H is for habits
Updated: Feb 17
“Habit is the intersection of knowledge (what to do), skill (how to do), and desire (want to do)” Stephen R. Covey
A habit is defined as a way of behaving that starts as a choice, and then is repeated so often that it becomes an almost unconscious pattern.
“Brains are in the business of gathering information and steering behaviour appropriately. It doesn’t matter whether consciousness is involved in the decision making. And most of the time, it’s not.” David Eagleman
Every habit, regardless of complexity, follows the same structure of trigger and then a message to your brain to respond. Various neurological studies indicate that anywhere between 40 to 95 percent of how we think, what we say, and our overall actions are habitual, meaning that a big part of our lives is spent almost entirely on autopilot.
“All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits” William James
Our brain likes to save energy and will opt for what is familiar. As humans, we are neurologically designed to seek organization and patterns in the environment and in behaviour, in so doing, this helps our brain to create a neural economy by using predictable and familiar routines to navigate our day on autopilot which leaves the rest of our attention and energy available for dealing with new and unfamiliar events and experiences.
When we first do something new, it requires a lot of concentration and brainpower, but as we repeat a task it becomes easier and the mental energy that we require to perform a task decreases significantly. This process is called ‘chunking’ and we rely on these ‘chunks’, that are the root of our habits, unconsciously every day.
Habits emerge through associative learning.
The mind is a powerful tool and it can hinder us or helps us. Our brain undergoes changes with or without our conscious knowledge so it is important that we control and set the direction for these changes.
“In essence, if we want to direct our lives, we must take control of our consistent actions. It's not what we do once in a while that shapes our lives, but what we do consistently.”
It is clear that neuroplasticity can be used to further our journey positively towards our optimal selves by making conscious choices, action and through practice because over time our brain can create new pathways. By being proactive, neural networks will grow new connections, strengthen existing ones and build insulated pathways that will speed transmission of impulses. i.e. we can increase our neural growth by the actions we take, the questions we ask, practice and the development of good habits.
An automatic response may be efficient for our brain, but it doesn’t always help us towards our goals though which is why we find some habits hard to change. When we respond in a certain way to any given cue/trigger and it feels good, we will respond the same way again the next time we encounter the same cue which is what makes unhelpful habits so hard to change.
"Our minds don't always integrate in the best way possible. Even when you know the right answer, you can't make yourself change the habitual behaviour," Wendy Wood
"plastic changes may not necessarily represent a behavioural gain for a given subject." (Pascual-Leone). In addition to being the mechanism for development and learning, plasticity can be "a cause of pathology."
Energy is essential when choosing how we spend our time. If our energy levels are low, we tend to make poor choices. These poor choices can eventually compound detrimentally, leading to our gash moments to become GASH moments.
“Thoughts create actions. Actions create habits. Habits create character.” Matthew Kelly
“You’ll never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of your success is found in your daily routine”. John C. Maxwell
Our character will affect how we approach life and ultimately affect our future more than any other single thing.
“Habits create character. And your character is your destiny – in the workplace and in relationships. In every sphere of your life, your character provides significant insight into your future” Matthew Kelly
The future is not something that arbitrarily happens to us, it is an ‘external expression of our internal reality’ (Matthew Kelly) Accepting that our character shapes our destiny, perhaps we should ask ourselves what our future looks like and whether we need to invest more in ourselves. Investing in ourselves and things that build our character as a priority first and foremost is the best investment that we can make for ourselves and for other people.
“Character is built one habit at a time. Good character is built one virtue at a time”
As habits build our character it is important to build our habits based on our values. The best preparation for every scenario we find ourselves facing is to identify our habits and work to change the less helpful ones. The quality of our lives will then be changed positively as we strengthen and improve our character through intention.
So how do we change our less helpful habits?
There is a lot of help available to us to create the life we want in the form of public service announcements, educational programmes, workshops and courses all intended to help us improve our day-to-day habits, but although they may increase our motivation and give us knowledge and help us set goals, these self-help programmes only address the intentional mind.
“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going”. Jim Rohn
At the core of every habit is a 3 step process which, when identified, can give us strategies to identify and change our behaviour.
Every habit starts with a cue or trigger that tells our brains when and which habit to use. In order to effectively change habitual behaviour we must first identify these cues and find strategies for derailing our existing habits by creating new opportunities to act on our desired intentions. Learning to ask ourselves questions as to what compels our behaviour or what we were experiencing before an unwanted action/response can help unpick our existing habits.
