There are times that we catch ourselves doing something that we would prefer to have avoided. But at the same time it looks strange how we ended up once again doing the same thing that we had agreed with ourselves not to do. If you think with the conventional way this event doesn’t make sense. Normally we are congruent with our thoughts, right? We don’t want to engage in thoughts, activities, behaviors etc that go against our views unless we have a specific purpose. How many times do we say to ourselves, goshh, how come and I did this again without even noticing? We eat the ice-cream and by the time it reaches our stomach we may find out that this is not really what we wanted from ourselves. What is going wrong there? Do we have a problem? I assure you, no.
One very common phenomenon that many of us are afraid to admit is the stickiness to new habits. Several times we decide to integrate our lives by starting something new. In the beginning we are very enthusiastic. We perform the activity even many times during the same day. We read books about it. We pay yearly subscriptions and talk to all our friends about our new beginning, how quickly we have noticed changes to ourselves and how optimistic we are about the long-term benefits that we will achieve. During that times the whole universe seems to be convinced about our commitment. However, reality seems to be different. Soon our enthusiasm starts to fade and this fantastic new hobby may be now a good idea but not appropriate for us, or something not worth it as much as it is advertised, or very time-consuming etc.
While the latter most of the times are just rationalizations in order to avoid feeling hurt by self-criticism, they come from a positive perspective. We wanted to induce some change in our lives and make them better. Maybe we didn’t have the appropriate tools. As we’ll see later implementing a new habit without awareness of the process that occurs is more difficult than what our enthusiasm makes us believe. However, thanks to science the tools are already created and are accessible to everyone who really wants to transform and go closer to their visions. We the humans can literally hack the system. We can only miss if we give up on ourselves which I hope we will not.
What are Really the Habits and their Amazing Importance
Habits are actually choices we all have deliberately made at some point but then stopped thinking about it although continued doing it. When people drive home from work most of the times they just realize they ended up home without even noticing. They left the office, the drove the car, they parked it and entered the house without consciously understanding and intervening in the whole process. Or when we make coffee in the morning we almost never remember the procedure. Of course habits are not only certain actions but ways of reacting to specific stimulus, too. Other people react with anger when their partner blames them, others with shame, others with anxiety and so on and so forth.
The study of habits is so important as it is now clearer than ever that we are in fact creatures of habit. We pass most of our lives operating in the automatic pilot of habits and we have only tiny glimpses of consciousness in between. This is once again a wise adaptation for us humans to still be alive. Think about your conscious mind for a while. You can only have one thought at any moment. Only one. Imagine if everything that is happening to your body had to pass from your conscious mind. You would need days to only digest food. You had to control the breaking down and the efficiency of all the elements reaching the appropriate places in your body and processed accordingly. And so many innumerable other processes.
Thus for efficiency reasons the brain learns to operate automatically under circumstances that notices a certain repetition. This way it leaves space for other more important and novel thoughts in our conscious awareness which is so limited. From the above you can clearly understand that a change in the incurring habits or the introduction of new is not just a matter of decision. Instead we need to go deeper. Reach out for ways that we can influence the subconscious system, the automatic pilot. And these ways are indirect.
As I always say, during our lives and in any context it is important to not always believe what our “mind” says to us. Let me make this clear. When your conscious mind gives you an explanation about a behavior you did this doesn’t necessarily mean that the explanation is substantial. Often our conscious mind rationalizes behaviors that came from reasons we don’t like to accept. Have you noticed when you are afraid to do something that you start thinking “ohh well, this is not a good idea in the very end” or “this diet looks dangerous, you don’t eat so often, I am not gonna try it” or “let’s leave it for another time, the circumstances are not ready yet”. Most of the times these are just ways for the brain to make you act out of fear and avoid any possible risk. Because this mechanism in the savannah where we evolved was valuable, you only die once so any risks should be extremely well calculated. Also, when we don’t have enough information the mind will anyway create a model even though it may be inaccurate. Apart from this, our conscious mind works in a way that will never leave any trace behind about these biases which makes it difficult for us to recognize this irrationality that had just occured.
The most important explanation why we find it so difficult to implement new habits only by deciding has come from the studies about our willpower. One of the most important books on the topic is The Willpower Instinct which is a really great read if you want to know more about the processes and specific ways on how to improve yours. Kelly McGonigal there explains that willpower is like a muscle. Each of us has different capacity but in all of us is limited.
For example, in one experiment I have read about, a group of psychology PhD candidates at Case Western -including one named Mark Muraven– put two groups of randomly selected people in a room and left in front of them a bowl of freshly baked cookies and a bowl of radishes. Then they distracted them that the experiment was about taste and asked the one group to eat only the radishes and the other to eat only the cookies. Afterwards they left them in the room for five minutes and noticed from a double-sided mirror how the people who were left with the cookie were trying really hard to keep it out of their mouths. They were even putting it next to their noses. The other team of course didn’t face any difficulty to ignore the radishes.
What the researchers wanted to test was if our willpower is limited. Will the behavior of the subjects that had been avoiding cookies later be influenced by the previous use of their willpower? So immediately afterwards they put them in a test after distracting them again by saying: “we need to wait about 15 min for the sensory memory of the food you ate to fade”. The test was simple; trace a geometric pattern without lifting your pencil from the page or going over the same line twice. If you want to quit you can ring the bell. What was found was that the ones that ignored the radishes and hadn’t used any self-discipline worked on average 19 minutes on the puzzle and some of them until the researchers told them to stop while the ones that ignored the cookies worked for only 8 minutes, 60% less. Not only this but when many of the radish eaters were leaving felt “sick of this dumb experiment.”
