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How to build habits that last - and break the bad ones

by Zahid Jadwat

Our lives are full of rote tasks. From the moment we wake up, we’re bound to engage in certain habits that we repeat – from checking our phones to drawing the spoon to our mouths when enjoying a bowl of soup
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By definition, a habit is a “settled or regular tendency or practise”. Psychologists have explained that habits are our brains’ method of automating action, so we’re eventually able to do them without applying much thought.

However, not all habits are good for us. You may have a habit of incessantly checking your phone or a nasty smoking habit that burns away every spare penny.

You could also have certain goals that require systems to help you achieve (more on that in another post!). These systems, in turn, require good habits that become parts of your daily life.

In his widely-acclaimed book Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results, James Clear outlines four key moments in the process that forms lasting habits. He calls it the ‘Habit Loop’; which entails cues, craving, response and reward. Armed with knowledge, it is possible to use them to either build good habits or break bad habits.

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This is the initiating step in the process of forming any habit. It is also incredibly important because much of human behaviour is triggered by cues.

To understand the powerful influence of cues, it would be worth mentioning the work of a primary care physician at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, USA, Anne Thorndike.

With the assistance of a few colleagues, she conducted a six-month study to alter the eating habits of hospital staff and visitors. This, she did without asserting influence in any way whatsoever.

They strategically placed bottled water in refrigerators and at food stations across the hospitals. Over the next three months, soda sales decreased by 11.4% while sales of bottled water shot up by 25.8%.

It is therefore advisable to decorate your environment with cues that gently push you towards building good habits. Make them obvious. Conversely, eliminate cues that encourage negative actions.


Desire is also a motivating force behind our actions. In the absence of motivation to act on a cue, there exists no reason to do so.

Many smokers despise the cigarette itself, but what they really crave is the relief provided by such products. You switch on the television not simply to watch T.V, but to derive entertainment from the content.

When building new habits, you must be impelled by desire. If what you’re trying to build is a habit of keeping a daily journal, you must enjoy writing for what it is. You might crave the sense of relief that washes over you after expressing your emotions through art, which is all the better in this case.

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The fascinating thing about human behaviour is that the actions we perform aren’t always completely thought through. The first two aspects of the Habit Loop (ie. cues and cravings) occur almost unconsciously.

The response is the actual habit that you perform. It happens almost in an instant, most of the time. Two of the main factors that determine whether we perform the action or not are the strength of the desire and the friction that we’d encounter.

For example, even if you strongly desire a healthy body, the friction that exists in applying physical strength makes it all the more unlikely that you would actually show up at the gym.

Make it easy to act when building good habits and introduce greater friction when attempting to break bad habits.


Finally, and equally important, is the final component of the habit loop. Clear explains that we do things to achieve the associated reward, which in turn either satisfies us or teaches us.

If the reward for an action is satisfying, it increases the likelihood of you repeating the action. The reward from smoking is a soothing feeling, which is what makes it difficult for most to quit. A desirable outcome completes the habit loop and establishes the action as a habit over time.

Conversely, we are less likely to repeat actions that deliver negative consequences. This would also apply in the instance of undesirable outcomes, where you would seek alternative actions.

Essentially, the reward (outcome) teaches your brain what is useful and what is not. With this distinction, you would naturally seek pleasurable experiences and avoid the contrary. Make good habits satisfying and do the opposite for bad habits.

Exploit the habit loop to foster good habits and apply it inversely to break bad habits. Over time, you should be able to prune out the bad ones and develop fresh, purposeful ones that help you live to your full potential.

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