What are the things you do each day without even thinking? When you stumble into the bathroom in the morning, do you brush your teeth? Or, like me, do you make a beeline straight for the coffee maker when you enter the kitchen? When you feel stressed do you bite your nails or reach for chocolate? When your phone buzzes do you look at it right away? It’s ok, you can be honest with me. I’ve certainly done all those things and more. Good, bad, or somewhere in-between these are all examples of habits. And that’s our topic for today…
WHAT HABITS ARE
Why talk about habits? Because they are a building block of the life we lead, whether we realize it or not. And it’s likely we don’t realize it.
What I mean by that is habits are a learned, reflexive, automatic behavior that comprises close to half of the actions we take every day. Let that sink in for a minute. Almost HALF of what we do every day are habits? Surprising, right? A paper published by a Duke University researcher in 2006 found that more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t due to decision making, but were habits. So we’re talking about 40% minimum of the things we believe are choices are actually automatic.
A habit is essentially a mental shortcut done to conserve energy. The brain loves to reduce the amount of decisions made. When you repeat steps, it notes the pattern of those steps, then anticipates the pattern and consolidates them into “one”. This process — called chunking — is your brain’s way of ensuring you no longer have to think about each of the steps as you’re doing them.
An example: My brain doesn’t have to process grabbing a towel and a washcloth, turning on the water, getting wet, grabbing soap, pouring shampoo, lathering, rinsing, and repeating…because it has taken this repeat process and “chunked it” into one thing called “taking a shower”. That means while I am doing the combined thing I am free to consider my next podcast episode, decide how I’d like to renovate the space, solve the world’s problems, or more likely mimic Mariah Carey while doing my best to remember the lyrics and hit those high notes.
THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON HABITS
So what’s going on when we create these habits? Remember in Episode #11 on Meditation I talked about neuroplasticity? That’s back again. This time for habit formation.
Every time you act in the same way, a specific neuronal pattern is stimulated and becomes strengthened in your brain.
Neuroscientists have found that certain neurons in the brain are responsible for grouping behaviors together into a single habitual routine, in the ‘chunking’ process I mentioned. These neurons, located in a brain region highly involved in habit formation, fire at the beginning and the end of a habitual behavior.. It’s also interesting to note that these neurons fire more as you are learning the behavior, but this reduces as the behavior becomes a deep-seated habit.
In some ways, habits are a form of mental decluttering. They can serve us by freeing up precious brain bandwidth.
Professor Ann Graybiel, a member of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT explained “We’ve always thought — and I still do — that the value of a habit is you don’t have to think about it. It frees up your brain to do other things. However, it doesn’t free up all of it. There’s some piece of your cortex that’s still devoted to that control.”
Great! Free brain space sounds good to me. But how do we make the most of these habits and how do we handle the ones we never wanted?
The GOOD, the BAD, and the NEUTRAL
You’ll notice much of what I share with you on the Positively Living Podcast includes the idea that the responses we have are not necessarily good or bad, but rather that they have the potential to serve us or not or even be neutral. The best part of this is that we have a choice in the matter. And considering how few choices we have in life, I’m calling this a win.
But what happens if you’ve repeated steps and turned patterns into habits that don’t serve you?
Those are what we call “bad” habits, and don’t worry, they don’t have to stick around. You can change them.
As we go over the framework of habits, in order to develop new and change existing ones, I will be sharing some expertise from two of my favorite authors on this topic: Charles Duhigg and James Clear Both authors share frameworks for habit development and guide readers on things like keystone habits, those habits that are best to start with because they help you with other habits, and habit stacking — the way in which we can combine habits for even more effective self-improvement. I highly recommend both authors if you are interested in digging into the details and will include their information in the show notes..
Charles Duhigg — the author of the Power of Habit and Smarter, Faster, Better — offers a framework for habits that includes three stages: the cue, the routine, and the reward.
The cue is the trigger that alerts your brain to go into auto mode. Common triggers are the time of day, a specific location, your phone buzzing, friends or family members, or even certain emotions.
The routine is the automatic behavior that gets triggered by a cue. It’s the physical or mental action taken because of the cue (aka the habit itself).
The reward is the benefit you get from the routine. Rewards make our brains happy, which is positive reinforcement and encouragement to continue the habit pattern.