Being aware of a habit and what context is reinforcing it, is the first step to change. When the cues for existing habits are removed, it's easier to create a new routine and form a new behaviour. Sometimes we can’t remove the existing cue but we can learn to change the association with it.
To make chemical and physical changes in our brains, we need to pay attention. Our ‘attention density’ (the amount of attention we pay to a particular experience over a specific time) increases as we increase our concentration on a specific idea. This high attention density is what leads to long-term behavioural change.
“Your brain loves habits because they are simple, structured, well-known, energy efficient, quick, and automatic.” Stan Jacobs
The next step is based on repetition, routine and context. It is helpful to examine and reflect upon the behaviour we want to change and the routines we have created; and ask ourselves what makes us repeat an action. Our routine activities are controlled by a part of the brain called the basal ganglia. They are ‘hardwired’ and so we don’t need to give them much conscious thought which is why we can often perform tasks on ‘automatic pilot’.
“Depending on the complexity of the activity, [experiments have required] four and a half months, 144 days or even three months for a new brain map, equal in complexity to an old one, to be created in the motor cortex.” Tara Swart
Various studies have shown that it can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to almost a year to form a new habit. For a new habit to be ingrained sufficiently there must be stable context cues available in order to trigger a new pattern because it is easier to maintain a new habit if it is repeated in a specific context.
It takes a lot of repetition or practice for connections to become established and for a new or complex concept to move from the prefrontal cortex to the basal ganglia. By making it familiar through repetition or by talking about it repeatedly, it then becomes less threatening and leads to a new default habit.
“Where attention goes, neural firing flows, and neural connection grows.” Daniel J. Siegel
It is helpful to identify why we do something and the ‘reward’ we experience because it is easier to find a better habit that will give us the same reward once we know the ‘why’ of our actions.
Goals give our life a sense of direction; they put a powerful force into play on a universal, conscious, and subconscious level but values guide us as to what those goals should be and temper how we should work to achieve them.
“We go through life following the same routine, day after day. But in order to create a rich, full, and meaningful life, we need to stop to reflect on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.” Russ Harris
By focusing on our values and goals and the satisfaction we can obtain, it helps us think about how we can do something differently and get a more constructive and positive benefit.
“First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not” Octavia Butler
To change a habit we need to use our willpower rather than how we feel as our feelings and emotions can lead us astray. For us to experience change, we must consciously take action; whether it is a change of attitude or perspective or a change of behaviour.
“And once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom and the responsibility to remake them”. Charles Duhigg
Willpower is a muscle, not a skill and we all have the ability to create habits that are helpful rather than those that hinder us.
"The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones." Confucius.
The more we use our willpower the stronger it becomes, the more resilient we become and the greater the positive effect it will have on everything in your life and your future.
“Small shifts in your thinking, and small changes in your energy, can lead to massive alterations of your end result.” Kevin Michel
Finally, the prefrontal cortex can only deal well with a few concepts at one time. Rather than trying to incorporate too much change at one time, we will have better success if we practise the Japanese concept of Kaizen and make small incremental changes.
“The old adage we usually hear is that “practice makes perfect.” Based on what we know about neuroplasticity and deliberate practice, we should rephrase that to read, “practice makes permanent.” As you organize yourself for this self-reflective prep work, remember that it is not about being perfect but about creating new neural pathways that shift your default cultural programming as you grow in awareness and skill.” Zaretta L. Hammond
We all have the ability to change and create new habits. When we believe that we can change, and all our actions are conducive towards achieving the change we want to see – it will become reality.
“Your net worth to the world is usually determined by what remains after your bad habits are subtracted from your good ones”. Benjamin Franklin
Some questions to think about/or discuss below:
Do your habits empower you or disempower you?
Do your habits limit you or free you?
Do they help you or hinder you from reaching your goals?
What would you describe as your good habits and bad habits ?
What habits do you want to change?
What small steps can you start to put in place to help you change your unwanted habit?
“Good habits are worth being fanatical about” John Irving
If you want to reflect more on this subject, here are some links to get you started:
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People - Stephen R Covey
“Let today be the day you give up who you've been for who you can become”. Hal Elrod