Did you know that your habits can actually ruin your life if you don’t harness them correctly? Did you also know that when your habits are directed correctly they are the greatest source of power you will ever have? Did you know that your habits are actually more influential over your entire personality and behavior than anything else? Well, they are! And that’s why your habits are a pretty big deal! It’s also why we are going to look at them in-depth.
At this point you may be thinking something along the lines of “Surely the choices I make each day are a result of my well-honed decision making ability? A decision making ability that I’ve developed over many years. I know right from wrong! I make choices all the time don’t I? It’s my choices that form my behavior and actions isn’t it?”
You may be amazed to learn that the answer is no.*
Our actions and behavior are not decisions we make at all. Our actions are actually a series of habits we have formed. Even though each habit means relatively little on its own, over time, the food we eat, how often we exercise, how we interact with our family and friends, whether we save or spend our money, how often and for long we spend studying, how we organize our thoughts, and how our entire lives are arranged are totally a product of our habits.
Our habits therefore have enormous impacts on our health, our relationships, our productivity, our financial well-being and our overall happiness. In fact, our habits impact everything we do.
How Do Habits Happen?
Habits occur when we stop making a choice and our behavior become automatic. It’s nothing to worry about – it’s just a natural consequence of our neurology (which by the way means how our brains are designed). The process in which the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine is known as chunking, and chunking drives habits.
We have hundreds of these routines that we rely on every day. For example, how to brush your teeth, how to get dressed, how to use your cell phone, how to get from home to school, how to drive a car, how to make a sandwich, how to…you get the idea. You don’t have to re-learn how to do these things each day – you just do them don’t you!
Some routines are simple and some are more complex, but all routines will be formed into a habit if you do them enough times. This means that anything you do consistently will become a habit after a period of time. But why do humans create habits?
What’s The Point Of All These Habits Anyway?
Habits emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. The brain will actually seek to make every routine you develop into a habit, because habits allow our minds to power down more often and become more efficient. Also, without habit formation our brains would shut down and be unable to cope with all the information and effort required to understand every bit of data being thrown at it each and every day.
For example, you don’t wake up in the morning and think long and hard about whether you should take a shower or not, you already have established habits. You either do or do not take showers in the morning before school or work. You don’t have to spend time thinking about the positives and negatives each day. You already made a choice some time ago and from there you formed the habit.
So, I hope we can now agree that actions such as when you bathe, when you brush you teeth, what you eat, and how you interact with others (and so on and so forth) all occur on autopilot. If they didn’t you’d never get anything done. Your life would instead become a series of decisions you would have to make which would cause total mental paralysis.
So, we now know that when a habit emerges, the brain is able to stop fully participating in decision making. Your actions and thoughts will instead unfold automatically without any thought at all. So how then do habits emerge?
The Habit Loop
Put simply, in order for a habit to emerge it relies on three elements being present. The first is a cue such as, “I’m hungry”. The next is a routine, such as, “I’ll eat a cookie”. And finally comes the reward, such as, “I’m now full and satisfied”. If you go through this three-step sequence (cue, routine, reward) enough times you will have yourself a habit. This is known as the habit loop.
Unfortunately, habits aren’t always helpful. Why? Well, your brain doesn’t know the difference between good and bad habits. All it knows is the habit loop. It doesn’t know whether your loops make you fit or whether they make you fat. It doesn’t know whether the loop makes you smart or it makes you dumb. To the brain it’s just a sequence.
But worse than this, your habits override absolutely everything – including your “common sense”. That’s right; habits override common sense and will occur even if the habit is bad for you. In fact, even if it’s killing you. Don’t believe it? Just think of a smoker – they have formed a habit loop around smoking (cue – I need a nicotine hit, routine – I’ll smoke a cigarette, reward – I no longer need a nicotine hit) and we all know that smoking kills you. Smokers know that smoking is killing them. But it doesn’t matter. What matters most is that the habit is fulfilled. Pretty amazing isn’t it?
Now that you’ve learnt what habits are, and how powerful a force they are in your lives, you are ready to learn how to manipulate your habits and use them to your advantage.