Habit loop: Trigger, Craving, Response, and Rewards

This article is written by Ramanuj Mukherjee, CEO, LawSikho.

Concerned about the habit gaps in your life and career?

Want to build a habit? Great.

Want to kill a habit that has been slowing you down or harming you? Great.

You need to understand how habit gets created and how they are perpetuated once the behavior is learned at the level of a habit.

It all starts with some kind of awareness. 

Let’s say it’s a cigarette addiction. How is it going to start? I can speak from personal experience.

The first trigger is the awareness and the universal availability of cigarettes. Being aware of the existence of cigarettes is easy. Everyone knows. Cigarette companies make sure of that, through all sorts of promotional activities. Although advertising of tobacco is banned, they find ways to remind us of their existence. 

Most importantly, it is available on every street corner, and there are big advertisements on the shop front. That takes care of the awareness part.

Then comes motivation. We need to motivate people to smoke cigarettes. In my case, it was done by my friends. I saw them craving for cigarettes after drinking, which made me very curious about what was the thing that they enjoyed so much. 

The next part is doing. One day, after I had a few drinks, I decided to try out a cigarette. When I did try it, it felt like I have sparks running through my veins. It was an incredible high. 

The smoking of that cigarette was the action/ response, and the high was the reward. 

Soon, I craved for that reward again. Then I smoked, again and again, to get the same rewards. 

The trigger evolved over time. After a few years of smoking, I began to associate cigarettes with stress or partying. And partying means drinking alcohol and lots of smoking. 

If I was stressed or agitated, the automatic response, without having to think or wonder, was to go and get myself some cigarettes to smoke.

I would feel an itch to smoke whenever certain triggers went off in my brain, and I will have to respond to it. Even when I wanted to stop, knowing it was harming my health, stopping was very hard, because I was addicted by then.

That is how habits work. 

Now the good thing is that this formula is not only useful to create bad habits like smoking, but it can be used to create life-changing good habits, too, or it can be used to dismantle bad habits as well. 

How do kids learn to brush their teeth, a very basic habit most of us follow for our entire lives?

Our parents make us aware that we must brush our teeth when we wake up and before we eat breakfast. The triggers include the morning itself, the act of waking up, and wanting to have breakfast – maybe one of them or a combination of all these.

Next is motivation. We are told that not brushing our teeth is really bad for health. It causes bad breath, diseases of the gum, toothache and what not. There are also those toothpaste ads we saw as kids where attractive people got attracted to each other because they used such amazing toothpastes. We craved to be that attractive. We craved to feel fresh and smart, not a person with ugly decaying teeth and foul smell in their mouths.

The response was brushing every single day before we ate breakfast.

The reward was the appreciation of parents. “Good girl” or “good boy” they said. Also, good oral hygiene too.

Even the toothpaste includes chemicals that give you a tingling feeling of satisfaction after you brush. It was added to toothpaste by marketing experts specifically so you will crave that feeling in your mouth every morning. There is a famous story about how that came to be, but that is for another day.

The reward we got in terms of parental feedback, societal approval and tingling sensation in the mouth helped us to create a lifelong habit of brushing our teeth. 

There is a lot you can learn from these two examples. It is well established that much of our success in life depends on the habits we develop. Many habits are invisible and unconsciously picked up and practiced, making it very difficult to even realize that they exist. 

However, it is important to identify patterns where we are struggling to grow, because, in every such aspect of our life, our progress either depends on dismantling existing habits that are slowing us down or building new ones that push us forward towards our destiny. 

If you want to change your own behavior, such as if you want to spend more time studying, or writing or exercising, or doing business development activities that you know you should be doing but you do not, you need to begin with the awareness that it is a failure to build the right habits that have led to your failure to reach your goals.

Once you identify the habits you are interested in developing, all you need to do is figure out each part of the following:

The Trigger

What will trigger the behavior? What is the cue that will set off the craving? This is why a lot of habits are developed around waking up, having lunch, or going to bed – inevitable, powerful triggers. There are some things you are going to do every day no matter what, and hence building habits around those triggers make such habits very sticky. 

You can create other triggers, such as stress. Whenever I feel stressed and overwhelmed, I turn to breathing exercises or meditation. If I am in pain, such as a headache, injury or fever of any sort, my immediate response is vipassana meditation. It helps me a great deal to manage pain. 

