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 became 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 take. 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, 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 stays there. I’ve always been surprised how every winter I picked up ice skating again quite easily. Even though I hadn’t been doing it for almost 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-efficient 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 for 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.
You see, habits are powerful. They can develop the exterior of our knowledge or can be designedly organized. They often occur without our permission. The good news is they can be reshaped, 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.
1. The cue
The cue is the thing that module triggers the tradition. 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 waking up.
2. The Routine
The routine can be physical, mental, or emotional. 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 a small dose 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.
So how can we change a habit?
The first thing is to become aware of our habits and identify all three parts of it. Now that we’ve identified how a habit works, we can actually tweak it, 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 unhealthy, 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? I now drink water all day long. My habit is still there. I just replace the unhealthy part of it, the action itself, by 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 o’clock 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 o’clock 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 the socializing, cutting down on coffee will be easy. Just replace it with something else.
If it’s the caffeine, you need to find an alternative to that. If it’s about “waking up”, replace it by going outside for your break and walk around the block. From their onward, start associating your 10 o’clock break with that little walk outside.
Now habits are powerful and sometimes that 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 to whatever it is you need to remember.
If you want to create a new habit or change an existing one, you need to start thinking in terms of “cue”, “action” and “reward”. Over time as we perform the action again and again, following the trigger and followed by the reward, our brain starts to create a new connection between those three, effectively rewiring our brain.
Things have to be convenient, easy. Your cue has to become easily associated with your action. If you want to go and run every Saturday morning, have the running shoes readily around in plain sight. Don’t hide them in the back of your closet. If you want to start practicing yoga, keep your yoga mat close by and hang a poster of someone doing yoga somewhere in plain sight.
Whatever new habits you want to instill, make sure to have a visual cue around, somewhere you’ll see it clearly to remind you of the action to perform. You can also put your alarm on your smartphone to remind you of the action to perform. The alarm becomes the trigger. Because without a clear trigger there won’t be an action and even less of a reward.
The key to a successful habit starts with a clear trigger.