According to Merriam-Webster, the most common definition of a habit is: “a settled tendency or usual manner of behavior” or “an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary.”
We all have habits. Some are considered good. Some are considered bad. Some are such a part of our daily routine that we don’t even think about them.
In the popular book Atomic Habits, author James Clear says “Habits are not a finish line to be crossed, they are a lifestyle to be lived.”
Nearly half of our daily behavior is habitual. But Wendy Wood, Provost Professor of Psychology and Business at the University of Southern California, has found that habits control much more than we might have guessed. In her research, Wood found that on a daily basis, conscious decisions are behind 57% of our behaviors, while 43% of our behaviors are attributable to habits repeated in the same context, often while our thoughts are engaged elsewhere.
I bet you thought you were in charge didn’t you? We all think that. But really, our habits are like little programs running in the background that we often aren’t even aware of.
The Benefits of Habits
So how do habits help us?
Habits make our daily behaviors more efficient by reducing the burden of decision making, automatically answering questions like “what am I going to have for breakfast today?” or “what are the things I need to do to get ready for work in the morning?”
It’s no coincidence that since we probably drive to work the same way every day, that on Saturday we might inadvertently drive halfway to our office before realizing what we were doing!
Our brains are constantly storing chunks of information and creating connections. Over time, our repetitive actions become second nature in order to free our brains up for more demanding tasks.
“Champions don’t do extraordinary things. They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they’ve learned.” – Charles Duhigg
We can also use habits to improve our skills, much like an athlete improves performance through practice and repetition.
Limitations of Habitual Behavior
Most thinking and planning functions are controlled by the brain’s prefrontal cortex. If we are operating in habit mode, we are not fully engaging this executive function. We lose the opportunity for creativity and decision making in the moment.
And while some habits can help us be more efficient in our daily tasks, others can hinder us. If we want to let them go, it can be a challenge. Stress can make us revert to old habits too, so it’s really important to be aware of our triggers.
Types of Habits
- Physical: This could be actual physical exercise, like going for a run in the morning, or it could show up when you’re speaking in front of a group – – how much do you move around the room?
- Mental: How do you approach problems and manage priorities? Do you always have too many items on your plate? Are you always running late?
- Emotional: How do you feel about yourself? And talk to yourself?
Is It Really a Habit?
Sometimes, it may be hard to recognize something we do as a habit. To help us identify some classic characteristics, look for these 4 key things:
- Cue / Context: time of day, location, who you’re with
- Craving: This is the motivation to act
- Routine / Behavior: repeat a behavior in the same way until it becomes automatic
- Reward: specific rewards can vary, but in general they occur when an experience is positive, rewarding, enjoyable, engaging, rewarding and/or fun.
(Example: You like an afternoon cookie, and go to the cafeteria to buy it then eat it with other people. The reward is actually the social interaction.)
Forming New Habits
When you want to change an existing habit, or get rid of a bad habit, you’re really forming a new habit.
As you repeat the new habit again and again, it becomes more familiar. Eventually the new habit becomes stronger than the old one. Even though the old “programming” may still be in there, it is overwritten.
According to James Clear, here are some keys to building a new habit:
- The 1st law (Cue): Make it obvious.
- The 2nd law (Craving): Make it attractive.
- The 3rd law (Response): Make it easy.
- The 4th law (Reward): Make it satisfying.
When trying to form a new habit, it may be helpful to get an accountability partner who is also working on their own new habit. Leaning on each other and exchanging tips can provide much needed support and help you both stick to your plan.
Habits either keep us where we are or move us forward. It’s up to us to decide which aspects of our lives we want to change or stay the same.
Here are some good resources you can check out if you want to dig into this topic further. And if you need more personal assistance in defining and re-defining your own habits, please don’t hesitate to reach out.
Atomic Habits by James Clear
Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes that Stick by Wendy Wood
The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg