Self-Care and The Habit Loop
Understanding how habits are created and how to change them to support our well-being.
One of the most discussed topics with my clients is habits, how to get rid of unwanted ones, and how to replace them with ones that support optimum well-being. An important first step towards self-care is eliminating self-sabotaging behavior. A clear understanding of habits can support us in accomplishing this goal.
A habit is often unconscious behavior. It is something we repeatedly do without giving it much thought. We develop a habit by repeatedly responding to external stimuli in the same way over and over again.
Factors such as corresponding emotions, underlying beliefs, previously developed negative patterns can all contribute to how strong or ingrained a habit becomes. You see, habits are a result of a very normal part of brain function. They exist to make our life easier. Once a particular behavior, such as brushing our teeth every morning, becomes ingrained, we don’t have to spend time and energy thinking about it. We can then use our mental energy for other, more critical tasks. The problem is that we often develop habits that are not necessarily in our best interest. There are many reasons for this:
• We can choose behavior or actions based on outside influences such as our peers, friends, the media, or society in general.
• We can maintain a habit that was useful at one time, but that has now become counterproductive to our personal growth.
• We can have unconscious limiting beliefs that are affecting how we choose to behave.
The good news is that with determination, self-awareness, and the right strategies, we can replace self-sabotaging habits with positive, life-enhancing ones.
One of the first steps to changing a habit is understanding exactly how it works. The Habit Loop pulled from James Clear’s book “Atomic Habits.” is a great model for helping us develop awareness and understanding around our habitual behavior.
According to Clear, there are four steps to what he calls The Habit Loop. When we understand these steps, we can intervene at any point and change the outcome, eventually modifying the habit.
The cue is the triggering external stimuli. It is the event, situation, or
circumstance that creates a craving. Examples of cues can be:
• A television commercial about fast food.
• Anxiety provoking social situations.
• Sudden changes in environmental factors such as cold, visibility, or comfort level.
The trigger or cue creates a craving. A craving is a deeply felt need or
desire to act. Examples of cravings associated with the above cues
A television commercial about fast food can cause a craving for
food or something to eat.
Anxiety provoking social situations can cause a craving for a drink
to calm your nerves.
A sudden drop in temperature can cause a craving to put on a sweater,
or turn up the heat.
The response is how we “choose” to respond to the craving.
• We see a commercial for fast food – we crave a hamburger – we order fast food.
• We feel anxious in a social situation – we crave a drink – we reach for a glass of wine.
The reward is what we ultimately get from our response to the craving. For example:
• We order a hamburger – we satisfy our desire – it was delicious.
• We have that drink – we calm our nerves – we feel better.
As pointed out earlier, we can go through this entire process with little to no self-awareness. Our choices can be dictated by past behavior, by present emotions and immediate circumstances. If we are not careful, we can respond in ways that are not in alignment with our values and our goals. Why would we be compelled to do this? Because our brain is trying to make our lives a bit easier. That’s one of its jobs. It forms habits and goes into an automatic pilot mode so that we do not have to waste energy on every little decision and task. Unfortunately, this automatic response is not always in our best interest.
That’s where self-awareness becomes critical. Self-awareness allows us to intervene in this process. Once we understand where we are in the loop, we can learn to by-pass our brain’s automatic response and create patterns that give us our desired outcome.
For example, yes, the hamburger is delicious but ordering fast food has become a habit, and now the reward has become unwanted weight gain.
So, what do you do, when your brain starts creating habits or automatic responses that you no longer desire?
You start becoming aware of the process.
One of the best ways to do this is to start tracking your habits around a desired goal or outcome. I’ve provided a tracking sheet that you can use to do just that. This worksheet is a modified version pulled from James Clear’s book “Atomic Habits.” You can get a copy of the tracking sheet by sending me an email at email@example.com. Spend at least a few weeks just noticing where you are in the process and use the following questions to journal and gain some insight around your responses.
1. What situations, events, people, or emotions trigger cravings?
2. What are your responses to these cravings?
3. Are the rewards you are getting from your responses align with your needs and desires?
4. What cues are showing up regularly?
5. How are you responding to your cravings? Are you getting the results you are wanting?
6. What are the needs associated with these cravings?
7. What underlying beliefs might be influencing your responses to your cravings?
8. What other responses could you put in place that would meet your needs and give you a preferred outcome?
For more information or support in helping you explore this process, please reach out at www.damselfytransformations.com.