Have you noticed how you always put on your left sock first?
Or how you always sleep on your right side, facing the bedroom door?
Or how you’ve already pulled out your smart phone from your pocket while the friend you’re with is saying something that deserves your full attention?
Most likely, you haven’t noticed any of these things – so ingrained and automatic are they that they get done without any consciousness on your part.
Nor is it only single actions like these that you perform on auto-pilot in the course of your everyday life. Whole sets of routine behaviour become second nature to us so that we engage in them with astonishing ease without ever having to think about them.
Think of what happens when you wake up each morning. You gently curse your alarm for waking you out of your precious ZZZs; throw off the covers and pull yourself out of bed; make your groggy way to the sink where you smear toothpaste on to your brush before sticking it in your mouth; move to the kitchen where you brew your cup of morning tea; bring in the newspaper and scan the headlines while you sip your tea; head into the bathroom and shower; sit down to breakfast and a leisurely check of your cell phone messages; get into a set of freshly-laundered clothes; retrieve your wallet and keys from the bedside table where you always keep them each night; get out the door and behind the steering wheel of your car; drive off, always making a right turn out of the compound. And this routine you repeat day after day, virtually by rote, without making any conscious decisions to engage in the set of different actions involved.
Ditto for when you return home at the end of your workday. You slip into another whole routine before you blissfully pass out in your pyjamas.
What about the working day that lies in between your morning and night routines? You might think that, for sure, would be one solid chunk of focused work and the creative slog. But you’d be surprised how much of your workday, too, expends itself in auto mode. From switching on your laptop to junking SMS solicitations, from downing your daily jolts of java to navigating your way mid-afternoon to the water cooler for a snatch of office natter; from closing your mail to clients with “Assuring you of our best services, Regards,” to succumbing helplessly to the siren call of social media, your fingers and your feet seem to have a mind of their own.
CREATURES OF HABIT
As life members of the Homo Sapiens club, as a species that is obsessed with free will and options, it seems we spend a surprising amount of our valuable waking hours acting like zombies. In fact, 21st century research shows, we spend very nearly half of those waking hours engaged in actions that we perform without any conscious volition. No wonder neuro-scientists point out that the conscious control we believe we have may be more illusion than reality. Simply put, we are “creatures of habit”.
Now, is that a good thing – or what?
Actually, in important ways, it really is a good thing. The ability to perform many tasks and routines on auto-pilot means that our brains do not have to be overtaxed by countless tiny adjustments of the steering wheel. If we couldn’t even brush our teeth or drive without having to ponder the nuances of every move, our brains would require more real estate in decision-making areas (like the pre-frontal cortex).
And when it comes to picking up new skills, like learning to play the guitar or ride a bicycle, it’s the power of habit that really makes it happen. The skills necessary to ride a bike, for example, are multi-faceted, complex and not at all obvious or even explicable to the conscious mind. Once you learn to ride a bike, however, you never forget. The hours of practice give it all the power and familiarity of a habit.
But, of course, there is also the dark side of habits. Which is that, along with healthy habits like a post-dinner walk or daily flossing, you might also acquire bad ones like lighting up a cigarette after every meal or biting your nails whenever you visit the dentist. And habits that wander into the territory of addictions or compulsions, such as overeating or gambling or alcoholism, can threaten our health, our financial security, our self-image, our intimate relationships, sometimes our reputations and jobs – even our survival.
Most of us would love to find an easy way of breaking a bad habit or two. And most of us would also like to get a couple of good habits or more underway.
Until recent times, the best counsel that self-improvement gurus could offer was that, if you wanted to beat an addiction or cultivate a new good habit, you should work on bolstering your willpower. Just how you were to go about strengthening your willpower was never made clear. And so you had millions of people telling themselves, “I’ve got to quit doing this now!’ and berating themselves when they didn’t, or couldn’t. Ditto for New Year resolutions – a few months down the road, they also, more commonly than not, had receded into quiet oblivion.
