“All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits,” William James
Most of the choices we make each day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making, but they’re not. They’re habits.
When you woke up this morning, what did you do first? Did you hop in the shower, check your email, or grab a doughnut from the kitchen counter? Did you brush your teeth before or after you toweled off? Tie the left or right shoe first? What did you say to your kids on your way out the door? Which route did you drive to work? When you got to your desk, did you deal with email, chat with a colleague, or jump into writing a memo? Salad or hamburger for lunch? When you got home, did you put on your sneakers and go for a run, or pour yourself a drink and eat dinner in front of the TV?
Hundreds of habits influence our days—they guide how we get dressed in the morning, talk to our kids, and fall asleep at night; they impact what we eat for lunch, how we do business, and whether we exercise or have a beer after work. Each of them has a different cue and offers a unique reward. Some are simple and others are complex, drawing upon emotional triggers and offering subtle neurochemical prizes. But every habit, no matter its complexity, is malleable. The most addicted alcoholics can become sober.
The process—in which the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine—is known as “chunking,” and it’s at the root of how habits form. There are dozens—if not hundreds—of behavioral chunks that we rely on every day. Others are so complicated that it’s remarkable a small bit of tissue that evolved millions of years ago can turn them into habits at all. Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often. But conserving mental effort is tricky, because if our brains power down at the wrong moment, we might fail to notice something important, such as a predator hiding in the bushes or a speeding car as we pull onto the street.
This process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.
Habits aren’t destiny. Habits can be ignored, changed, or replaced.”
But change is hard work and there is no short cut to achieving it. Simply understanding how habits work makes them easier to control. “Once we develop a routine of sitting on the couch, rather than running, or snacking whenever we pass a doughnut box, those patterns always remain inside our heads.” Habits emerge without our permission.
Rather, to change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine. That’s the rule: If you use the same cue, and provide the same reward, you can shift the routine and change the habit. Almost any behavior can be
transformed if the cue and reward stay the same. A smoker usually can’t quit unless she finds some activity to replace cigarettes when her nicotine craving is triggered. Even when alcoholics’ brains were changed through surgery, it wasn’t enough.
The old cues and cravings for rewards were still there, waiting to pounce. The alcoholics only permanently changed once they learned new routines that drew on the old triggers and provided a familiar relief. “Some brains are so addicted to alcohol that only surgery can stop it,” said Mueller. “But those people also need new ways for dealing with life.”
“Most people’s habits have occurred for so long they don’t pay attention to what causes it anymore.”
For some habits, however, there’s one other ingredient that’s necessary: belief. Once people learned how to believe in something, that skill started spilling over to other parts of their lives, until they started believing they could change. Belief was the ingredient that made a reworked habit loop into a permanent behavior. We do know that for habits to permanently change, people must believe that change is feasible.
Unfortunately, no specific set of steps guaranteed to work for every person. We know that a habit cannot be eradicated—it must, instead, be replaced. And we know that habits are most malleable when the Golden Rule of habit change is applied: If we keep the same cue and the same reward, a new routine can be inserted.
But that’s not enough. For a habit to stay changed, people must believe change is possible. If you want to change a habit, you must find an alternative routine,. Belief is essential, and it grows out of a communal experience, even if that community is only as large as two people. We know that change can happen. Alcoholics can stop drinking. Smokers can quit puffing.
The line separating habits and addictions is often difficult to measure. Anyone struggling with addiction or destructive behaviors can benefit from help from many quarters, including trained therapists, physicians, social workers, and clergy. Even professionals in those fields, though, agree that most alcoholics, smokers, and other people struggling with problematic behaviors quit on their own, away from formal treatment settings. Much of the time, those changes are accomplished because people examine the cues, cravings, and rewards that drive their behaviors and then find ways to replace their self-destructive routines with healthier alternatives, even if they aren’t fully aware of what they are doing at the time. Understanding the cues and cravings driving your habits won’t make them suddenly disappear—but it will give you a way to plan how to change the pattern.
Some people’s brains, though, experience switching errors. They go into incomplete paralysis as they sleep, and their bodies are active while they dream or pass between sleep phases. This is the root cause of sleepwalking and for the majority of sufferers, it is an annoying but benign problem.
Sleepwalkers can behave in complex ways—for instance, they can open their eyes, see, move around, and drive a car or cook a meal—all while essentially unconscious, because the parts of their brain associated with seeing, walking, driving, and cooking can function while they are asleep without input from the brain’s more advanced regions, such as the prefrontal cortex. Sleepwalkers have been known to boil water and make tea.
However, as scientists have examined the brains of sleepwalkers, they’ve found a distinction between sleepwalking—in which people might leave their beds and start acting out their dreams or other mild impulses—and something called sleep terrors. When a sleep terror occurs, the activity inside people’s brains is markedly different from when they are awake, semi-conscious, or even sleepwalking.
The behaviors of people in the grip of sleep terrors are habits, though of the most primal kind. The “central pattern generators” at work during a sleep terror are where such behavioral patterns as walking, breathing, flinching from a loud noise, or fighting an attacker come from. We don’t usually think about these behaviors as habits, but that’s what they are: automatic behaviors so ingrained in our neurology that, studies show, they can occur with almost no input from the higher regions of the brain.
“People with sleep terrors aren’t dreaming in the normal sense,” said Mahowald, the neurologist. “There’s no complex plots like you and I remember from
a nightmare. If they remember anything afterward, it’s just an image or emotions—impending doom, horrible fear, the need to defend themselves or someone else.
“Those emotions are really powerful, though. They are some of the most basic cues for all kinds of behaviors we’ve learned throughout our lives.
Responding to a threat by running away or defending ourselves is something everyone has practiced since they were babies. And when those emotions occur, and there’s no chance for the higher brain to put things in context, we react the way our deepest habits tell us to .
Habits are not as simple as they appear. Everything we know about habits, from neurologists studying amnesiacs and organizational experts remaking companies, is that any of them can be changed, if you understand how they function.
However, to modify a habit, you must decide to change it. You must consciously accept the hard work of identifying the cues and rewards that drive the habits’ routines, and find alternatives. You must know you have control and be self-conscious enough to use it—and every chapter in this book is devoted to illustrating a different aspect of why that control is real.
If you believe you can change—if you make it a habit—the change becomes real. This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be. Once that choice occurs—and becomes automatic—it’s not only real, it starts to seem inevitable, the thing, as James wrote, that bears “us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.”
The way we habitually think of our surroundings and ourselves create the worlds that each of us inhabit. “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ ” the writer David Foster Wallace told a class of graduating college students in 2005. “And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’ ”
The water is habits, the unthinking choices and invisible decisions that surround us every day—and which, just by looking at them, become visible again.
Throughout his life, William James wrote about habits and their central role in creating happiness and success. He eventually devoted an entire chapter in his masterpiece The Principles of Psychology to the topic. Water, he said, is the most apt analogy for how a habit works. Water “hollows out for itself a channel, which grows broader and deeper; and, after having ceased to flow, it resumes, when it flows again, the path traced by itself before.”
You now know how to redirect that path. You now have the power to swim.
Excerpts from book: “The power of habit” by Charles Duhigg