Think of habits as the brain’s version of autopilot – we wake up every morning, shower, get dressed, brush our teeth and drive to work without really being consciously aware of it.
They allow us to drive along familiar routes without really thinking about the directions. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve arrived at work, having forgotten how I actually got there (brain, where have you gone?)
Habits allow us to do things quickly and efficiently, and for the most part, are helpful – unless a stressful day at work always seems to land you face first in a creamy tub of vanilla ice-cream. In cases like these, bad habits can feel like a frustrating battle of wills.
Believe it or not, we do actually rely on habits to successfully get us through the day. In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg writes “without habits, our brains would shut down, overwhelmed by the minutiae of everyday life.”
Could you imagine living without them, I certainly couldn’t! Just think of all the boring repetitive tasks we can do without expending unnecessary concentration – and how much more time we have to focus on different things.
Habits are things that we’ve learned by repeating an action over and over again. They can arise in response to a particular location, time of day, an emotional state or even a particular image or sound. If you always come home from a stressful day at work and bury your head deep in ice-cream, then you’ll most likely have the tendency to do that behaviour as a default – because you’ve created a habit.
The Habit Loop
At the core of every habit (including those pesky ones!) is a simple neurological loop which looks a lot like this…
It has three stages – the cue, which is the trigger that causes the habit; the routine, which is the behaviour itself; and then the reward, which is how the brain learns to save the habit and remember it for the future.
Habits can develop when enjoyable events trigger our brain’s reward centres – prompting the release of the feel good neurotransmitter, dopamine. This is a perfectly reasonable explanation for my chocolate addiction, right?
Every time we receive a reward for performing a behaviour, the connections between our brain cells grow stronger (strengthening our habits even more!).
This is because ‘neurones that fire together, wire together’. Through a communication process otherwise known as “neuronal firing”, our brain cells communicate with one another via synaptic transmission – if neurons frequently fire at the same time as the neurons that cause us to do a particular behaviour, the connection between them will become stronger.
“If neurons that respond to a particular image or sound frequently fire at the same time as the neurons that cause you to do a particular behavior, the connections between those neurons will become stronger”.
Our brains are continually computing expectations, so even when we’re not engaging in the habit, our good friend dopamine will have us craving to do it again, and again, and again.
No wonder it’s so easy to fall into bad habits or unhelpful routines!
Why are Bad Habits so Hard to Break?
Habits are so hard to break because they’re a lot like reflexes – they usually happen without any thought.
The great English writer Samuel Johnson once said, “The chains of habit are too weak to be felt, until they are too strong to be broken.”
Because our brains work on a trigger and reward basis, it can feel all too easy to slip into an unhelpful routine, and equally as difficult to dig ourselves out of it.
Just think, if habits were easy to break, we probably wouldn’t be doing things we know are bad for us – like eating unhealthily, going to bed too late, or drinking too much caffeine. So why can’t we just stop?
One explanation is that despite our best efforts to replace a first-learned habit with a new, more helpful one – the original behaviour cannot be erased – but rather they both remain in our brains. Fortunately, we can take steps to strengthen the new habit and suppress the unhelpful (and annoying) one.
Willpower and Self-Control
Does it ever feel like parts of your brain are working against you when you’re trying to overcome a bad habit – that’s because in a sense, they are.
You’re trying so hard to forget about the chocolate in the cupboard but it keeps calling your name. It’s getting late but you keep pressing ‘next’ on your favourite TV series. You’re trying to reduce your caffeine consumption but your tired and quickly find yourself making another cup of coffee.
While intelligence, ambition and hard work can take us a long way, none of us are perfect. Habits can become hardwired in our brains – our reward centres keep us craving the things we’re trying so hard to resist – making it seem impossible NOT to undermine our good intentions.
A psychologist at Florida State University, Dr. Roy Baumeister, has found that “self-control is like a muscle – once you’ve exerted some self-control, like a muscle it gets tired.” Willpower can be temporarily drained after successfully resisting a temptation – making it harder to say no the next time around.
So how do we stop eating chocolate every day… or going to bed too late, too often… or drinking our weight in coffee all day every day?
The only way is to break the habit loop and create new, more helpful habits.
Break the Habit Loop and Create New Habits
Writers of SUCCESS remind us that “bad habits are really just bugs in the system and with a few dedicated techniques; it is perfectly possible to deprogram them.”
So what if we’ve developed a bad habit – how do we go about breaking the habit loop?
The good news is that once we’ve made the decision to change a bad habit, we’ve already accomplished the first step – identifying the problem.
Becoming Aware of our Unhealthy Habits
It can be difficult to identify the cues that trigger our bad habits, purely because there is so much going on while our behaviours unfold. It’s important to remember that habits can linked in our minds to certain places and activities – journalist Charles Duhigg explains that almost all habitual cues fit into one of five categories:
Immediately preceding action
It makes sense that in order to change our unhelpful habits, we must first become aware of exactly what triggers the habit in the first place. Unfortunately this won’t be enough to actually change the bad habit – we have to replace it with a better one.
It may seem obvious, but one of the most effective ways of kicking a bad habit is to actively replace it with a new and healthier one. Sound easier said than done right?!
That’s what I thought too at first, but hear me out. By keeping the same cue and reward, but replacing the ‘routine’ in the habit loop, we can disrupt our bad habits.
Once we’ve identified our vulnerable moments, we can key in an alternative behaviour.
Take this scenario for example – coming home from a stressful day at work and burying your head deep in ice-cream. The cue is a stressful day at work; the routine is eating ice-cream; and the reward is a feeling of relief and relaxation. What other ways can we bring on a sense of relief and relaxation, without ice-cream? I could think of many – having a warm cup of tea, going for a bath, reading a book, talking with friends or family or writing in a journal.
I’m not going to lie, it will be challenging – we’ll not only have to remember to perform the new behaviour, but we’ll also have to find something that’s equally as satisfying as our original behaviour.
Can you think of any habits you want to change – explore the habit loop and see if you can insert a new routine that feels just as good (if not better!) than your original one.