Most of us believe that we are in control of our lives and what we do. We believe that we are in possession of free will, and we are constantly making choices as we move throughout our day. This control that we exercise makes us fully functioning human beings. This control, however, is one of life’s biggest illusions.
Author Charles Duhigg, author of “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business,” estimates that as much as 45% of all daily behaviors are merely habits. Most behaviors are parts of routines that are mindlessly performed as we go through life. Despite what we think, we are literally creatures of habit. Most habits are not damaging and serve a positive function. Others, however, can become destructive, and ingrained, and in some cases even life threatening.
Duhigg’s research was done in laboratories at the Brain and Cognitive Sciences department of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They studied the brain and how it functioned before, during, and after habit formation. Our brains instill habits through a process that Duhigg calls The Habit Loop. We respond to something in our environment, a cue, that we respond to or have an emotional response to. It is followed by a routine, or a set of behaviors that occur as a result of that cue. For this behavior we receive a reward.
For example, a cigarette smoker has a habit of smoking while talking on the phone. The phone call is the cue and the physical response, the cigarette, is the reward. Between cue and reward there are a set of behaviors such as opening the pack, taking out the cigarette, lighting the match and so on. Initially the routine takes some thought and planning. Over time the brain shuts down, showing less neurological activity during the routine phase of this Habit Loop. The brain literally goes on automatic pilot during the routine and a habit is formed. If the smoker does not follow the routine during a phone call, craving is experienced, and the smoker feels compelled to smoke. Craving, Duhigg explains, is the hijacking of the brain’s ability to make rational choices. To protect itself from craving the brain automatically follows the routine in pursuit of the reward.
There is a biological reason for habit formation. Going on automatic pilot allows the brain to function without becoming confused and overwhelmed. Most of our daily habits are innocuous, and in most cases necessary. Think about how easily you do things like rush your teeth, tie your shoes, drive a car, opened the door, and literally thousands of things that you do efficiently on a daily basis. All of these could be defined as habits. It is when the habits become destructive and threatening to health and well-being that they need to be changed.
Interestingly enough, Duhigg’s theory implies that once a habit is learned it can never truly be extinguished. This explains why a smoker, addict, or alcoholic can experience craving years after their last use. Once the brain becomes “hijacked” craving is always a possibility. Duhigg does believe however, that we can manipulate the Habit Loop to consciously and systematically correct bad behaviors. If rewards are used appropriately then the habit can be brought under control.
So how do we correct bad habits? Here are a few key points:
- identify a specific negative behavior that you intend to change.
- What are the cues that fire off, setting the Habit Loop into motion?
- What are the rewards? This must be very specific and detailed. Look for the underlying reward. For example, is it the cigarette, or going outside to smoke? Is it eating chocolate, or is it the change in brain chemistry that the chocolate provides? This part of habit change needs to be reviewed periodically. Remember, all behaviors, even negative ones have a positive intention. Look carefully for the positive intention behind your negative behaviors.
- Think carefully about the routine in Duhigg’s Habit Loop. When learning new, more positive behaviors being mindful of the Routine is critical. Remember that when the routine becomes automatic a habit has developed. Like many behaviors awareness is critical. You cannot change a behavior that you do not acknowledge and recognize.
Writing this out, drawing a new Habit Loop is necessary. Don’t take shortcuts! A coach or therapist can help you with this, but with some self-motivation you can change on your own. It is, however, practically impossible to do alone if you don’t write out these details. Don’t ask why, just do it! Trust me, it works.
Habit change begins to take place at around 21 days. Virtually all habits can be corrected at around 90 days. Duhigg’s research indicates that once a habit develops it is always lurking beneath the surface, and can return if you lose your awareness. It will no longer take conscious work to keep it away, but you should be aware when you feel triggered by environmental cues and act accordingly.
We are all truly creatures of habit. An awareness of habit formation and correction can help us develop positive habits that are in line with our beliefs and lifestyle choices. Most of us have things we’d like to change so “drop ’em like a bad habit!”
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