You are a sum of your habits.
I just finished reading The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. It’s an enlightening book about how habits control our lives, how they are created/changed, and how our individual and collective habits affect the world. It had such an amazing application to health and fitness that I felt the need to share the most impactful parts that I gathered from it. If I at all stimulate some curiosity, I highly recommend you get the book and read it.
This newsletter will be the first of a three part series. First, we will cover what habits are and how they work. Next week, I’ll get into how to change them effectively. The week after that, I’ll touch on an idea called KEYSTONE HABITS– small habits that have broad impacts on our lives.
On to the real content this week.
What are habits and how do they work?
Think of habits as express lanes for our brain. They are much faster, require less energy, and are almost impossible to get out of once you’re in. Habits are activities that you have done so frequently that your brain has created a permanent groove for that action and no longer needs to think to complete it.
A good example of this is getting in the car, driving to work, and realizing you really have no idea what happened along the way. You obviously obeyed all the traffic laws, didn’t hurt anyone along the way, but you weren’t present at all for the journey. Your brain was on autopilot- it simply knew what to do and completed the task without conscious effort. We can all agree this is a very dangerous way to drive, but it illustrates how thoughtless our actions become once they become habits.
Most of our lives are dictated by these thoughtless actions, and that’s actually a really good thing. Could you imagine having to consciously think about how to brush your teeth every time you needed to? If you want to experience how frustrating that would be, brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand tonight and you’ll quickly see the value of habits. The same goes for learning how to drive, operating your phone and computer, cooking, and almost every other daily task you complete. Because all these actions are habitual, our brain is freed to have a conversation or complete other tasks while you are in the middle of an activity.
Of course, not all habits are good habits.
We can define bad habits as any activity that we decide does not help us reach our goals and has become thoughtless.
I’ll discuss these in greater detail next week, but first we need to understand how they work. You can break any habit into three parts. The cue, the routine, and the reward.
The cue is the environmental situation that stimulates the routine. This might be thirst that stimulates you to go get a glass of water. Or it could be that moment of boredom that initiates you reaching for your phone and looking at Facebook. It might be something as grabbing your phone and all of a sudden you are turning on a specific app you had no intention of using.
Cues tell the brain to access a specific express way. During a cue, your brain is actually working pretty hard. It’s trying to figure out what all the information it just collected means and what to do about it. If a situation is completely new, the brain will keep working to determine how to respond. If it’s something it’s seen multiple times already, it’ll fall into it’s routine.
The routine portion of the habit is the one where the actual action takes place. This is the act of getting something to drink when you are thirsty or scrolling through Facebook when you picked up your phone. This is where all the good or bad happens in a habit.
While your brain is forming routines, it is working hard. After that routine is set, the brain turns off. This is why this portion of a habit is so important. It’s the part you have the least control over once it’s begun. Again, much of the time this is a good thing. This frees the brain to do other things while an action is taking place. However, this is also why bad habits are so hard to break. You brain doesn’t even realize what you’re doing while you’re in the middle of the routine. It’s only after that you realize you just ate an entire pie and it didn’t even taste that great.
The last phase of a routine is the reward. This is where you get the satisfying (or not) response to the routine you just completed. Your thirst is quenched and you can go on with your day. This part of the habit is vagal in nature. It’s the feeling you get after an action is complete. It might be the momentary excitement of seeing an email come through or the satisfying sizzle in your mouth when you drink a carbonated beverage. Your brain starts working again during this phase to really enjoy the habit.
I’d like to encourage you to start paying attention to all three of these phases in your daily life. What cues initiate your habits? Can you notice how mindless our routines become? Try to figure out what the reward actually is after you complete each habit. As this series continues, all three items will be come important in establishing good habits and changing bad ones.
Yours in health,