Four stages on how to form habits
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Four stages on how to form habits

Four stages on how to form habits

When instilling good practices (habits), we need to make the trigger apparent

The modern office and home are awash with digital distractions.

Often the best way to break these interruptions is to institute certain practices (habits). If we have proficient learning habits, we can be prepared and stay on top of issues. If we have prudent financial habits, we can provide for ourselves and our family. Whereas if we are always asking questions of ourselves – “What should I read?” “How much should I save every month?” – we end up with less attentional space and time.

Practices (habits) develop over time, but there are four simple stages as to how they form in the first place. These are: trigger, urge, action, return.

TRIGGER. Something in our environment triggers us to behave in a certain way. We envisage a return. In traditional civilisations, triggers often relate to matters of food, shelter, cultivation and safety. For most of us living in developed regions of the world, triggers envisage ancillary returns such as self-gratification, praise, money, friendship, recognition and reputation.

URGE. This is the energy behind a habit. It provides the yearning to respond to the trigger. We might not actually desire the habit itself, but we crave the change it brings about. We may not have an urge  for coffee in the morning, but we have an urge for the feeling it stimulates, just as we may not have an urge to go to the cinema, but rather an urge to be entertained.

Urges will vary across individuals. A glutton, for instance, will have an urge for consumption on seeing a scrumptious platter of food, whereas someone who is more in control of their food urges will not have the same level of craving.

ACTION. This relates to the actual performance of the habit, such as drinking the cup of coffee you had an urge for in the morning as you walked past the coffee shop and smelt the coffee being brewed or watching the movie in the cinema for which you saw an advert on your smartphone.

RETURN. This is the payoff and the end of the habit – how we felt after drinking the cup of coffee or watching the movie in the cinema.

The trigger alerts us to the return, our urge desires the return, and the action is about acquiring the return. What happens after the return will also determine whether or not you will be influenced by the trigger when you next encounter it. An overeater who falls prey to a coronary heart attack may end up having a life-changing experience and come back months later with more self-restraint. They may avoid watching adverts promoting lavish meals
or prevent eating out at shopping malls that are packed with fast-food outlets.

They will still be affected by the trigger. They will still have the urge. But if they can avoid the situation, then they are more likely to resist it. When instilling good practices (habits), we need to make the trigger apparent. For
example, if I want to introduce good eating habits, I should ensure there is a bowl of fruit on the table in the kitchen as opposed to a box of chocolates.

If someone wants to break their bad habit of playing video games until late in the evening, they should pack up their console and peripherals each evening and store them in a cupboard out of sight. If they do not see the game console (the trigger), they are less likely to have an urge to play games late into the night.

There is also a reframing method we can use to make difficult habits easier to handle by linking them to a positive experience. We often consider habits as things we need to do or are compelled to do. For instance, we need to wake up, we need to cook dinner, we need to call a customer, and we need to compile a weekly report. Let’s reframe the word “need” with “opportunity”.

We have the opportunity to wake up and embrace the morning. We have the opportunity to cook dinner for our family. We have the opportunity to call a customer and deepen our relationship with them. We have the opportunity to compile our weekly report so that management is aware of our contribution to the goals of the organisation.

The slight reframing of the language can make a huge difference to the attitude we adopt when trying to instill habits that may otherwise prove burdensome.

Rehan Khan is a principal consultant for BT and a novelist

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