What Are Habits and How Do They Work?
In order to understand how habits work you must first know where habits are formed. Habits are formed in the Basal Ganglia of the brain. The Basal Ganglia is the layer in the brain that helps us recall patterns and act on them. The Thalamus and the superior parietal cortex are associated with pattern recognition and helping the brain decide which input to pay attention to and which to ignore. It’s called chunking. Chunking is when the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine. Habits are one of the most powerful things people have. They are the reason we are able to do certain things without thinking, such as brushing your teeth in the morning or waking up and making a cup of coffee.
Habits are powerful because they create neurological cravings, and the brain controls everything you do. There is also what is called a “habit circle.” This is how a habit works: first you have a cue, meaning something that you recognize. Then you begin to crave or anticipate the reward following that cue, so in the middle, you do what the cue prompts to you, and this is your routine. Habits are solely based on creating a craving.
A very important type of habit is called a “keystone habit.” Keystone habits are small wins. With keystone habits success doesn’t depend on getting everything right, but instead relies on identifying a few key priorities and turning them into powerful levers. For example, let’s say your diet is horrible and when you eat, it is only lunch and dinner. Instead of focusing on what you eat first, start with trying to eat a healthy breakfast and once that is mastered, move on to food options for lunch and dinner.
The thing about habits is they never disappear, the brain can’t distinguish between good and bad it just looks for cues with the anticipation of the reward. Because you can’t truly get rid of a habit, if you look at the photo below, in the first photo the cue is a rough day. The subject thinks about how he feels when he drinks, so his routine is drinking to relax. That could be a very unhealthy habit, so because you can’t drop it, you can alter it. The second photo’s cue is a rough day. The subject thinks about how conversations or venting will make him relax, so he switches his new routine into talking to someone versus drinking. That is a keystone habit because it’s a “small win.” (pg 72)
In 2009, there was a study done about weight loss from the National Institute of Health. They put together this study with 1600 obese people and asked them to write everything down what they ate at least one day per week. It didn’t quite work ideally, but then people really started making it a daily routine. They started to look at the posts and found patterns they didn’t see prior to the journaling. Some people realized they always ate a snack at a certain time so they would pack something healthy because of the anticipation of eating at that time, so the routine would be packing and eating something healthy. Some people started writing down what they were going to have so that way they made sure they were going to eat healthy. The keystone habit of this study was just journaling food, which then ended up making other habits become successful. Six months into the study, people who kept daily food records had lost twice as much weight as everyone else. (pg 120)
All in all, we should aim to create healthy habits. If you have bad habits, figure out how to change the routine to create an equal or better stimulating reward. It takes roughly 66 days to create a habit, so if there is a new habit you need to create or change, get started today! If you want to look more into how to make or break habits, get a copy of the book: The Power of Habit – Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business – by Charles Duhigg.