a case of wanting to improve on my drone and camera skills, and have a play with my toys.

So what does this have to do with habits… I hear you ask!

Well, there is another backstory that needs to be told to explain this… so bare with me!

The backstory—A new hobby

A few weeks back I was sitting on one of my usual train journeys to work, and I was thinking about wanting to learn something new—it’s important to know I’m not a fan of reading the morning newspaper, playing mobile games or watching catch up TV on my smart phone like most people I see on the train—I crave new skills-based knowledge.

For some time I had been pondering over how, when I go for nature walks with my two young lads, I could slow my pace to theirs, and be more present whilst taking in the scenery—and so the idea of photography came to mind.

Fortunately my wife had an old Olympus DSLR camera that hadn’t been used nearly enough to justify the price tag (bought back in 2007), so I proceeded to dig it out, and give it a go one morning.

After the walk, I found myself hooked, but came back feeling there was so much I didn’t know about the camera’s functionality… exposure settings, metering, white balance, depth of field, lens settings… the list was endless.

I grabbed my mobile, and did a search for photography lessons. Within a couple minutes I happened upon a comprehensive photography course on Udemy—a learning and development platform covering every subject under the sun… for those of you who are not familiar with it—which cost less than £20. A few clicks later, and I had the learning modules added to my Udemy library!

The course materials looked awesome—broken down into bite-sized videos that I could progress through as fast, or as slow as I liked covering both DSLR and mobile photography.

But when was I going to do it?

Well, earlier in the year, I invested in a little personal pen-to-paper planner—you know, one of those where you can write down your goals, daily tasks, and reminders. Included in the planner was a section on setting weekly habits, and it was there that I jotted down a reminder to do the photography lessons each week day, whilst commuting to work and then practice what I’d learnt whenever an opportunity presented itself—ergo the early morning nano-adventure.

In addition to writing it in my diary, I set up a reminder—or time block as I call it—on my phone, prompting me to review my daily tasks. I figured that by doing something repetitively over a period of time, it should turn into a habit if the result is exciting enough.

So how exactly do habits work

Recently I had read quite a bit about setting goals and establishing and nurturing good habits—hence the pen-to-paper planner—and I came across a few articles referencing some research into the construct of habits [insert footer with references].

It is thought that habits, whether good or bad, are comprised of four staged components—Cue, Craving, Response, and Reward.

Cue—this refers to an event or situation that prompts you to do something. It is a small snippet of information that drives the anticipation of a desired reward. In essence, most of what we do involves the pursuit of something—money, love, friendship, acceptance, sex, food, or some other personal satisfaction. When this little piece of information, or cue, prompts the potential for a reward, that’s when a desire, or craving, to pursue it kicks in.

Craving—in order to attain the reward, it needs to be something that we’re truly motivated to achieve. It is important to understand though that what we crave is not the habit itself, but the change it delivers—so for example, we don’t take a shower for the sake of showering, we do it to feel clean and refreshed. We don’t crave the need to brush our hair after the shower, we do it so we can look and feel tidy and presentable.

Response—This denotes the thought or an action you take following the urge to realise a reward. This stage does have its barriers in the form of effort required and ability—just because you want to lift 100kg bench press on your first day in the gym, doesn’t mean you’re necessarily strong enough, and therefore capable to do so… just yet.

Reward—This is the outcome or change in state that follows after the response has taken place. Acknowledging the reward is important as it prompts a neurological change, whereby you catalogue the process for achieving the reward again at some stage in the future.

Done repetitively over a period of time, should lead to the formation of a habit in an almost automated way.

To tie this into my story from earlier, here are some examples of habits I’ve formed, or am in the process of forming:

Example 1

Cue—Daily diarised reminder to do my photography lessons.

Craving—To take awesome photographs and to learn how to edit them like the pros.

Response—Watch another tutorial from the online photography course

Reward—Improving my skills in photography and editing images.

Example 2

Cue—Early sunny morning or late sunny afternoon - ‘golden hours’ for photography – which I learned about in the course.

Craving—My desire to take some awesome pictures and video footage.

Response—Seize the moment, grab my keys and gear and head out on an adventure.

Reward—An hour or so spent in a beautiful serene location, before everyone else is awake, flying my drone and playing with my camera.

So how do I get rid of bad habits?

That’s a great question!

I call these time gobblers—and yes, I’m definitely guilty of a few such as aimlessly scrolling through my social media feeds and crashing in front of the TV when I get home from work, and watching whatever is going—what a waste of time and mental energy, right?!

So, what to do about these?

As I mentioned earlier, habits, whether good or bad, are made up of the same four constituents. If I’m serious about breaking a bad habit then that’s exactly what needs to be done—‘break’ one or more components that make up the time gobbler.

For me, I start by writing down one or two bad habits I want to tackle, and then break them down into the four components I mentioned earlier, i.e. the cues or prompts, what is it that I crave, how I go about responding to the craving, and the eventual reward. From there I focus on the cue and response elements by thinking about what I can do to avoid the cue from happening, and whether there is anything that can be done to disable the response.

Let’s take smoking as an example.

Having been an ex-smoker and eventually a smoking cessation adviser for the NHS—many years ago now—I should know a little bit about this.

Most people think that smoking is driven by the craving for, and addiction to, nicotine—and it is to some degree but only for a short time—however, a large part of it is attributed to associations smokers make to every-day activities over time.

To explain this, many of the smokers I worked with tended to have a cigarette when they had their morning coffee, or when they drove to and from work. After doing it over and over again, they had built neurological associations—or cues—between these activities and having a cigarette. In order to break these, I’d encourage them to substitute a glass of water, or fruit juice in place of the coffee, or perhaps drive a different route to work. Those little changes seemed to do the trick in many cases.

To add further weight to these efforts, I encouraged the smoker to put the money used to buy cigarettes in a jar every time they have a craving to purchase a packet, therefore removing the ability to respond to cues or cravings. By doing this, they got to see how much they were saving as a result of not smoking and that in itself help form a new reward, which lead to the establishment of a new good habit.

So to sum this all up

  • Habits are made up of four staged components—Cue, Craving, Response, and Reward
  • This applies to both good and bad habits
  • Forming a habit will depend on whether the reward is desirable enough, and on whether you have the energy and ability to do it.
  • Bad habits—or time gobblers—can be ‘broken’ by analysing what make them

Anyway, that’s my two cents worth on habits and how they work. Let me know whether this resonates with you, and whether you have any questions.

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Brad Purse - Musings with my Future Self

Learning what it means to be human by living my own little wins and failures. 

“Musings with my Future Self” is somewhat of an autobiography but with strategies on how to be a better me 1% at a time.

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