All bad habits start slowly and gradually and before you know you have the habit, the habit has you.”Zig Ziglar
Have you ever driven home or to work with no memory of how you got there, or completed a chore or task without any recollection of what you did? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you are not alone. Much of what we do from the moment we wake up to when we go to sleep is based on habits we perform on autopilot. In fact, research tell us that “approximately 43% of our daily behaviors are performed out of habit.” So, where you park your car, whether you park facing in or out, what you reach for first when you wake up and what you do next, your entire morning routine is made up of small or big habits.
How Habits Work?
A habit is defined as “A settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.” Our habits usually emerge from decisions we made long ago, stopped thinking about but kept on doing thereafter. But when you think about it, it should be quite unsettling that we live so much of our lives largely unaware of our unconscious behaviors. Nevertheless, our habits become so much a part of us that people come to know us by them and form expectations of us from them as well. While some of our habits and routines are beneficial and help us to be more efficient and effective, not all of them are. Bad habits can undermine our overall personal effectiveness and negatively impact our relationships, finances, health, productivity as well as our physical and mental well-being.
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.Aristotle
The Habit Formation Process
Habits help us get through our daily lives by removing the need for us to make tiny little decisions on everything and free us up to focus on things that are new and different. In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explained that once a behavior becomes a habit, the decision-making part of our brains go into a sleep mode of sorts and the brain starts working less and less and can almost completely shut down. The real advantage of this is that we can do complex activities such as parallel parking a car without having to think about it while devoting our mental activity to something else.”
So how do habits form? Duhigg explained that every habit functions the same way and has three parts: the cue, the routine, and the reward. Together, these three parts create a habit loop which is innate in all of us and is like a tape that plays repeatedly.
- The Cue – This is the trigger that prompts our behavior and makes our brain go in autopilot mode. The cue can be an emotion, a time of day, something in the environment, other people or a pattern of behavior that consistently trigger a certain routine.
- The Routine – This is the behavior itself; the action you take in response to the cue.
- The Reward – This is the why you do it or the benefit you gain from doing the behavior. This is perhaps the most important part of the habit loop and is the reason the habits exist.
Every time we perform the behavior and experience the reward, our brain releases dopamine (feel good hormone) or a sense of relief that communicates to our brains that the activity is meaningful and whether to remember it or not. And so, a habit is formed. Some habits have immediate rewards, while others have hidden rewards. As you might appreciate, habits with immediate rewards are easier to pick up, whereas those with delayed rewards are more difficult to commit to and maintain. This explains why people find it easier to pick up their phone and scroll through Facebook and Instagram or, sit on the couch and watch TV rather than exercising or going to the gym.
Your Habits and You
One example of how the habit loop works for me is with my nightly routine of cleaning the kitchen before I go upstairs to prepare for bed. My cue for cleaning the kitchen comes around 10:00 p.m. when I started feeling tired am prompted to go upstairs for bed. My routine is to wash the dishes, wipe the stove, clean the counter, and ensure that there is nothing left in the sink. The reward I get is the pleasure of seeing a clean and clear kitchen because I really dislike going to bed with a dirty kitchen. So, every night when I turn the lights out and head upstairs to prepare for bed, I feel satisfied knowing that when I go downstairs in the morning, a clean kitchen will greet me as I start my day.
Some of my other habits include saying grace before meals, craving a cup of warm team with cinnamon and vanilla every night as I relax, to even checking the doors before I go to sleep. I perform these tasks automatically without making any decision to. So, what are the cues, routines, and rewards in your life? What is your cue for exercising, picking up your cellphone several times a day to check for messages or notifications or scroll mindlessly? Is it an emotion? For those of you who enjoy a drink after work or at the end of the day- what is your prompt? And for the bingers who enjoy watching movies– is it moving to the couch, picking up the remote that leads to a 3–6-hours binge of Netflix series or movies?
It is also important to note that our habits can be dangerous. For some people, poor habits can show up as addiction to smoking, alcohol, junk or comfort foods, social media or as procrastination, poor relationship decisions, lifestyle diseases and huge amounts of credit card debt due to online shopping. When we stop thinking about our decisions and take all of actions based on habit, we run the risk of operating on fixed mindsets (see last post), bias and stereotypes. When and where we do so, our decisions can impact other people negatively and sabotage the best outcomes for ourselves. Additionally, our habits can cause us to be absent-minded in our interactions with others and not be present in the moment, thereby preventing us from engaging with our loved ones in meaningful ways.
Final Thoughts on Habits
So, are we stuck with our habits? No, not all. Habits can be hard to change but not impossible. The first and most crucial step in fixing or changing our habits is to become aware of them. So, what is one habit that you really want to change? How does that habit serve you or not serve you? What new habit do you want to build? Stay tuned for next week post ‘Building Better Habits – The Fours Laws of Behavior (Part 2.) Until next time, Remember It’s A Learning Life!
If you want to change your life, change your habits.Unknown