“The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.” ―Samuel Johnson
We all have our good habits and bad habits. Some of them are conscious, like the process of cooking a meal we’ve practised several times. Others are unconscious, like how you may be lost in thought in the shower, yet you still end up clean. In fact we live our entire lives on a series of routines, forever following our experience of what we’ve done over and over. This can be as small as regularly buying a paper on the way to work in the morning, or as big as how we react when we meet someone new who has a strong personality. The point is we immediately react based on our experience.
When we meet a new situation, we categorize it into one of the patterns of behaviour we have established, even if it turns out to be detrimental to us in the long run, though we just don’t know it at the time. Its like our subconscious always follows the old saying ‘the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.’
“Enthusiasm is the electricity of life. How do you get it? You act enthusiastic until you make it a habit.” ― Gordon Parks
In our brains, it can all be boiled down to the phrase ‘the path of least resistance.’
Our brain always tries to take the strongest neural pathway. The one we’ve spent years building. To deviate from that path feels uncomfortable, difficult, and somehow just…wrong. Our brain is saying ‘why do this new thing? I can do that other thing so well and with little energy because that’s what we’ve done a thousand times.’
At the gym a few months ago, I started doing assisted pull ups. I’ve never done a pull up in my life. The first few times I did it, I felt weak, the motions felt awkward, and it felt like my muscles had no idea what to do.
After a few weeks of doing it regularly, I noticed a huge improvement. More than if I was just increasing my strength. The change was in the motion. It felt smoother, more natural. My muscles knew what to do, they knew how to work together seamlessly and with proper flow through the entire motion. I could do more reps, more weight, and expend less energy. I was forming a strong neural pathway in my brain.
Side Note: This is why you should change exercises every few months at the gym – you get incredible strength and fitness gains in a short time by doing a new and unfamiliar motion, weight, or number of reps/sets.
Habits can be physical, emotional, mental, interpersonal, pretty much anything. So how do we break our bad habits? That’s what everybody really wants to know.
“A nail is driven out by another nail; habit is overcome by habit.”
― Desiderius Erasmus
In the habit cycle, a habit boils down to three things: Cue, Routine, Reward. You’re doing the habit because something prompts it. For example, imagine a typical worker coming home after a long day, having dinner, and then just sitting down to watch some TV for 2 hours before bed. The cue is that the person is tired, and they just ate. The routine is sitting down and turning on the TV at a specific time. The reward is the good feelings and relaxation from the stimulus.
To break a habit you need to do 3 things:
1. Make yourself conscious of the habit
2. Experiment to identify each part of the cycle
3. Become conscious of the cue and replace the routine, but still find a way to deliver the reward you seek.
In our example of the TV watcher:
1. Maybe they have a project they really want to work on at home, and realize that being tired and full makes them want to watch TV before bed. They realize it makes them feel good, but its not really helping them accomplish anything. They have identified the habit.
2. The next few days they try to work on the project after dinner, but find a real lack of motivation and head back to watching TV soon after. Another few days pass and they realize that being full of food makes them lazy too. They have identified the cue: being full from dinner plus being tired from work.
3. Finally they decide to do some work on their project as soon as they get home, delay their dinner, and then still watch 30 minutes of TV before bed. They have identified the cue (being full and tired), replaced the routine by shortening it and filling the time with something new that makes them feel good, and then they still get the reward at the end by watching a bit of TV after dinner.
Habit forming is a habit in itself; it requires practice, self-examination, and openness to new experiences. But if we become good at it, we are truly in control of our own destiny.