According to neuroscientist David Eagleman, “Brains are in the business of gathering information and steering behavior appropriately. It doesn’t matter whether consciousness is involved in the decision making. And most of the time, it’s not.”
How Habits Get Formed
In ‘The Power of Habit’, writer Charles Duhigg does a deep dive into the science of habits to explain how they work and how we can change them.
When we first engage in a new task, our brains are working hard—processing tons of new information as we find our way. But, as soon as we understand how a task works, the behavior starts becoming automatic and the mental activity required to do the task decreases dramatically.
Duhigg writes, “This 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.”
Habits Consist Simple, but Powerful Three-Part Loops
Duhigg writes: “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. Over time, this loop becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges. How to Change a Habit.”
The first rule of habit-changing is that you have to play by the rules. That is, there’s no escaping the three-part loop (e.g. cue, routine, reward) because it’s hard-wired into our brains.
If you want to get rid of a bad habit, you have to find out how to implement a healthier routine to yield the same reward. For example, you like to go out with your coworkers at the end of a long day and have a few drinks. In this situation, there are actually two rewards: (1) the socializing that inevitably occurs, and (2) the relaxing effects of the alcohol on your nervous system.
Both rewards are valid. But if you want to remove drinking from your life, and don’t replace it with something else, you’re likely to have a difficult time. So the trick is to keep the cue (e.g. tired after a long day) and the rewards (e.g. social time, relaxation) while changing the routine (e.g. drinking).
An alternative routine could be to convince a coworker or friend to start exercising with you after work—running, yoga, rock climbing, or whatever works for you. Then you have a healthy routine (exercise) that replaces the negative routine (drinking) while yielding the same rewards (social time, relaxation).
When you’re trying to get the new routine integrated into your life, don’t be afraid to dwell on the rewards. It’s actually a good thing. Duhigg writes, “Want to exercise more? Choose a cue, such as going to the gym as soon as you wake up, and a reward, such as a smoothie after each workout. Then think about that smoothie, or about the endorphin rush you’ll feel. Allow yourself to anticipate the reward. Eventually that craving will make it easier to push throughout the gym doors every day.”
Of course, it’s not always quite that simple. As we all know, forming new habits is hard. Just because you’re telling your brain that there’s a reward, doesn’t meant the habit will stick. It only really sinks in when—through enough repetition—your brain comes to crave the reward.
“Countless studies have shown that a cue and a reward, on their own, aren’t enough for a new habit to last. Only when your brain starts expecting the reward—craving the endorphins or sense of accomplishment-—will it become automatic to lace up your jogging shoes each morning. The cue, in addition to triggering a routine, must also trigger a craving for the reward to come.”
But that’s still not everything. We’ve all managed to implement new habits for a month or two, only to have them compromised when we’re under extreme stress. If we truly want to avoid backsliding into our old ways, there’s a final key ingredient: Belief.
You Gotta Believe
“For a habit to stay changed, people must believe that change is possible. And most often, that belief only emerges with the help of a group,” says Duhigg.Taking the classic example of one of the most effective habit-changing organizations ever, Alcoholics Anonymous, Duhigg writes: “Alcoholics who believed that some higher power had entered their lives were more likely to make it through the stressful periods with their sobriety intact.”
But it’s not necessarily a higher power that makes the difference, it’s belief itself. When people believe in something, and have a sense of accountability to it, they gain an extra tool to that provides mental strength when facing relapse. Belief is the magic ingredient that makes a reworked habit loop into a permanent behavior.
Groups create accountability and belief—key ingredients in helping us stick with new habits. Thus, if you want to write more, consider joining a writing group. If you want to run more, consider joining a running club. The more positive reinforcement you can surround yourself with, the easier it will be to make change your habit.
Here’s Duhigg’s flowchart for how to change a habit: