Habits are rituals, behaviors, and thoughts that we routinely repeat with little or no effort or conscious awareness of a decision to do so. Their benefit is clear when learning a new skill. Let’s take the example of parallel parking. When you were first learning it, the process seemed very complex and tedious, taking all of your attention to do it properly. Years later, having parallel parked countless times, the process become so habituated and that you can parallel park without much thought, allowing you to focus more on your surroundings.
We activate hundreds of habits each day. Whether a habit is “good” or “bad” depends on its value and impact in your life. Consider that what you repeatedly spend time thinking about and doing each day ultimately forms the person you are, the things you believe, and the personality that you portray. Your habits dictate the direction of your life and level of success. We can change a significant amount of our lives just by eliminating bad habits and creating good ones instead.
Good habits are the ones we work hard on establishing, like exercising, eating well or getting enough sleep, in order to benefit from them. The more we practice them, the work easier it makes our Work in the long run. With consistent practice, we can form lifelong habits for a more satisfying and fulfilling life.
Bad habits are the one’s we probably did not intend to develop and have a destructive of defeating aspect to them, such as smoking, procrastinating or overspending. They become roadblocks to our personal development, sabotaging our efforts.
Many habits are not even noticed because they have been part of our lives for so long, such as tying shoelaces or brushing one’s teeth. But these unconscious habits are not always beneficial – the are simply fully automated. They silently influence our actions and beliefs.
So when it comes to working with habits there are three areas of focus:
- Become mindful of unconscious habits and their cues so we can decide which to keep/improve and which to drop, and know what the silent influences are in our lives.
- Replace bad habits with more positive ones.
- Develop positive habits which further our personal development.
As you explore your habits, remember to take time to consider which are helpful and which are not serving us in what we want to do or the person we want to be.
How Habits Form
Research shows that every habit you have, be they good or bad, follows the same 3-step pattern.
- Reminder/Cue (the trigger that initiates the behavior)
- Routine (the behavior itself; the action you take or thoughts you have)
- Reward (the perceived benefit you gain from doing the behavior)
The sense of reward encourages this cycle to continue to repeat, each time further enforcing the habit and strengthening the brain’s connections. Understanding how your existing habits fit into this pattern will help greatly when dealing with bad habits.
Dealing with Bad Habits
The best way to change your bad habits is to directly replace them with new ones. This requires effort since when you create a habit, your brain actually rewires itself, allowing you to more easily use those habits. This is why people return to their old habits so easily. The neural pathways established as a result of the habits we develop never get deleted. Those pathways are always there for us in case we need to go back and use those same routes again. The more we repeat those routines, the more easily accessible those pathways are. This is great for the many simple and automatic daily tasks we carry out such as walking, talking, running, and eating. We don’t need to stop and think about how to walk before we get up and do it!
Since these existing pathways never get erased, the best way to change existing habits is to replace them with new ones. In time, those pathways become more readily accessible and the habit it replaced gets pushed further down the list of options.
In considering the pattern of cue-routine-reward that habits follow, it help to become mindful of what triggers your bad habits. If we can recognize those cues, we can better develop new habits to respond to them. Additionally if we can find way to sabotage that cycle we can more easily slip in new habits.
For example, when we go on vacation and the usual cues in our environment are absent, we can begin to develop habits to replace the bad one in question. On our return, we can then find ways of reducing (or at least recognizing) the cues of the old habit, and continue to replace the response to those cues with the new routine.
The Desire To Change
I’d like to share a story of two men. One was my father and the other was a colleague – both around the same age and were chain-smokers. It’s difficult for me to picture either of them without a cigarette in their hand.
My father had been seeing warning signs that cigarettes were causing him serious problems, first in circulation and then in breathing. Despite his increasing problems and doctor warnings and family pleadings he chose not to quit. Even after being diagnosed with cancer and having his trachea and a quarter of his lung removed, he would still sneak out to the porch to smoke. It killed him.
My colleague had occasionally complained about the amount of money he spent on cigarettes but had no particular interest in quitting. One day (not long before my father was diagnosed with cancer as I recall) he was reading an article about how the city was offering a free “quit smoking” package which included nicotine patches. He turned to me and said “you know, I think I will quit smoking. I could use the money for better purposes.” As he awaited his kit, he researched how the patches worked and of the various benefits in quitting smoking. When the kit arrived he followed the directions and finished his last cigarette. As time progressed he would excitedly report on how much better food tasted and how he could smell so much more. He spoke of having to repaint his apartment since it had a stale scent from smoking indoors for so many years. The thought that he smelled like that when he was smoking was very disturbing. His energy increased and he took on hobbies he had put off for ages. He is now happily retired and living an active life.
How is it that one person could not quit even when faced with death while the other could, merely at wanting to save money? While things like will-power and self-confidence play a role, the primary differences were that my colleague wanted to quit and took an active interest in the process of quitting. The more invested we are in the process, the more resilient we are to the difficulties.
Developing Good Habits
Habits, Compulsion, and Addiction