Habits are behaviors that become a routine, repeated regularly and occurring often without our conscious knowledge. Habits tend to make up a large part of our experiences, and can include behaviors, thoughts, or feelings. Having such an influential routine also be something that can be classified as good (habits such as washing our faces, brushing our teeth, making our beds) or bad (habits such as smoking, biting nails, or ignoring bills) can be quite confusing when, by the time they are a habit, is almost automatic. Taking a step back, to identify habits that occur in your daily functioning, and figure out how to maximize the “good” and reduce the “bad” can be quite helpful.
As humans have evolved and adapted, habits have been a critical part of maintaining our bodies, our sleep cycle, and our social behaviors, while also freeing up room in our brains to focus on more complex tasks that require attention. It is not just humans that have habits, as you’ve probably observed with your household pets. Animals use habits to learn their environment, as well as to maintain their safety. The process of forming habits is complex within the brain; involving brain structures such as the basal ganglia as well as neural pathways.
Will Durant, an author and philosopher, wrote that we are made of our actions, and what we repeatedly do, and his quote, “Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit” is often used in motivational contexts to help create good habits as well as eliminate bad habits. What, though, is the difference between the “good” and the “bad,” and if habits are so automatic, can we change them?
Yes, we can change our habits, including building and developing new habits, and extinguishing the less desirable behaviors. Habits are simply patterns of behavior, inherently they are not “good” or “bad” but rather, the outcome of the behavior is what receives the value judgment. With behavior, there is a cue that primes our brain or triggers our behavior, then the actual behavior itself, and then the outcome, or the reward of a behavior. Author Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, describes the process for habit change: 1) Identify what the actual behavior is; 2) change the reward; 3) isolate the cue; 4) Have a plan. Lets use a common habit as an example: smoking.
The actual behavior is the inhalation of cigarette smoke. The reward is the nicotine rush (and this does make it a harder habit to break, the reward is chemical; not all habits have this factor) but also the social benefits of taking a cigarette break, and the secondary benefit of deep breathing. The cue for smoking usually involves activity, or time of day. Smokers will often smoke after a meal (the cue is the meal) or during a certain time of day (smoke break is at 3:15). The plan, then would be offering replacement rewards during those cues. A smoking habit could change by, instead of going for a cigarette after a meal, the habit-breaker will instead ask a friend to take a walk with them. During the smoke break, the habit-breaker might instead use that as a social break, checking in with friends. Of course, because of the chemical factor, a person may need aids to help with smoking cessation. Changing a habit is hard, because you are forcing your brain to think consciously about something that is subconscious. Having a motivating factor, like better health or a longer life span with loved ones, will maintain the new habit that will be replacing the “bad” habit.
To develop a new habit, the steps are quite similar. Here is another example: exercise. Lets say that an adult would like to add in exercise to their daily routine, though this is not replacing any “bad” habits, but instead is the creation of something new. First, the habit-former would identify the behavior: physical exercise for at least 20 minutes per day. The reward would be the endorphin rush and health benefits of exercise. Since the health benefits are longer term, it might help to have a short term incentive, as well. For this particular habit, some people use visualization such as an image of a strong body; others might use apps that help incentivize. The key for developing this habit is to establish the cues. Having a set time to exercise, such as “first thing in the morning” and even making it harder for your brain to balk at this new behavior, like laying out gym shoes before bed, might help. Then, create a plan that commits you to two months of consciously performing the behavior, so that it can become part of your routine and a fully formed habit.
Many people find that therapists can help with either the creation of new habits, or the termination of old habits. Having guidance in this area can help isolate the cue and develop rewards, as well as have accountability and someone who can help check in and maintain the plan as the habit is formed.