We usually think of habits as harmless bits of automatic and routine behavior – those that do not require a stream of willpower to execute. But considering that almost half of our daily individual actions – about 43% – are habitual, we may want to rethink the value of a habit.
Individually, breaking the habit of an unhealthy eating cycle and getting on a life-restoring one could change the quality, perhaps even the length, of your life. Collectively, if we all get into the habit of segregating our trash, eating less meat, and avoiding single-use plastic, we can start having a better world.
However, if you realize the power of habits, then you will know why your New Year ‘sresolution will most likely not happen, and why solving the climate crisis is like covering yourself with an umbrella in a nuclear fallout. But maybe if we knew what we were up against inside ourselves, we could make habits work for to better ourselves and the world.
Here are 7 basic things we should know about the nature of a habit:
1. Habits are our brain’s way to be more efficient, regardless of the task at hand. Willpower, regardless of how much of a control freak you think you are, cannot be sustained 24/7. Our brains are always looking for the easiest ways to process decisions. For example, when you get up in the morning, you march through your routine like a zombie without having to make deliberate decisions to go to the bathroom, dress up, and bring your bag. Habit as a mechanism is nature’s way for you to save on mental effort because mental effort is based on willpower, which in turn is limited. But “easy” is not always the right way.
2. “Cue” and “reward” are habit’s yin and yang. These are habit’s inner cogs. The cue is the trigger for your habit to get embedded in your head and in your life.
It could be the smell of coffee that lingers in the air on your way home, which makes you want to get another cup of coffee that late in the day. Then, when you get your coffee and take that first sip, the taste of your favorite slight hazelnut flavor hits you. That is the reward you feel and that pattern is what your brain encodes. This is how you form a habit – with a trigger and a reward.
You do this again and again and the pattern will strengthen and be tucked a away in a “museum” in your head. But what if that habit also gets you into a pattern of sleeping later than you should because of that late dose of caffeine?
3. As mentioned, once you have done something often enough (no one really knows the exact number), that pattern gets to be tucked away in a “museum” in your head. This museum is a part of the structures we share with other living creatures. These are ancient structures deep at the center of your skull that enable your survival.
Scientists have found that with automated and routine behavior, they become tucked away in our basal ganglia, which other animals also have. This is the home of our habits, where they get separated from our willpower and conscious decision-making. Here, they are more difficult to access because they get petrified there like cobwebbed museum pieces; they have already done their job embedding their image in your head without you having to visit them again.
4. Our brains do not care what you make into a habit. Our brains are complex organs that enable us to get things done. For the most part, when left on auto mode, it aims for the easiest way out – cursing, reacting, doing nothing, binging – because they require less mental effort to do so and the brain’s theme song is “Make it easy on yourself.”
The brain part directly behind your forehead – your prefrontal cortex – is the one that steers you to be conscious, to weigh the implications of a behavior, to notice that it is becoming a habit and, the most difficult of all, to break it when it is not making you better. You have to call it out with the equivalent of a ship’s horn inside your head when you want to arrest the larger tendency of the brain to just take the easy way out. That requires a lot of mental effort – reasoning and being enlightened and transformed by it. That is a difficult task and we are, for the most part, lazy creatures.
5. Habits are “natural” but they are not necessarily moral. Since habits are formed by mere cues and rewards, we should be conscious and make it worth our mental effort to try to check if those habits are making us not just good but better humans. This is because they can be a permanent part of your being and can define you and the quality of your presence in your own life and in other people’s lives.
It is still worth your while to pick a habit you think has not made your life better – figure out its cues and try different ways of getting rid of or replacing the cue. Or maybe it is a person who triggers that undesirable habit? You could try avoiding that person and rewarding yourself for having avoided that person. That could get you into a new habit for a better you.
6. Facts and science do not break habits. In many new year articles, you are bombarded by so many things – food, exercise, sustainable ways to alter your life – which you get interested in and perhaps will even motivate you to start on a new path. But they will not change you or your life for the better unless you make them into habits. This is not necessarily because you have a weak character. This is because the activities that are attached to a healthy diet, exercise, and a healthy planet will require you to break old habits of eating, cooking, cleaning and shopping.
Facts and science can momentarily amaze and make you feel guilty, but it requires a lot more deliberation and conscious sustained effort to pry out the many interconnected petrified habits in the museum in your head, and to replace them with the ones that can make you live healthy in a healthy, restored planet.
7. The best way to make a habit is to make it easy on your brain. To break a bad habit, make for a better alternative that is easier on the brain.
Experts point out that fastfood chains are successful not because they are cheap but because they are easy on our brains – not too many menu choices, the same general look so we don’t have to guess what to expect every time we enter a branch, the same canned responses from cashiers. So the key is: how do we make better choices become much easier choices? How do we make healthy food also easy food?
The proliferation of 24-hour access gyms helps to make an otherwise “hard” choice of working out an easier choice now. If we gave buyers more access to sustainable goods and services, then it will be easier for them to make it a habit to be restorative in their shopping, cooking, and dining.
If we made the internet slower when you are on social media, then it will not be as easy for anyone to just post the first reptilian reaction they feel – lashing and ranting (it will be easier to take deep breaths first or refrain from posting altogether).
If we made public transport so much easier, then public commuting will be a natural habit.
Habits are very hard to break, but our lives and planet deserve far better. Here’s to habits that will be better for us and those around us. – Rappler.com
Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, “Science Solitaire” and “Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire.” You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.