Long, long ago, when I was a student, I once did very poorly in a subject that I liked and considered myself good in! I did not identify with the person with that mark-sheet. I could not bear the embarrassment and decided to rewrite the exam. However, every time I sat down to study, I was overpowered by the feeling that I knew the subject! I felt I understood it and that I was good at it. I could not focus. I fidgeted and fretted. On one side, I wanted a better score, and on the other, I was finding it exceedingly difficult to pick up the same books again! But I knew it was a trap that I needed to get out of. Had I known the subject so well, I would have fared better in the exam. I needed to accept my reality.

I told myself that I would devote 30 minutes to the subject every day, no matter what. This promise to myself was easy to keep. I consistently lived up to my commitment till my next exam. I confess I did discover aspects I had missed earlier!! I am also happy to share that I scored a grade I am proud of.

I am reading Atomic Habits by James Clear and, his four-stage habit loop made me remember how I had stumbled on this technique, which became my ‘go-to’ method for life. If you have not read the book, the 4 stage process is –

  1. Cue – The trigger for your brain to initiate a behavior. It is the information that predicts a reward. For example, the bakery on your way back home that serves your favorite coffee. As you think of leaving work each evening, the picture of the bakery emerges in your mind automatically. You choose this route on an autopilot driven by the reward of irresistible coffee.
  2. Craving – This is the motivational force behind every action or habit. The craving is for the change in state that the action delivers. As you reach near the coffee shop, the aroma of coffee reminds you of how you will unwind with it. It makes you enter the shop and buy this coffee for yourself. The cues that spark motivation differ for different people. For example, the sound of cricket commentary will trigger a game lover to switch on the television. For someone who does not enjoy cricket, this may mean having to tolerate noise from the houses nearby for the next few hours.
  3. Response – is the action performed to get the reward. Whether this step happens or not is a function of how easy or difficult the required act or behavior is and the level of your motivation to pursue it. If the lane in which the coffee shop is, becomes a one-way traffic lane, making you take a long detour to reach it, you may consider an alternative to coffee from this shop. But if you can not imagine your evening without it, the discomfort of the detour may not bother you. The motivation to act also depends on the timeline of receiving the reward. Bad habits are difficult to break, because the pleasure of reward is immediate, e.g., the relief of the puff of smoke or the sweetness of candy. But the benefits of leaving them become visible after many weeks or months. Therefore, experts recommend celebrating small successes. Not missing exercise for the whole week or sticking to your schedule 95% of the time for the entire month are mini victories that lay the foundation of bigger wins.
  4. Reward – closes the loop. It satisfies the craving and also serves to solidify the memory of why it is worth doing something.

Whether you want to build a new habit or break an existing one, you now know that strengthening or breaking the loop at any of the abovementioned four points will work. In Atomic Habits, James gives many more clues to build habits that serve you. I highly recommend this book.