Recent research found out that as much as 40 percent of everything we do aren’t actual decisions but habits. At one point we’ve consciously decided to do something a certain way after which we started repeating that and, in the end, we’re just doing it that way because we’ve always done it that way. The behavior becomes automatic, habits emerge because our brain is constantly on the lookout for ways to save effort.
You can call it lazy, but I prefer to look at it as energy-efficient. Without our habits, our brains would just be overwhelmed by the input we get and the decisions to make. It would shut down and we would become mentally paralyzed, when a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision-making. This means that unless we deliberately and consciously go against the habit, the action will take place. The other thing about habits is that they never really disappear. At best, they become dormant and lose some of their sharpness over time. But they are still there. It’s like swimming or riding a bike. Once it’s in our system, it’s there to stay. I’ve always been surprised how every winter I picked up ice skating again quite easily. Despite the fact that I hadn’t done it in about a year. That again is very energy efficient.
Imagine having to rebuild a skill from scratch every time we stop practicing it. Let’s say you go on holiday and don’t drive for two weeks then you come home and have to learn it again. Yeah, that wouldn’t do it. Now there is an issue with our habits and that is, that our brain is totally incapable of telling the difference between a good and a bad habit.
From a brain perspective. It’s just an action that needs to be performed as energy-efficiently as possible. It doesn’t assign moral judgment to it. This is merely mechanics and this leads to us developing bad habits. Habits that don’t help us and are sometimes even damaging to us. You know for our health or our social relations. And these bad habits, just like good habits, don’t go away. Once they are formed, even when we disavow them, they lay dormant and can be activated again at any moment. We tend to jump back more easily when under stress or under the influence of alcohol.
You see, habits are powerful. They might appear without our awareness or be purposefully constructed. They often occur without our permission. The good news is they can be reshaped, and redesigned, once we understand how they work. A habit is in essence an association of three parts: The cue, the routine, or the action itself if you will, and finally the reward.
The cue is the part that will trigger the habit. The signal that the brain will pick up to activate its automated activity. For example, waking up. Waking up itself is a trigger for your next action, which you most probably do on autopilot. Do you push the snooze button? Do you step out of bed? do you say hello to your partner? Whatever it is, chances are you’re not even thinking about it anymore. It’s been automated, and the trigger is about to activate. Physical, mental, or emotional routines are all possible. Due to the trigger, we start doing a thing, but it can also trigger thoughts and/or emotions: negative or positive ones.
For example: a song will make us happy or nostalgic. A place will remind us of a person or a particular event. Witnessing violence can make us angry or sad. The habit is formed when the routine is followed by a reward, which is the signal for our brain to figure out if this particular association is worth remembering for the future. Rewards can range from food or drugs to emotional payoffs like praise or even self-congratulations. The reward on a chemical level is the release of small doses of dopamine in our brain, which happens every time we enjoy something.
Now over time, if repeated enough, these associations: cue, routine, and reward, become intertwined. And the thing with dopamine is that it leads to anticipation and craving. So, whenever the cue starts, we immediately feel a strong urge to get the reward and thus we do our routine.
How can we change a habit?
The first thing is to become aware of our habits and identify all three parts of them. Now that we’ve identified how a habit works, we can actually tweak it, and replace any part of it. The trigger is usually the starting point. From there onward, remember, we crave the reward and to get the reward, we do the things we do, which is usually the thing we would like to change. That can be biting our nails, smoking, eating unhealthily, etc. Sometimes changing a habit is as easy as avoiding the trigger altogether. Let’s say you always stop at the same Dunkin Donuts to buy some donuts on your way to your work.
You’re not even hungry as you just got breakfast. 10 kilos later, you feel you should do something about that. Well sometimes it’s enough to take another itinerary and avoid seeing that shop. No trigger, no craving. However, that is often not enough. So we could just change the action.
Let’s take an example that happened to me. At one point I was drinking over two liters a day of Coca-Cola. Yes I know I know that’s not good. So I analyzed my behavior and realized that I was just sipping coke all day long. The cue was “thirst”, the action was “drinking”, and the reward was “no more thirst” and the sugar was giving that extra boost. Anyway, I stopped buying Coca-Cola and made sure I always had enough water in the house. Results? Now I drink water all day long. My habit is still there. I just replaced the unhealthy part of it, the action itself, with another one. And this last example it was important to see that a reward wasn’t the sugar, but quenching the thirst.
For example, you take a 10:00 break with your colleagues and have some coffee, and if at one point you want to cut down on coffee for whatever reason, you need to identify your reward. Your 10:00 break is a trigger. You have two actions going on: socializing and coffee. And two rewards: Caffeine and oxytocin, which is a bonding hormone released by your brain. Now you need to identify what it is you’re really after. The caffeine or the bonding? If it’s socializing, cutting down on coffee will be easy. Just replace it with something else. If it’s caffeine, you need to find an alternative to that. If it’s about “waking up”, replace it with going outside for your break and walking around the block. From there onward, start associating your 10:00 break with that little walk outside.
Now habits are powerful and sometimes they can turn out to be really helpful. We can piggyback, meaning we can just use the action of an existing habit as a trigger for a new habit or just as a reminder not to forget something. Like for example, if you don’t want to forget to do something and you know you need to go out later, you can put a reminder next to your car keys. So, whenever you’re picking up your keys, as the automated action towards going to your car, you will be reminded of whatever it is you need to remember.