Habits control our lives – here’s how to benefit from them

The things you do on autopilot define you – the daily workout, the midnight snack, the secret cigarette at work, the 30 minutes of reading at bedtime. These habitual actions have shaped your thoughts and behaviour throughout the course of your life to date, helping to eventually transform you into the person you are today.

A habit is really just a background program – a script running in the back of our head – compelling us to practise a certain action over and over again. In other words, while we tend to think of habits in negative terms (“bad” habits, like smoking or overeating) the reality is that habits, negative or positive, are everywhere. And, given that 40% of everything we do is habitual, they have the power to rule our lives if left unchecked.

Every habit has four stages
According to best-selling author James Clear, every habit can be broken up into four key stages: cue, craving, response, and reward. For a lot of “bad” habits, stress is the cue: a difficult meeting at work or argument with your partner can leave you craving a cigarette or sugar high. You respond by smoking a cigarette or eating a piece of candy, and you get a reward – in this case, a chemical change brought on by sugar or nicotine.

Rewards are their own… well… reward. Food and drink offer us sustenance; nicotine, sugar, and sex change our brain chemistry; an afternoon nap gives our mind and body precious downtime to recuperate from the demands we place upon them daily. But a reward is also a learning process – it’s a signal that this is an action to remember and perform again.

This learning process is vital to survival – the ultimate driving force that has been at the core of the human experience since we first emerged from the primordial ooze. Early rewards encouraged our ancestors to form social bonds, procreate, expend effort to find precious resources, and more. Just like these ancient ancestors, you can turn our instinctive habit-forming tendencies to your benefit.

Break the bad, make the good
You can influence your habits at each of their four stages, giving you the power to make good ones and break bad ones.

During the first stage, you can make the cue that triggers the habit relatively more obvious or invisible. If you know a certain place always makes you want a cigarette, avoid it. Likewise, if you know a certain song always makes you want to work out, you can set it as an alarm, triggering a habit that lets you get your morning exercise in before work.

During the second stage you can make the craving which begs to be fulfilled relatively more or less attractive. Alan Carr’s famous “easy way” to stop smoking works like this: Carr presents all the negatives associated with smoking and just makes it seem deeply unappealing. To help you form a good habit, you might focus on why you’re doing it: surrounding yourself with imagery that reminds you of the body you want, or the long and active life you’re hoping to lead, might make that urge to work out stronger and more attractive.

During the third stage, you can make responding to this craving easier or harder. This is very simple: if you want to stop smoking, don’t keep cigarettes in the house. If you’re struggling to fit in exercise, find a short workout you can do at home, or a gym within walking distance of your office – or buy a