We are a product of our habits. Yes, our genetic makeup is bestowed upon us from our parents, but beyond those predetermined building blocks, our habits create the final version of who we are in the world. In some ways, it’s liberating to think we have so much control over our destiny, but understanding how habits are created and how we can change them is where the real power lies.
So what is a habit?
If you ask Google this question, you will get the explanation “a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.” But why is it so hard? Why do we have habits at all? Why don’t we come to each moment with a new ability to decide what is appropriate for us now? Well, the answer is you can, but it takes practice, and even more importantly, it takes energy.
“Energy is key to understanding the formation of our habits.”
Energy is key to understanding the formation of our habits. The human body is a wonderfully intelligent mechanism. The body is always looking for ways to conserve energy, and this is an important thing to remember when looking at why we create habits in the first place. One of the most significant demands on the human body is the energy it takes to run the motherboard of our body called the brain and in particular, the area of the brain responsible for executive function (like making decisions). We have all heard the term Decision Fatigue, well this is because the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain in the is responsible for making decisions, is always trying to conserve energy. Therefore the brain is always looking for shortcuts or ways that it can lessen the burden from things like making decisions.
So how exactly is a habit formed? According to Author Charles Duhigg, Author of The Power Of Habit, it is a three-part process. First, there is a cue to the brain to go into automatic mode; then there is the actual action or routine that plays out. Lastly, there is a reward. This is important because our brains are highly attuned to the reward system. This reward helps form the Habit Loop, which is what makes it easy for our brains to go through this sequence when the scenario presents again. The more habit loops we create, the less work the brain has to do. The Habit Loop is terrific in some situations allowing energy to divert to other processes, but it can also be detrimental when these habit loops form around sequences we do not want to repeat, like eating chips while driving or having a cigarette with morning coffee.
So how do we break the habits that aren’t serving us? If you look at the habit-forming sequence laid out above then we must first look to the “cue” or the trigger sequence of the habit. As this is where the sequence begins, we must find ways to change or replace the cue. Example: if every time you go to the movies, you order a large popcorn with butter and a soda (totally hypothetical by the way 😉 you would need to locate the trigger at this moment. Is it the smell? Is that you always come to the movies on an empty stomach so when you arrive you’re are starving? Do you go late at night when your energy is low and your ability to say no is weakened? Locating what the trigger or triggers for you are is of the utmost importance.
Furthermore diving even deeper and looking at where this habit loop was formed in the first place is crucial. Did someone you love always take you to the movies and this was your reward when you were growing up for good behavior? Dive deep and discover what the physical and emotional triggers might be and the story that adds to its power.
Now it is time to replace the habit… Now I say replace specifically because this is an integral part of the process of changing a habit. If you try to abstain from the action or sequence, you will likely have a more difficult time and therefore less success.
Find what the trigger or cue is and start by replacing it. Can you go to the movies in the middle of the day when you aren’t as tired or hungry as in the evenings? Can you bring a healthy snack that you can reach for instead of the unhealthy popcorn? Can you change the cycle by changing the cue and therefore the result?
Changing a habit takes more energy. So it is imperative that you plan ahead. Planning is crucial to the formation of new habits. Planning for the trigger before it has even taken place can mean the difference between breaking a habit and not. If you are committed to breaking this cycle, you must be prepared when the habit loop tries to rear its head.
Let’s not forget about that ever-important reward center. There must be a reward for the brain to want to reroute this habit sequence, so don’t forget this part. Perhaps you grab a cup of tea or listen to a happy song or watch something that makes you laugh but don’t forget this critical step in the process. Just be sure you don’t replace one bad habit with another by rewarding yourself with something you will have to break later. Just look at any AA meeting. It looks like an outdoor smoking section at break time. Do your best not to replace one bad habit with another as this feeds into the story and reward pathways you are creating for new habit loops.
Finally, have an accountability partner that you can reach out to when the going gets tough. Just like having a workout partner to get you to the gym, an accountability partner can be helpful when replacing any habit.
Remember, habits are not the enemy. They can be beautiful mechanisms for helping us make life less complicated and energy-consuming. Use that knowledge to your advantage and use whatever works for you to hack the system. Put in place habit loops that are in alignment with who you want to be because after all, we are our habits!