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You Can’t Stick to Positive Habits in a Negative Environment: Lessons Learned from Atomic Habits

You Can’t Stick to Positive Habits in a Negative Environment: Lessons Learned from Atomic Habits

Habits give us a sense of control in our lives. They may give us confidence and help us feel normal. In many cases, we don’t even realize how ingrained our habits have become. Take, for example, the stories of three men, each with a very different habit:

Joel is always on his phone, mindlessly scrolling on social media from the moment he wakes up each morning. He knows it’s negatively impacting his mental health—going so far to confide in his closest friends that he often feels inferior to those he sees on his feed. Despite this, he still feels the urge to pick up his phone at all times of the day.

Stephen would love to kick the habit, but he worries he’ll never be able to give up his morning cigarette. It’s no mystery to him that it’s hazardous to his health, but he loves the temporary stress-relief that he gets from smoking. It’s the only time he has to relax by himself in an otherwise hectic schedule juggling work, parenting, night classes and caring for his ageing father.

Alan’s finances are always tight by the end of the month because a huge chunk of his budget accounts for going out to eat. In fact, he can count on one hand the number of times in the last month that he’s made a home-cooked meal. He knows he’d save money if he ate at home more often, but it’s so much easier to grab a drive-thru coffee before work or to pick up takeout after a long day at the office.

At first glance, it may seem like Joel, Stephen and Alan have nothing in common. But it turns out, breaking habits like the ones described in these men’s stories might illuminate something not initially clear: No matter the habit, the strategies for making or breaking a habit are largely the same.

This month on the Men and Mental Health blog, we’re focusing on “Breaking the Pattern” for our theme. We’ll investigate what it means to break bad habits, develop good ones and help others along the way. We have four articles this month (we’re taking a break in the fifth week of November to celebrate Thanksgiving), and we hope you’ll join us for real stories about starting new disciplines, helping others break their patterns and how different systems in our brains interact.

Forming, Reforming and Reinforcing Habits

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones says in his book that all habits—good and bad—can be understood in four chronological laws: Cue, Craving, Response and Reward (p. 47).

This article will focus primarily on takeaways from the “Cue” portion of habit-forming, and Good Dads encourages you to read Clear’s book if you are interested in learning more. Here is a brief summary of the laws behind a habit:

A cue is something that triggers the brain to initiate a behavior. Human brains are wired to want rewards, and a cue is not unlike a sign that a reward is close by. In Joel’s story, waking up each morning is the cue; and for Stephen, the cue is his stressful routine.

A craving is a motivation. When you habitually crave something, you are yearning for the change in status-quo that a habit brings. Alan might crave getting takeout because he doesn’t want to do the dishes, for instance.

A response is the action you take or the habit you perform. In our examples, the responses are ones Joel, Stephen and Alan want to change (i.e. a bad habit); however, a response can also be one that an individual wants to maintain (a good habit).

A reward is the end goal of every habit. Rewards deliver contentment, satisfaction and relief from the craving. Rewards teach us that our actions are worth repeating—like a dog who learns that Sit, Shake and Roll Over results in a treat. By smoking a cigarette, Stephen learns that he finds temporary relief in his daily stressors. By dining out, Alan learns he doesn’t have to waste time cooking.

These four states of Cue, Craving, Response and Reward create a feedback loop that humans experience all the time—in the form of habit.

Much of what is covered in this week’s article is borrowed from the Atomic Habits book, but scientists from a number of disciplines largely agree that breaking bad habits and forming good ones can be understood by investigating what causes the patterns of behavior in the first place.

LEARN MORE: Episode 470 | Dr. Brent Anderson


What does Atomic Habits teach us about getting a handle on our cues?

The book offers two strategies for better understanding the cues that lurk behind our habits.

1. Break habits by making cues invisible

Folks who don’t have much trouble staying away from cigarettes, getting takeout or mindless social media scrolling may seem like they have super-human willpower. But according to Atomic Habits, that’s not the case. It’s not about willpower as much as it is about structuring one’s life with fewer opportunities for temptation.

Think about it: How much more difficult would it be to stay clean and sober if, right after getting out of rehab, you returned to the friends with whom you got high? Most (if not all) habits are influenced by opportunity. Clear puts it best in his book: You can’t stick to positive habits in a negative environment (p. 94).

In Joel’s case, this might mean moving his phone’s charger out of his bedroom before going to sleep. For Alan, it might mean making a meal plan and buying groceries before the start to a busy week.

Making cues invisible means cutting off a bad habit at the source. If Joel can’t reach for his phone when he first wakes up, he’s making it slightly more inconvenient to enable his habit.

If Alan has freshly washed spinach in his fridge that will go bad if he doesn’t cook it this week, he’s made it more difficult to justify dining out.

2. Create habits by making cues obvious

If we break habits by making cues invisible, the flipside is true for making habits.

Because you do not need to be aware of a cue for a habit to begin, it’s important to practice picking up on cues that predict certain outcomes, Clear says (ch. 4).

One strategy Clear recommends is the Habit Scorecard, a tool to list your habits and weigh them (p. 64). By listing out your daily habits (like brushing your teeth, checking Facebook, driving to work or smoking a cigarette), you can begin to evaluate them as good, bad or neutral. This value baseline is intended to make you more aware of your own behaviors and can inform your decision-making, leading to the habits you want to keep.

Another strategy for creating habits is to use the Pointing & Calling method (pg. 63–64). This means physically pointing out and verbally expressing a habit as you do it. It might feel silly to talk to yourself, but speaking your actions aloud can make consequences feel real, Clear says. Pointing & Calling brings an action out of the sub-conscious and into the conscious.

Find out more about the Habit Scorecard, the Pointing & Calling Method and more information about cues in Chapter 4 of Atomic Habits.

We want to hear from you!

How have you made cues more obvious or more invisible? Send us your examples by emailing us at [email protected]. Your answer could be featured on our social media pages!

Diana Dudenhoeffer is the communications specialist at Good Dads. She is a graduate of Missouri State University; she studied journalism, sustainability and documentary storytelling. Diana works to maintain Good Dads’ online and print presence, including curriculum and promotion design, web design and social media management.

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