Sometimes you need more mundane triggers, like an alarm. Or an app that prevents you from using social media or WhatsApp during the morning. You can block off access to mail or phone during a certain time of the day.

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I had an alarm that went off every day at 8 pm: call an acquaintance and share about ClikLawyer with them. I would generally have a call with a long lost friend or acquaintance, catch up about what’s happening in their life, and update them about my work at ClikLawyer. Doing this every day led to a lot of referral work in the months to follow! Alarms can be great triggers.

You can have a person intervene and make you do something that you are too lazy to do, even that counts as a trigger if it is reliable and will happen consistently. 

If the trigger is not reliable or consistent, your efforts will fail, so careful on that front. Keep trying out new triggers if necessary until something sticks. 

If you want to make a habit go away, you need to make the triggers weaker, or more difficult to encounter. 

Craving

Why could I study for 10 hours a day for law entrance as a 17-year-old kid? It was because I was highly motivated to study law and get through to a good NLU. I regularly read up on the jobs NLUD graduates did, I read about career opportunities, mooting, recruitment, campus life and anything I could find. Everything I found out about law schools excited me even further to study law and prepare hard for the entrance. 

Motivation cannot be one time. It has to be a continuous process. When it is strong enough and automatic enough due to regular thought patterns, it becomes a craving. I craved to get into a top law university and live the life I always imagined.

Then I craved to get into a good law firm. Then I craved to start my own company and succeed. 

You need to build up the craving and keep it going in order to do heavy-lifting, extraordinary work. 

The craving gets stronger over time as you keep practicing the habit and get some rewards for the same. When you get the reward, your craving is satisfied. However, later you get the craving again, only stronger from being fortified by the previous satisfaction. 

On the contrary, if you want to dismantle a habit, you need to weaken the craving. You can do so by giving yourself a craving to stop it, or by providing evidence that it is really really bad for you. 

Pictures of melting lungs and throat cancer on boxes of cigarettes really help – because they creates an aversion towards cigarettes even if you continue to smoke. That aversion can build up and get multiplied over time.

In my case, I used sleep hypnosis tracks that imprinted on my mind that I want to quit smoking. I also used autosuggestion methods in which I kept telling myself and reminding myself that I do not want to smoke, it is going to kill me if I continue and that I hate smoking. It took a long time, but then it worked. 

I do not have cravings to smoke cigarettes anymore.

The human mind is very powerful, which you can use to increase or reduce the craving for anything you like. 

Response

All the triggers and all the craving in the world doesn’t make any difference until you act on the craving or motivation, and take some action. This is the response. The action/response is the hard part when you want to create new habits.  

You have to actually do it in the beginning, mindfully, intentionally. You have to do it for a while. Some experts say that you have to do it for at least a couple of months to build a habit. You should be prepared to do that. I have been able to build some habits faster. Others took longer. 

However, it is certain that you need to stick to taking those actions over a long period of time for any habit to become second nature, learned behavior that gets triggered automatically, leading to phenomenal results. 

What makes a difference is understanding that individual actions alone are not as useful or valuable as actions taken with the specific intent of building a long-lasting habit. Your focus must be on consistent action that results in habit creation, which goes onto become a part of your identity itself. 

Reward

If you want to build a habit, make sure that there is an obvious reward, and that you stop to enjoy it. Without rewards, it is very had to build any habits. 

If you want a kid to build a habit, after they take the desired action, you have to reward them. Not so different from training a dog. Carrot and stick. 

However, reward works far better than the stick, as modern marketers have discovered. 

Also, shorter feedback loops, where you get rewarded faster, works better!

Why do people love playing computer games or even ludo so much, while they do not want to play complex games in life involving real success and real stakes? It is because habits are easier to develop when your rewards come sooner. If you have to wait too much for the reward, it is hard to form that habit. 

In whatever habit you are trying to build, there should be frequent rewards for it to really work. 

For example, a gamechanger for me in my weight loss journey was getting a weighing scale in my bedroom that told me my body fat percentage, hydration level, muscle mass among other things. When I could see the impact of every indiscretion, binge eating, drinking alcohol even for one evening, and also the evident benefit of working out and fasting reflecting on the scale, it was easier to adopt good behavior. 

One problem of working out is that the results show only after several weeks. By looking at the scale more frequently, I was able to shorten the reward loop. When numbers got better on the scale, it was a reward in itself, and it motivated me to do even better.

What are the skills you are looking to develop? What are the habits you want to create? What habits do you want to ditch?

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