You can now understand that when you start a strict diet most of the times you quit it because after some time you have drained all your precious willpower. Or when you start something and you are based only on your good will you have to face all these other automatic processes that are ingrained in your subconscious mind and many times win as our brains not only cannot be focused on our new habit at every moment but as well our deposits of willpower aren’t always full. And the more you want to have an integrated life the more difficult this process becomes. But at the same time the correct use of the tools that already exist can make your life integrated.
Habit Loop: The Mechanism of Habit
In the 1990’s MIT researchers started working on habits. They had noticed that animals injured in a part of the brain called basal ganglia were facing difficulties in tasks such as learning how to run through mazes or remembering how to open food containers. Basal Ganglia is a part deep inside the brain and closer to the brain stem. The further a part is from the scalp the more primitive is the structure from an evolutionary perspective and the more it controls automatic behaviors such as breathing, swallowing etc. Basal Ganglia is an oval of cells that is similar to what you find inside the head of a reptile, a fish or a mammal and is towards the centre of the scalp.
So the researchers that had electrodes in the brains of rats put them in cages that after a heavy sound a door in front of them was opening. Then the rat was starting smelling food that was always in the right or left side of a crossroad. The first times that the sound was heard the mice would start scratching the walls, smelling around, going here and there and searching to find were the food was. Activity on the brain and mostly on the prefrontal cortex was huge. But after some repetitions of the experiment the researchers noticed something extraordinary. The mental activity started decreasing and the rats weren’t anymore scratching the walls and searching but were automatically going towards the direction that had learnt the food always was. The scans showed that there was no decision-making anymore. Now the basal ganglia was in control.
To summarize, the experiments clearly showed that after some repetitions the brain of the rats was accustomed to an automatic behaviour that was giving them the reward without the need for mental energy waste. This was what a habit loop is and is explained as follows:
First there is a cue that passes the message to the brain what automatic behavior to restore. The rats didn’t know in which place they were but the specific sound and the opening of the door were the cue that amplified the actions that lead to the food without even deciding it in between.
The later actions is the routine of the habit, the automatic behavior that is triggered.
Lastly there is the reward which in the case of the rats was the food.
So remember: Every habit loop has 3 elements. Cue, routine and reward.
Much of what we now know about similar processes in humans comes from the close study of the psychiatrist Larry Squire on an elder patient called Eugene Pauli who in 1992 became ill. Eugene had a damage in his brain that had severely influenced his memory. Even though he was able to carry on seemingly complex tasks he could not retain any new information. The strange thing that Dr. Squire later noticed was that Eugene was absorbing new information but he was unsure where he was storing it. You can read more about this interesting story and plenty of others, as well, learn much about the nature of habits in the great book of Charles Douhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change.
So every day millions of people after leaving work they receive the cue of the key in their pockets that as if by magic through an unconscious routine are led to the reward which is the comfort of their homes. Same way innumerable other habit loops incur during our typical day which makes us wonder after years: “How quickly time is passing” Of course it is passing quickly. Our perception of time is by definition subjective thus when we spent most of it unaware and hypnotized in our loops we perceive time as being little.
However, without spiral loops our brains would shut down overwhelmed by daily life activities. As I wrote in the beginning we cannot focus on every activity we engage. For example you should have to think if you wear first your shirt and then your trousers in the morning or first grab your bag or the umbrella if you live in countries like us in the UK. As long as the cues are intact the processes happens by themselves and the loop is maintained.
The above knowledge about the existence of the spiral loop shows that when a habit emerges the brain stops participating in decision-making. It’s a process that favors efficiency but our brain cannot distinguish between good and bad habits. The most important thing is that by having broken down the spiral loop into parts we can most effectively intervene to them by learning new neurological routines.
The Cravings in the Habit Loop
What also needs to be stated is that cues create our cravings. Wolfram Schultz a professor of neuroscience from the University of Cambridge studied the process of reward in the habit loop in monkeys. What he saw was that when monkeys were induced in a habit loop with a reward of a banana they showed significant activity in the reward part of their brains when they noticed the cue instead of when they received the reward. If the monkeys noticed the cue but didn’t get any banana they were unsatisfied. When monkeys were noticing cues they couldn’t even get distracted and forget about the reward. Same happens with us. Once a smoker sees the pack of cigarettes there is an immediate response in their pleasure centre of their brain. If they don’t get the reward they will be disappointed so the routine happens automatically.
The Days Needed for a Habit to Be Part of Us
Another major finding on habits came from the University College London and a health psychology researcher, Phillippa Lally. In a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology was shown that on average, it takes more than 2 months before a new behavior becomes automatic — 66 days to be exact. In Lally’s study, it took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit depending on the behavior.
So in a next post very soon with the use of this knowledge we will explain simple and specific ways to implement new habits and break the bad ones. I guess from all the above you understand that you don’t necessarily need to put so much energy to change habit traps you already are into. Instead you can use your consciousness to make specific – many times small – changes in your lifestyle and get the results you desire. More on this about to come, stay tuned!
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