Many of our daily life decisions are not actually consciously made decisions. Instead, they are based on ‘habit loops’, repeated habits that develop over time and eventually get triggered automatically.
The ‘smoking’ habit loop
Last Saturday I went out with a friend of mine. We had dinner as a large group of people and afterwards we all went to a bar together to have a few drinks. This friend of mine had been smoking for almost a decade when he was young, but stopped about ten years ago. In daily life, he doesn’t smoke anymore and doesn’t miss it at all. Whenever he is drinking however, he told me, he has to smoke. “It’s a willpower thing”, he said.
And I understand why he would think that. First of all, drinking alcohol is usually a social occasion. Other people are smoking too, the bar is full of cigarette smoke anyway, and when then somebody offers a cigarette, you just give in.
Furthermore, drinking usually occurs in the evening, when our willpower has been depleted from a long day of making decisions and resisting temptations.
And the little willpower we have left in us may then be silenced by beer and liquor.
When all three of these reasons come together, it is understandable that a former smoker has a very hard time saying no to any cigarette that is offered to him.
But while these reasons certainly play a role in him giving in to his craving, they are not the root cause though! Instead, his behavior is caused by an automatic response that his brain is giving to a certain situation. It is based on a habit.
The necessity of habits for our life
Habits are automatisms that help our brain reduce its work. They allow us to make decisions fast and therefore be more efficient. If that wasn’t the case, the brain would have to consciously make every minor decision in our life, which would keep us from focusing on the bigger picture and result in our brain being overwhelmed by the data it has to process.
A very good example for that is driving a car. When we first learn how to drive, we are purely focused on the basics, moving the steering wheel, using the pedals, checking the mirrors. We are so occupied by that that we find it impossible to pay attention to anything else. With time however, these actions become automatic, they become habitual, and that allows us to pay more attention to the traffic around us, to traffic signs, to speed limits etc.
How bad habits emerge
Habits follow a very simple, yet highly effective structure. They always consist of three parts: a cue, a routine and a reward. The cue is a trigger, something that we see, feel, smell or otherwise become aware of. It results in a routine, an action that we take. And then we complete the habit with a reward, something that ends the action and that tells our brain to stop acting on autopilot and make conscious decisions again.
Unfortunately, we often develop bad habits, because we let simple cues in our everyday life trigger unhealthy routines or rewards. The more often we do something, the more likely it is to turn into a habit loop, a habit that it is very difficult to break out from.
Advertisers and marketers have become experts in creating habit loops for customers. The best thing for companies to happen is if their customers consume their product completely habitual. One example for that are fast food chains. Every Burger King store is designed almost exactly the same way. This has the purpose of creating a cue. People passing by only need to see the logo of Burger King and instantly feel tempted to go in, thus following the routine of buying a burger. Furthermore, the food at fast food chains is designed specifically so that it disintegrates in your mouth immediately. This creates an instant reward (good taste) that your brain will then remember and associate with the Burger King logo the next time you see one.
Before you know it, a bad habit has emerged. And this may be only one of countless automatisms that result in negative outcomes for you, but run your day. When you cannot start your computer without first checking facebook for 10 minutes before you actually start working; when you turn on the TV as soon as you come home from work; when you order pizza every time you watch football… The list of negative habits in our lives can be pretty long.
How to overcome bad habits
The problem with habits is that once they are saved in our Basal Ganglia, the part of the brain that stores them, they cannot be erased. They are there for good. They can however be overwritten with other routines. Once a cue has been identified as triggering a certain routine, expecting a certain reward, we have the power to consciously replace these parts with other routines and rewards. This explains why many people gain weight when the quit smoking: instead of using cigarettes as a habit reward, they start using candy and chocolate, which of course over time can then turn into a bad habit itself.
That’s why it is important to consciously analyze the habits we have before we change them. Is the ‘routine’ part beneficial to us and only our chosen reward bad, for example when we reward ourselves for doing a tedious work with a cigarette afterwards? Then we can simply exchange the reward with a healthier option. Or is the entire habit unhealthy and something we want to get rid of, like eating fast food? Then the best way of doing that is by not exposing ourselves to the cue anymore that triggers the habit. Taking a different way home that so that we don’t pass the fast food restaurant anymore can be enough to eliminate the habit of eating a burger after work.
Habits are incredibly powerful. They allow us to live the complex life we live nowadays without being completely overwhelmed by all the opportunities and options that are offered to us every single day. Good habits enforce positive actions in our lives without us having to use much willpower to execute them. Bad habits however can be highly counterproductive to the life goals we set for ourselves and slow us down considerably. They are often very hard to get rid of once established.
It is therefore important to continuously reflect on the habits we have in our lives and be aware of them. They rule what we do, and whether we nourish the good habits or the bad ones can change who we are altogether.
Most of what I wrote about in this post is based on knowledge I gained from the book “The power of habit” (2012) by Pulitzer Prize-winner Charles Duhigg. It’s an excellent read and it covers so much more than I was able to reproduce here. I recommend everyone who is interested in the topic of habit formation and alteration to read this.