Habit is not Destiny

Habits are important. They allow us to function more efficiently in the world. At the center of our brain is the basil ganglia which is central to our recalling patterns and acting on them. Neuroscientists call this behavior "chunking", when our brains convert a sequence of actions into an automatic routine. And this is how habits emerge because our brains are constantly looking for ways to collect our response and repeat it with less effort. If our brains didn't do this, we would be easily overwhelmed by too many things going on around us. Every time we drive the car to work, would be like learning to drive all over again for the first time, which would be exhausting. 

It turns out that neuroscientists have identified three things that make up a habit. Habits are not destiny. Once you understand the habit loop, you can have greater insight into how your brain lets go of intention and choice and moves into a less effortful, automatic mode of behaving. Understanding this habit loop will allow you to intervene in the process and change the habit. Habits can be strong, but they are also surprisingly delicate in many ways. If your brain doesn't register the cue in the first place, the habitual behavior does not arise. 

A Cue

For a habit to take place there has to be something that triggers the behavior. This cue tells the brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Psychologists have identified the five most common cues as being in the following five categories:

1. Location
2. Time
3. Emotional state
4. Other people
5. Immediately preceding action

A Routine

The routine is the behavior of the habit. It can be physical, mental or emotional. Routines can be complex or simple. 

A Reward

A reward is the payoff, that helps your brain determine if this behavior is worth remembering in the future. 

Your strongest habits arise when you have a craving for the reward. At first you can ignore the buzzing of your cell phone. But once you begin anticipating the message as a reward that gives you a moments distraction from your dreary work routine, it can easily become a habit. You begin to crave that distraction. And even though the message may be trivial you find yourself increasingly unable to resist the pull of your hand into you pocket, reaching for the phone and answering it. You may begin doing this in the middle of meetings, when you know you shouldn't be doing it. Habits can be strong. And the cue and the reward aren't enough. Only when your brain begins to expect the reward, to crave it, will the habit become firmly rooted in your behavior. 

The Golden Rule of Habit Change

Do you want to change a habit that is no longer serving you? Keep the cue. Keep the reward. Change the routine. Find another routine that gives you the same reward and pay off as the habit. 

Have a Plan

Once you understand the three aspects of your habit, once you've isolated and identified the habit and the reward, and you are familiar with the routine, change to a better routine that gives you the same pay off and reward. If you snack at 3:30 every afternoon, set your alarm clock for 3:30 pm. When it goes off, try taking a short walk around the block instead of eating the snack. That routine may give you the same energy boost without the added calorie intake. 

To find out more about how you can work more effectively with habits read "The Power of Habit" by Charles Duhigg. You can also learn more about how to change habits by taking the Overcoming Obstacles Series at the Zen Life & Meditation Center, Chicago. 

Roshi Robert Althouse