Creatures of Habit
We have all heard the old saying “we are creatures of habit.” Though most of us believe that we do get set in our ways, science has now proven that we are indeed, very reliant on habit. In fact, studies have shown that 43% of our day is carried out without any conscious thought!
That’s right...we run on autopilot almost half the time.
I think this deserves some further exploration. Let’s start with defining what a habit actually is.
What is a habit.
A habit is a behavior that is repeated regularly and tends to occur subconsciously. It is a fixed way of thinking or behaving acquired through previous experience, repeated over an extended time period and that happens automatically.
We tend to think of habits as “bad” -- this just isn’t so. Judging a habit is subjective and is relative to the eye of the beholder. A habit in and of itself, is just an automatic, repetitive behavior.
Brushing your teeth, putting your clothes on, and making coffee could all be habitual routines that you do every morning and that requires no conscious effort. The whole time you could be thinking about your upcoming meeting and running through your presentation in your mind while you are doing all the things. The behaviors required to get ready may all happen on autopilot.
When we look at habits in this way, it's easier to see how 43% of our day happens without our conscious awareness.
This is all well and good. Except when we start to zero in on the habits that we DON’T really like and that may lead to outcomes that are undesirable.
And what do we do in these situations? We often set a goal to achieve the outcome that we want. Unfortunately, 92% of us fall flat in this process and never achieve our goals. Even more unfortunate is the lasting feeling of frustration, failure or apathy that often sets in when we slide back into our old habits.
When we think of habits, we think of physical patterns of behavior. But what I see as more destructive are the Habits of the Mind.
Habits of the Mind
In my last article, Thoughtfulness: Change Your Thoughts; Transform Your Life, I shared how incredibly powerful our thoughts are to our overall well-being and happiness. Remember the ANTs??? Remember that’s an acronym for Automatic Thought Patterns???
Huh...sounds kinda like a description of a habit, doesn’t it?
Yep. that’s right. We have formed habitual thought patterns. And also habitual patterns of reacting in emotion and in behavior.
Why is this significant? Lets dig in to this a little more.
When we are Not being mindful of ourselves, our thoughts, our feelings, our surroundings in the present moment, then we are often engaged in thinking about the past or what not has not yet happened. Because of our negative thought patterns, this can mean focusing on regrets, which can lead to depression, or worrying about the future, which can trigger anxiety. So what this means is, our patterns of thoughts directly influence our mental health.
Here is the good news -- if we intentionally direct our thoughts with an optimistic, growth mindset, our thought patterns can have significant positive influence on our emotional wellbeing.
So you can see how habits play a huge part in our daily experience, both in our patterns of physical behavior and also in how we think, feel, and react.
I can’t emphasis this enough. Understanding and harnessing this superpower - the habits of the mind - can alleviate symptoms of stress, depression and anxiety. By creating new habits you can experience a new level of contentment and happiness in your life.
The Special Sauce
Often when approached with a new concept that requires change, we immediately begin to think of the obstacles and how it won’t work for us.
I want to address a common myth: “I can’t stop my bad habit because I have no self-control or willpower.” Sound familiar? I admit - I’ve said this.
WRONG! Guess what? Self-control and willpower are not the force behind creating good habits.
All the people who seem to have these traits are really relying on something very different. I’m going to draw on the research of Wendy Wood, a psychologist who has studied habits for 30 years. In a nutshell, here is what she found:
“People who score high in self-control achieve desired outcomes by streamlining, not struggling.”
She found that they are proficient at automating. Creating routines by doing the same thing, at the same time, consistently.
They are not stronger, more motivated, better, smarter, not better at self-denial...self-control is simple when you understand that it involves putting yourself in the right situations to develop the right habits.
She goes on to say “Self control is more accurately stated as situational control.”
You are not missing the special sauce.
This is good news for those of us who might feel like we are missing the personality trait needed to develop good habits and to become a goal achiever. There is no special sauce, per se. But there IS a special process.
And this process is something every one of us can do and learn to excel in.
Everywhere you look people are listing the top habits you should have for success, or for wellbeing, or for the best self-care...lists are big these days. But these lists don’t address the real issue. Listing good habits to have is the same as listing worthy goals. They are likely as helpful as wishing on a star.
The question isn’t “what daily habits should I have” the question is “HOW do I develop healthy routines that truly become automatic, and therefore, become a habit?”
First lets understand why habits develop. At a very basic level our brains are pleasure seeking and pain averse. We want to feel good and seek to avoid or stop anything unpleasant. We can all get on board with that, right?
We also need to do many things on autopilot because if we didn’t have this capability, every single step we take, literally, would require focused thought and attention. We simply could not function and be able to react quickly to keep ourselves safe. This ability to develop habits allows us to do multiple things at once and was an evolutionary necessity.
Let's run down how habits actually form by reviewing the 4Rs of the Habit Loop.
The Required 4 Rs in a Habit Loop
- Reminder: This is the trigger or cue that sets off the habitual behavior.
Who is there, What is going on, Where are you, Why is it happening, and When in the day is it happening. One or more of those things is related to your trigger or cue or reminder for the behavior to occur.
Example: My spouse came home from work or my friend didn’t respond to my text.
- Reaction: Next comes the emotional response and likely a behavioral reaction as well. This is the manifestation of the habit. The thing that is obvious that you want to change. Identify the feeling that comes up as well as the behavior.
When my spouse comes home from work, I want a glass of wine to unwind from the day.
When my friend doesn’t respond to my text, I feel slighted. My ANTs start in - maybe she is angry? Doesn’t care?
The Reward aspect is often misunderstood. The reward has to be immediate and directly associated with the behavior. Giving yourself a spa day is not going to influence your habits one bit. The reason is because in order for a habit to become automatic it needs to create neural pathways that tells the brain what to do without the logical mind being involved.
We create neural pathways with Dopamine -- that “feel good” neurotransmitter that gets released when we feel pleasure. And it needs to be released in seconds of the behavior in order for it to send the message to the brain that “this felt good - I want more of this.” When this Dopamine release happens with frequent repetition, the habit gets wired into the brain.
When my spouse comes home from work, I want a glass of wine to unwind from the day, it feels great to sit down and relax! This is pleasurable and gets the dopamine shot.
The other example of Automatic Negative Thoughts shows how habits can form as a reaction to stressful situations in an attempt to lessen the discomfort.
4) Routine: Repeat the same steps, under the same conditions, over and over again. The repetition is what rewires the brain by creating new neural pathways.
There is no special sauce. You have what it takes to create habits that can impact your mood and improve your life.
We run on autopilot and rely on habits 43% of our day.
Willpower and self-control are not the foundation of habit formation.
Creating desirable routines and repeating them consistently can rewire the brain, making your routines habits that run on autopilot.
Now that we know how habits are formed, we can mesh this information with the pathways of Mindset, Mindfulness, and Thoughtfulness to harness our superpower and use habits to transform our lives.
In Creatures of Habit: Part 2, I will break down the habit loop further into simple steps to help you pinpoint what habit you want to target and share some tips and tricks to really make your desired habits rock- solid.
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