habit formation: here’s how it works, part i
We’ve all been thrown into these strange, stay at home orders and had to seemingly change habits overnight. Wear masks, sty 6 feet away, stay at home…you know the drill. And with that has come some other interesting outcomes.
But you know what, this isn’t how habits and ultimately rituals are truly formed. And, at the end of the day, who knows what will ultimately stick with our current situation.
Here’s the truth to build long term habits, whether it’s around nutrition, exercise – really anything you want to build.
Adopting new habits and breaking old ones can be a challenge. When we think about the habits most of us have, many are well-established. Every day you make choices that you don’t have to consider or think about. You simply do them.
It’s great when these habits work for us and help us to live the lives we desire, from the simple choices of remembering to shower and brush our teeth, to the more complex ones of making the time to do work, study – whatever positive goal you’re working towards.
But what about the habits that don’t align with what we want to achieve? What about if your goal is to get leaner but you can’t stop the late-night snacking on chips, pizza, and beer ritual?
Reminding ourselves how these choices impact our ability to reach our goals, isn’t effective. Many times we already know these things are working against us. Instead we have to learn how to unwire the habit and rewire a new one to create changes that support our goals and that can last. And that takes conscious and repeated effort.
The interesting thing about our brains is that they like to be efficient. Your brain wants to move any action you repeatedly do into a habit, because it requires less effort to process and perform the behavior. It’s been estimated that 43% of our behaviors are habitual. Meaning we do them over and over again. That’s great when habits work for us - not so good when they work against us. You see, when a habit is formed, the brain stops participating fully in the decision making - instead it turns it over to our subconscious.
Subconscious Brain Runs the Show
It’s been estimated that our subconscious can run the show for as much as 95% of the choices we make each day. This unconscious part of the brain, also referred to as the automatic, fast brain, or system 1 helps us preserve mental effort for critical thinking and problem solving for the choices that really matter. The fast brain is the one that steps in and quickly decides what to do based on experience or emotion or impulsivity. It’s the one that when you feel a surge of stress at the end of a long day, declares, “I. Need. A. Drink!”
The Logical Side of the Conscious Brain
The conscious part of the brain, also referred to as the slow brain or system 2 is much more rational and logical. This part of the brain considers the pros and cons of the situation, the potential long-term consequences and connects those choices to long-term goals. The slow brain is the one that can plan for how you might handle that stressful situation where you want to turn to a drink and what you might choose instead.
So which one “wins”?
It depends on what system you’re using at the moment the decision is made. There’s not a “winner” or “loser” per se, but there are ways to move toward more conscious awareness of the choices we make and why we make them, and how to make it less likely that our fast brain will rule the roost. Ultimately, though - you are in the driver seat and that is all based on the habits we build and how we build them.
Process of Habit Formation
Let’s consider what the normal process of habit formation looks like. Typically when habits are formed, they are formed over time when we begin to perform a new series of behaviors over and over again.
MIT researchers discovered three elements that can be consistently found in any habit that we have. These include a cue, a routine, and a reward. This concept is described in the book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.
More recently, author James Clear expanded on this concept to include one additional element, CRAVING.
It is this description of the habit loop to use to define how we form habits. Of course to expand on this understanding, both books are excellent additions to your toolbox to allow you to figure all of this out. For now, here’s the abbreviated version.
Behaviors are shaped over time using the following formula.
CUE -------> CRAVING ------> RESPONSE ------> REWARD ------> Repeat this process
As you see here it’s this normal pattern by which habits are ultimately created. Let’s talk through this a bit more to bring it to life.
Step 1: Cue
A cue is anything that brings about a craving. Cues can include time of day, a person, feeling or mood, a smell or even a specific environment. For example, you wake up in the morning and that triggers a cascade of habits that you may not even think about.
Maybe you wake up, go to the bathroom, make a cup of coffee, brush your teeth, get dressed, etc. Your cue? Time of day or for most people, the alarm clock telling them it’s time to wake up.
Step 2: Craving
Sticking with our time example above and waking up, the craving – or in other words – the motivation behind the habit, is what moves you to act. You aren’t motivated necessarily to brush your teeth, but rather the feeling you have from a clean mouth. Or you may not crave coffee, but rather the feeling it provides to you. Cravings differ for each person. For some, they may crave to feel awake, for others they may crave the feeling of “attacking the day.” In general, cravings occur because we want to change our internal state, so what that looks like for you may differ.
Step 3: Response
Next we have the response. This is the actual habit you perform, (brush your teeth, drink the coffee, etc if we’re sticking with our time example). Think about what your normal response is to your cue in the morning and what craving you fill. And also consider how many responses are possible. Some may choose to wake and go to the bathroom. Others may get up and head to the kitchen to start the coffee before going to the bathroom. Others may wake and lie in bed for a bit scrolling through texts and social media. If we’re talking about 100 people, there could be 100 different responses to the same cue based on past experience, preferences, environment etc.
Step 4: Reward
Finally, we have the reward. One one level, the reward is that the craving is gone. We wanted to change our internal state and we successfully achieved that. Pretty interesting isn’t it? We like satisfying the discontent our brain creates. On the other hand, the brain is hard wired to notice rewards from our behavior - so we’re also paying close attention to what other rewards the response has created. If the reward also has other benefits – the coffee was delicious, we can now kiss our spouse with our fresh breath, etc… it’s more likely we’ll repeat this cycle over and over.
Remember this isn’t just about food. Not even just exercise. The key to any long term success - whether that is around nutrition, exercise or, well, anything - is building slowly over time. Progress over perfection.
Consider this when trying to apply it to your own behaviors. Changing habits may feel challenging, but with the right awareness and support, we can craft the behaviors to help us – or clients, if you work with clients - achieve goals and become who we’d like to be.
Remember, when we think about the habits most of us have, many are well-established. Every day you make choices that you don’t have to consider or think about. You simply do them. This well-designed system is a positive, because if we had to think about every daily thing, every single minute - well, heck, we’d be mentally and physically exhausted. The more positive habits we can automate the better off all of us will be.