I’ve finished listening to Charles Duhigg’s ‘The Power of Habit. Why we do what we do and how to change’ and it’s great insight into how habits are formed and what we can do to change them. I’m a big believer in how habits shape who we are, as you might tell from this post and I would absolutely recommend this book. It’s worth spending the time to think about how your own life is composed of habits and which of those you would want to change for the better. Having read it and analysed my own habits, especially the bad ones, here’s some takeaways:
Habits are formed from the unconscious mind and therefore you should emotionally detach yourself from the bad ones
Studies have been done on individuals who have suffered brain injuries to the memory centres or the pre frontal cortex (which is where much of our conscious thinking arises) but not to the basal ganglia.
The basal ganglia is responsible for the automated nature of habits. There have been individuals who have lost all short term memory, so much so that if they feel the need to use the bathroom, they are able to do so, however, if you were to ask them where the bathroom is, they cannot tell you. These studies demonstrate that habits are developed and maintained in completely separate parts of the brain compared to memory and conscious thinking.
We are creatures at heart and our evolved, thinking brain still coordinates with the survival mechanisms developed during our cave-man days. Habits are one of those mechanisms, where tasks that are simple and don’t require complex processing, are off loaded so that our attention can be directed towards more important tasks. When we create habits, like eating junk food, these become engrained in the basal ganglia and so we almost subconsciously follow them. If we attach negative feelings of our self worth or confidence to our bad habits, we should realise that they are products of our human nature and not of our developed brains.
A habit is made up of a cue, craving, routine and reward. Understanding this structure and breaking down our bad habits accordingly, gives us power over them.
Habits are made up of components and the routine and reward are primary ones. For example, if we have a habit of eating a hot jam donut on the way to work, then the routine is going to Krispy Kreme, purchasing it and the reward is the pleasure of the doughy and warm sweetness. Anyone hungry yet? In this example, the cue might be walking past Krispy Kreme on the way to work and smelling the baked doughnut or the sweet smell of jam. When we get a waft of that, we start thinking about that pleasant swell of emotion when we bite into the donut’s soft centre, and that becomes the craving.
If we can accurately break down our bad habits, then we have the power to change the routine and make it a better or healthier one. For example, the type of breakfast I have is laden with fat and sugar, it’s peanut butter and honey on toast with banana and a sprinkling of chocolate powder. It’s pretty good, you should try it! If you make it just right, you’ll have crispy toast with a gooey, sweet middle and biting into that, is definitely the reward. The thought of that gives me a craving, even as I write! The cue was simply getting up and walking into the kitchen and obviously making and it eating it was the routine. I was able to change that to a far healthier breakfast which gave me a similar reward.
Belief is required for long lasting change.
We never really lose our bad habits because they sit dormant in our mind, so they can return quite easily if the cue arises. But these bad habits can be fought off and long lasting change can occur if we have enough believe. Studies were done on individuals who attend Alcoholics Anonymous and they had shown that those who believed in God or a higher power, were far more likely to stay sober. In the same vein, individuals who join dieting groups, like what you might find on Facebook, have a far greater chance of keeping the weight off because they believe if others can do it, so can they.
Developing a single habit can lead to great change.
The type of habits which can achieve this, are ones that create a framework for other new and positive habits. These habits, known as keystone habits, create ‘small wins’. These small wins give people a small advantage which trigger momentum for other small wins. A good example of this is waking up early in the day, especially to do exercise. This habit can empower people because it makes them feel productive that they’re awake whilst everyone else is asleep. That feeling itself is a small win. Then using that time to do exercise creates a number of small wins due to the various benefits of doing exercise: improvements in mood, energy, a slimming body shape, a better mental body image etc. Other small wins are created as well, for example it might free up time later in the day like at lunch and after work. All those things can amount to a pretty big change in a person’s life.
There is one other aspect to habits which I think is really powerful, but i’ll leave that for another day. Stay tuned for that!
Habits are a huge component in our day-to-day lives. They can kidnap our brain into doing things we know aren’t good for us, but because we enjoy the reward so much, it feels like we don’t have a choice. We shouldn’t feel bad about ourselves because of where some of our bad habits lead us because the development of them is just human nature. However, we should seek to understand what the cue and reward is so we can change the routine for the better.
What’s a bad habit you want to change?
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