Life seems so simple, when you turn your decision-making process over to habits. Whatever that habit is, whatever habit you have, you just “do it”. This is true whether that habit is exercise, going for a walk after dinner, or maybe the time of day you check your emails (which for some of us, is everyday, all day, Pavolvian pings driving the “reach for the phone”). Habits are powerful things-routinizations of life, that help us to cope and thrive. They automate parts of our lives, so we don’t have to think about them.
Habits are comforting, and they are boring. Imagine attending the same workplace for 30 consecutive years. You may feel you need this habit, but yet you may be smothered by it, but change is hard, so you stay.
It can be useful to think about how much of your day is driven by habit. Wake up, get out of bed (“drag a comb across” your head, if you are a Beatles fan), start the coffee, and so on. The phrase “creatures of habit” definitely applies to humans. So are you 50% driven by habits? Less? More?
Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow powerfully points out in many different ways that humans like to avoid thinking. Thinking takes energy, because it’s work. The more things we can turn over to habit, to routine, the better.
Mental or Environmental Cue> Activation of a Routine> which leads to a reward
Habits start with cues. In the case of addictive habits, like drinking or smoking, the cue is often something negative, like hunger, anger, loneliness, stress, or being tired. This is where you stop for some cheeseburgers on the drive home. This is where you fire up a cigarette, or crack a beer.
Toronto has a late mayor named Rob Ford, who struggled with substance abuse. When under surveillance by police, they watched him drinking bottles of his favourite cheap vodka alone in his SUV. I think of him often, sad, lonely, and helpless, against the power of habit. When the reward runs out, in this case the buzz, sadness and loneliness crash back in. Such is the circular trap of addiction.
The routine follows the cue. A smoker smokes. A runner runs. A guitarist plays. And so on. The rewards are varied, depending on the habit.
The reward comes next. Nicotine gives a spike to your brain- a pleasurable “buzz”. Runners get runners high, endorphins that also spike the brain. A guitarist gets the feeling of getting better, or the joys of melody, or the calming effects of music in the brain.
Habits both soothe human minds, and trap us, often in unhealthy ways. That is their paradoxical nature. They make life easier, but sometimes more boring. Routines come at the expense of novelty. Habits help us, and hurt us. Some have noted that gym visits spike in January, gradually tapering down to May. The habit begins to form in January, but lessens over time, as gym use goes down, and soon there is not even a trace of a habit. You are where you were before.
The plasticity of the human brain is here to help, though. Once a habit is formed it is rock-solid, imprinted on the brain. It just takes a lot longer than you think.
Social media relies on habitual use. A notification makes me want to go on Twitter. I end up scrolling through my timeline, yet again. Mentions or likes keep me interested, and spike my brain with dopamine. Political tweets provoke anger. The desire to see what friends are “up to” keeps me on. The fear of missing information is real.
The cue (notifications) leads to the routine (scrolling through the feed, liking and RTing and responding along the way), which leads to the reward (dopamine, a feeling of satisfaction, or a feeling of “progress” (getting better at social media).
Many have noted these habits are not exactly healthy. I am looking for external validation from this social media platform. At its extreme, chasing likes is a very unhealthy habit loop. Looking outward for validation is never really a good thing.
But social media, like any other habit, can be broken.
- restrict your use to certain times of the day
- turn off push notifications on your phone
- make rules about what you like, and who you respond to (create your own algorithm for your own usage)
Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit notes that Alcoholics Anonymous relies on habit replacement. Alcoholics get into the habit of going to a meeting or calling their sponsor, rather than reaching for a drink. Habits can be changed. They can be altered, rebuilt, or scrubbed out of our minds.
Here is another thing I have been both habitual, and non-habitual about, at certain times in my life: guitar playing. When you are not in the habit, things seem hard. Fingers are not callused, and they hurt. Fingers are clumsy on the strings, and strumming, and picking notes. When you are in the habit, you can just pick the guitar up and play something. There is a certain “compound interest” effect to the habit of practice-you get better and better the more you practice.
Develop A Habit In 15 minutes Per Day
You can create your own algorithm for your habit. This is a simple 5 step process for mine.
- Set aside 15 minutes per day for the thing you want to make habitual. Let’s say it is guitar playing, or perhaps it’s writing, or responding to emails.
- Find a certain time of day, and schedule the activity in.
- Make yourself do it, even if you don’t feel like it.
- Even if you want to give up, try to make it to at least 10 days in a row. You should see a difference.
- If your habit lends itself to it, save an artifact from each session. If you are writing, this is easy. You will have your writing.
For my 15 minute goal, I have chosen guitar playing.
Some of the artifacts are on SoundCloud, or in an app called music memos. My idea for forming this habit was to produce a 1 to 1:30 piece of music, however improvisational.
These artifacts can play from Soundcloud directly to our Google Home Mini, so there is a bit of a reward there-hearing the products of my practice out loud.
So the negative non-habit loop used to look like this:
Cue (I should try to play guitar)> Routine (as I don’t have a routine, pick up the guitar, look flummoxed, clumsily try to play, “it’s hard”)> Reward (putting the guitar down, because in this case, the reward is not forcing myself to go further).
Here is the new routine being developed:
Cue (I should play guitar)> Routine (pick up guitar, “find” some interesting chords and notes in the key of D, my current constraint, and record to Music Memos when ready)> Reward (the artifacts in Music Memos and Soundcloud, which show evidence of progress.
A new sense of satisfaction has formed. It is a new habit loop. Most attempts at habit formation fail because we quit too soon, before the habit is ingrained. Checking dates off on a calendar may help. Just simply check that you tried to build your habit.
@MatthewOldridge is both a creature of habit, and a craver of novelty.