Today, that canon about willpower is outré. New discoveries in how the human brain functions have started a virtual arms race in well-financed corporate labs and major medical centers as the push to understand how our daily habits influence our decisions has become one of the most exciting areas of research. Scientists have figured out how to stop people from habitually overeating and biting their nails. They can explain why some of us automatically go for a jog every morning and are more productive at work, while others oversleep and procrastinate. There’s a calculus and a neurology, it turns out, that determine these differences. We now know which brain areas come into play in the formation of a habit, and which brain region keeps it resistant to change. Habit change, it turns out, is not about willpower; it’s about “skillpower”.
One of those who took this emerging whiz-bang science and transformed it into a pragmatic do-it-yourself manual was Charles Duhigg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, whose book, The Power of Habit, stayed on The New York Times bestseller list for two years, and is still a front-runner in the genre.
THE HABIT LOOP
The starting point in enduring habit change, Duhigg wrote, is knowing how a habit is formed and stored in memory in the first place. And he distilled all the neurological data into a simple concept that he called “the habit loop”. There are three parts to the habit loop.
First, there’s the cue: this is the trigger that sets the behavior in motion. Perhaps it’s a certain time of day when you tell yourself it’s time to head for a wedge of dark chocolate. Perhaps it’s email from your ill-tempered department head that makes you want to dash out for another smoke. Perhaps it’s the ambiance of a shopping mall that ends up with you crossing your credit card limit.
The second part of the habit loop is the routine – the behavior itself – which can be positive (like a daily meditation habit), or harmful (like using your teeth to uncap a bottle).
And the third part is the reward -- the goal of the behavior, which could be one (or more) of several things, including: the satisfaction of a craving, that tingling in your legs after a strenuous workout, social approval, money, power, a sense of accomplishment. Once your brain’s pleasure center gauges that a particular behavior is rewarding, and therefore worth repeating, it stores that behavior in a lockbox of habit.
This lockbox is the basal ganglia, one of the oldest structures in the brain. In contrast to the decision-making lobes of the frontal cortex, the basal ganglia is, to all intents and purposes, exempt from the process of thought or decision-making. It’s more about reflexes. That is why, over time, that three-step loop – cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward – becomes more and more automatic. The decision-making area of your brain has taken a backseat, ceding control more and more to the basal ganglia – and a habit has emerged. Each time the cue appears, the behavior will automatically follow.
Unless you deliberately fight that habit.
MANIPULATING THE LOOP
There’s no magic bullet, no quick-change artistry. After all, you are seeking to challenge the working and the wizardry of a very powerful part of your brain.
On the other hand, habits aren’t destiny. The fact is, the brain can be re-programmed. You just have to be deliberate about it. The way to do that, according to the new science, is to manipulate the habit loop so that you turn it on its head.
Duhigg described this as a three-step process:
1. Become aware of the cue that sets off the habitual behavior
2. Carefully analyze the reward(s) that are accruing from that habit; and then:
3. Leaving the cue and the reward alone, change only the behavior (the ‘routine’), but in such a way that the new behavior brings in the same reward that you got from the old behavior.
Say, you want to stop smoking. Ask yourself: Do you do it because you love nicotine, or because it provides a burst of stimulation, a structure to your day, or a way to socialize? If you smoke because you need stimulation, studies indicate that some caffeine in the afternoon can increase the odds you’ll quit. At least four dozen studies of former smokers have found that identifying the cues and rewards they associate with cigarettes, and then choosing new routines that provide similar payoffs – chewing on a piece of nicotine gum, a quick series of push-ups, or simply taking a few minutes to stretch and relax — makes it more likely they will quit.
The Duhigg method lays bare one of the fundamental principles of habits: once you dissect the habit, it becomes easy to find a new behavior that provides the same reward.
Does that seem too ridiculously simple? Doesn’t it stand to reason that habit change should be more complex than that? The fact is that, for all the “power of habit”, it is also surprisingly malleable. Today, “habit reversal therapy”, as it has come to be called, is used to treat verbal and physical tics, smoking, gambling, bed-wetting, procrastination, obsessive- compulsive disorders, as well as anxiety and depression (both of which are habits of the mind).
So, it’s true. You can re-program your brain. And, down the road, you can look forward to another You - new and improved.
(The author, a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, now works as a counselling therapist)