I think it’s important to note that the reward isn’t always what you think it is. It can be obvious when you have a habit like exercise or eating treats where you get a dopamine rush — its something that feels good. But sometimes rewards for a habit like avoidance or procrastination are less obvious. In this case your brain is rewarded with the feeling (correct or not) that it has kept you safe from something it perceived as harmful. It could be as simple as “rewarding” you by not having to do the work, nevermind the fact that it sabotaged you and set you up for more work later.
In Atomic Habits, James Clear builds upon the work of Duhigg, showing how the small habit you think won’t make a difference, truly can when you give it the time it needs to grow and you focus on the system to create the change. I appreciate his focus on systems as system development is a big part of what I do as a coach and I see their effectiveness firsthand when working with clients.
Clears says “Habits are the compound interest of self improvement”. Simply put, habits allow you to start small yet create big change in your life.
His habit framework is called the HABIT LOOP with 4 stages: cue, craving, response, reward
The cue triggers a craving, which motivates a response (habit), which provides a reward, which satisfies the craving and, ultimately, becomes associated with the cue. Together, these four steps form a neurological feedback loop. For example: You wake up (cue). You want to feel alert. (craving) You drink a cup of coffee. (response) You satisfy your craving to feel alert. (reward) Drinking coffee becomes associated with waking up. Yep. I can confirm that’s accurate!
HOW TO CREATE GOOD HABITS (AND BREAK BAD ONES)
Clear offers a simple set of rules he calls laws to create good habits and break bad ones. For good habits, you must make the cue obvious, the craving attractive, the response easy, and the reward satisfying. And to break bad habits, you must invert those. Essentially, it means to set up good habits to be attractive and do the opposite for the bad. That’s a simplistic summary of a very detailed set of laws, so I highly recommend reading his book.
As Inigo Montoya says in The Princess Bride “Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up”
For now let’s focus on your action steps for today.
For both habit development and change, you must decide what you want to achieve and understand what reward you are truly receiving from the habit you want to change. The better you understand your response and the components of a habit, the better you’ll be able to shift your approach and environment to make the changes you desire.
When working with habits, think of the acronym STEP: Scope, Time, Exchange, Prize
S – Scope: Keep it SIMPLE and SMALL. When we’re excited and determined to create change, we can easily get carried away. Have you ever done that? Deciding you’re going to give up all forms of sugar and get healthy. But so often that sets us up to fail. When you begin a habit, think of the smallest step possible and build upon it. (That’s what Clear means by Atomic Habits, by the way.) It’s like going to the gym to lift weights. You start low and increase as your strength does. Habits are like that, building a different kind of muscle.
T – Time: Select WHEN and for HOW LONG you are working on a habit, realizing that many basic ones can take at least an average of 66 days to lock in. Be patient. Give yourself a chance, knowing that results won’t necessarily be obvious right away. Remember motivation and willpower may start the process, but they won’t last. You need to hold on until the habit can take over.
E – Exchange: Focus less on breaking bad habits, and more on replacing them with good ones. When I coach clients on habit development, I help them crowd out the bad with the good. For example, if you want to create a habit of eating better food, ADD vegetables, instead of focusing right away on reducing dessert (especially if that has been a challenge for you). I love the quote from Socrates: “The Secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”
P – Prize: Reward yourself and make it satisfying! Congratulate yourself at every point. Find ways to celebrate results, even if it’s counting the days you are working on a habit because you can’t necessarily see what it’s doing yet. (This is why habit trackers are so helpful.) Give yourself the praise you need to keep going. The more attractive your experience is, the more likely you’ll stick with it.
Remember, it’s all about taking action and letting that action build into a habit. We cannot WILL ourselves to have good habits, nor can we REASON with our brains. I mean, have you tried that? I have and no matter how much I tell my brain that veggies are better for me than chocolate, it still votes chocolate…every time. And that’s ok. With the power of habits, we can automate good choices and we can help ourselves want to make good choices because we’ve done them repeatedly and teach ourselves the benefit that way.
If you’d like help starting a new habit, I’m offering a Fast Track Session for listeners. As the name suggests, it’s fast. We’ll take 30 minutes to devote to ONE topic and you’ll come away with a plan of action. This session is booked by special invitation link-only, so if you’re interested, please message me through the show notes or my website at positivelyproductive.com.
Links & Books mentioned
“This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be.”
― Charles Duhigg