Find it hard to start good habits? Find it even harder to stop bad habits? Yeh, me too. So we just need to try harder don’t we? But what does that actually mean? What do we actually do? What steps should we take?
The core of James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits, is a four-step analysis of how habits are formed (and broken). It’s an extremely important cycle to understand not only for our own sanctification, but also if we are involved in counseling people away from bad habits and towards good habits.
Step 1: Cue. The cue triggers your brain to initiate a behavior. It is a bit of information that predicts a reward and therefore leads to a craving. (47-8)
Step 2: Craving. Without some level of motivation or desire—without craving a change—we have no reason to act. What you crave is not the habit itself but the change in state it delivers. (48)
Step 3: Response. This is the actual habit you perform, which can take the form of a thought or an action. Whether a response occurs depends on how motivated you are and how much friction is associated with the behavior. 48-9
Step 4: Reward. Rewards are the end goal of every habit. The cue is about noticing the reward. The craving is about wanting the reward. The response is about obtaining the reward. We chase rewards because they serve two purposes: (1) they satisfy our craving and (2) they teach us…which actions are worth remembering in the future. Hence a habit is created.
In summary, the cue triggers a craving, which motivates a response, which provides a reward, which satisfies the craving and, ultimately, becomes associated with the cue. Together, these four steps form a neurological feedback loop—cue, craving, response, reward; cue, craving, response, reward—that ultimately allows you to create automatic habits. (50-51)
Having analyzed the four steps of habit creation, Clear then suggests four laws of habit creation and four laws for breaking bad habits.
How to create a good habit
- The 1st law (Cue): Make it obvious.
- The 2nd law (Craving): Make it attractive.
- The 3rd law (Response): Make it easy.
- The 4th law (Reward): Make it satisfying.
So, if you want to start a good habit at the beginning of 2019 ask yourself: How can I make it obvious? How can I make it attractive? How can I make it easy? How can I make it satisfying? (54). Ask the same questions if you are counseling someone towards better habits with food, money, technology, etc.
How to Break a Bad Habit
- Inversion of the 1st law (Cue): Make it invisible.
- Inversion of the 2nd law (Craving): Make it unattractive.
- Inversion of the 3rd law (Response): Make it difficult.
- Inversion of the 4th law (Reward): Make it unsatisfying. (54)
As above with good habits, ask yourself regarding bad habits: How can I make it invisible? How can I make it unattractive? How can I make it difficult? and How can I make it unsatisfying?
Anyone with a sound biblical worldview can find many ways to “Christianize” each of these steps and can find many biblical and spiritual resources to enhance each step of good habit formation and to effectively break bad habits. Christians should therefore be far better at breaking bad habits and starting good ones than non-Christians.
Too often, we simply tell ourselves or others, “Just try harder.” But neither we nor they know where to start or what to do. What Clear does is identify the specific areas in which to focus our attention and therefore the specific questions to ask and the specific work required. In the following chapters, each of these steps is examined in more detail. We’ll follow Clear’s structure in further blog posts, suggesting ways that Christians can learn from him and improve upon him.