78 - Habit-building 6: Hacking the habit loop



Every action has a cost and a benefit. You would think that you do something only if the benefit is more than the cost. But I will argue that you’re likely to do something, perhaps consistently too, even when the costs outweigh the benefits. By simply having the benefits first, you can be made to do something that is of net negative value.

Think credit cards, cigarettes. Their appeal is allowing you to enjoy the benefit before incurring the cost. The sequence in which cost and benefit appear is important. ‘Enjoy now, pay later’ is more attractive than ‘pay now, enjoy later’.

James Clear’s laws of behavior change address this fundamental problem of how we assess cost and benefits. He proposes four laws that reduce costs and amplify benefits for good habits, and vice-versa for bad habits.

Each law is designed to tackle a stage of the habit loop–one each for cue, craving, response, and reward. Together, these laws create a habit system that is the springboard for good habits and damper for bad ones.

Laws for building good habits:

Cue - make it obvious

Craving - make it attractive

Response - make it easy

Reward - make it satisfying

The idea is if something’s easy to notice and presents an attractive proposition, it becomes a problem worth solving. And if there’s little friction while doing it and positive reinforcement at the end, you’re motivated to do it again.

You can then invert the same laws to break bad habits.

Cue - make it invisible

Craving - make it unattractive

Response - make it difficult

Reward - make it unsatisfying

If something’s hard to notice and has questionable appeal, you may not see it as a problem worth solving. And if the path to an action is littered with obstacles and walking it needs effort, you are likely to not take it.

You would think this is bringing a flamethrower to a stick fight. Isn’t just breaking one stage of the habit loop enough? Bad habits are incredibly sticky and good ones rather slippery to put together.

We’re rarely short of advice for a friend in a sticky situation. But when it comes to ourselves, we cop out doing the right thing more often than we’re proud of. Short-term rewards seem too good to pass up. Our path to the right thing is loaded with misdirections: impulsivity, forgetfulness, procrastination, overconfidence, to name a few.

It is clear. We need rules to guide us when our better sense deserts us.

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