Habits, They Make Us or Break Us

Habits play a significant role in our lives.  By some estimates, half of our behaviors including what we think, say, feel, and do are controlled by our habits.  As you might expect, if you want to make an important change in life, you will probably have to change some habits.

Hundreds of articles and books have been written on the subject of habits.  It’s not that habits are conceptually hard to understand but rather that they are both necessary and also capable of causing harm. The cartoon character Pogo sized up the situation with, “We have found the enemy, and he is us.”

In casual conversation, most discussions about habits tend to be about bad habits.  This happens because good habits by their nature become both automatic and almost invisible to our conscious awareness when practiced long enough.  Fortunately, most of us have hundreds of good habits and at most only a few questionable habits.  Unfortunately, we rarely get credit for our good habits.  It’s the bad ones that get all the attention.

Interestingly, habits are absolutely essential to living a healthy life.  From an observation of people with brain injuries affecting the area where habits are stored (basal ganglia), the importance of habits becomes evident.  Without the ability to store habits, repeating any routine procedure requires relearning every step.  For example, the habit of brushing teeth takes a child several months to master.  Without stored habits, that procedure would have to be relearned again every day.  A person unable to store habits would be overwhelmed by the complexity of life.  The beauty of good habits is that once learned and stored away, they happen with little mental effort.  Unfortunately, bad habits also happen with little mental effort and can easily slip past our awareness.

While much about how our brain stores habits is unknown, there is a simple model that explains how habits are created.  In this model of a habit, there are three elements. A ‘cue’ that reminds us to begin the habit, a ‘routine’ that provides the instructions to follow, and finally, the expected ‘reward’ that makes the habit worthwhile.

For example, after eating, our tongue reminds us we need to brush our teeth. That habit begins a routine that involves turning on the water, unscrewing the cap on the toothpaste, brushing, etc.  Finally, we get the reward of a fresh minty feel in our mouth.  Interestingly, before flavors were added to toothpaste to create a reward, less than 7% of people brushed their teeth.

All habit loops begin with a cue as a trigger that reminds your brain which habit should be used.  Then, the brain starts the stored routine. Finally, a reward tells the brain that the habit is worth remembering.  When the cue and reward become sufficiently well established, a sense of craving emerges.  When the craving becomes too strong we often refer to it as addiction.  In any case, the state of craving is what sustains the habit.  As you might expect, understanding the habit loop provides many opportunities for helping to create good habits and for extinguishing bad habits.

The key to changing bad habits into good habits is to identify and understand the cue, process, and reward.  Often, only the process or the reward needs to be changed.  A belief that change can occur is a plus.  Individuals that do not believe change can happen often fail.  Another element that supports successful change is accountability. Often people who join a group that encourages accountability are more successful than those who act alone.  The belief of a group helps reinforce the resolve for change.  This is why groups like Weight Watchers, Take Off Pounds Sensibly (TOPS), and Alcoholics Anonymous can sometimes help people that have failed in other attempts.  Unfortunately, there is no sure way to create a new habit that will work for everyone.

Certain habits are called keystone habits because they have the capability of triggering other habits.  For example, people that begin exercising often find themselves unexpectedly following a better diet.  A similar phenomenon has been discovered in a wide range of situations. In the 1990’s, when police first choose to focus on enforcement of minor crimes like breaking windows and graffiti, they noticed a decrease in more serious crimes.  While the original “stop and frisk” aspect of the “Broken Windows” method was found to be discriminatory, modified versions still serve as a model for community policing.  In another classic situation of changing habits within groups, a major corporation was transformed by focusing on the keystone habit of employee safety.  This classic story of how one seemingly minor habit disrupted other habits that were destroying a company is told by Charles Duhigg in his book, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.”  For an entertaining story about habits and how they have contributed to the success and destruction of individuals and organization, there is probably no better book to curl up with.

Think of keystone habits as fertile soil from which other good habits can grow.  They provide an opportunity for small victories (habit rewards) that can help sustain the formation of new habits.  Each win helps extend your confidence.  As a keystone habit becomes part of the daily routine, it builds momentum for more positive habits.  This can be quite helpful since new habits may take several months before they fully gain the high ground.

Although the best keystone habit to adopt depends on your unique need, there are five that have proven to be among the best in most situations.

  • Active Goal Setting has an obvious connection with influencing habits.  The act of writing SMART goals both defines behaviors that need changing and identifies the new routine needed to change a habit.

     Specific (simple, sensible, significant)

     Measurable (meaningful, motivating)

     Achievable (agreed, attainable)

     Relevant (reasonable, results-based)

     Time bound (time limited)

  • Time Management can also have a positive effect on other habits.  The time quadrant method is one approach.  Just divide the day’s activities into four quadrants that include activities that are important and urgent, activities that are important but not urgent, activities that are not important but urgent, and activities not important and not urgent.  This is also called the Eisenhower Matrix, a time management method favored by our 34th President.  An alternate approach is to divide the day’s activities into the categories must do, should do and can do.
  • Exercise also has a remarkable record as a keystone habit change.  Studies have shown that when we exercise, we’re also less likely to indulge in junk food, smoking, and excessive drinking.  For the confirmed couch potato, start out by walking 10 minutes a day. Then, increase it by 5 minutes the following week. The third week, up it by 5 more minutes. When feeling pretty good, add another 5 minutes or try a light jog.  Habits take time, and small successes build confidence that reinforce the habit.
  • Daily Gratitude has shown remarkable value as a keystone habit.  Moving from a mindset of lack to a mindset of appreciation for what we have is empowering.  Taking a few minutes in the morning to review what you are grateful for is a good start.
  • Learning a new skill stimulates the mind and in doing so becomes a keystone habit that helps push us towards our goals. A wide range of resources to learn new skills from are only a web search away.  Free YouTube videos for learning techniques and TedTalks for inspiration are available on a wide range of topics.  For learning more complex skills, online training academies offer a world of opportunity.

While these keystone habits are among the most successful for most people, here are a few more that have a record of success.

  • Having regular family dinners.
  • Making your bed every morning
  • Tracking what you eat
  • A routine of daily meditation
  • Planning your day the night before.
  • Visualization your positive expectations
  • Positive self-talk (Speak with positive expectation)
  • Journaling to reinforce memories that ultimately make you happier.
  • Early to bed and early to rise
  • Creating a budget

It’s important to note that willpower plays a part in all habits but isn’t a habit itself.  Willpower is more like a muscle you exercise.  By practicing willpower you can improve its strength, but like a muscle, you can also exhaust it. The better approach is to build habits so that willpower is needed far less.

Using habits to empower us is far better than living with habits that drain away our energy, health, and happiness.  Now, what habit would you like to change?  Before taking a habit change head-on, ask yourself, “Is there a keystone habit change I should work on first?”

More About Habits

            There is much more to discover about habits from Charles Duhigg’s book, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.”  Look for the book at the local library.  If the book is out, just ask for a copy to be placed on hold for you.  Expect to learn more about yourself and the world around you.

  • Old habits fade slowly, and the possibility of relapses should be anticipated.  Belonging to an accountability group is insurance that relapse won’t win.
  • Habits are stored deep in the brain in a region called the basal ganglia. In contrast, our conscious decisions happen in the cerebral cortex.  Because commands from basal ganglia happen automatically, they often happen unnoticed.  Learning to anticipate and interrupt a habit can be challenging.
  • The story of how Starbucks became a successful company is a case study on how changing habits can change the culture of a company.
  • The story of Rosa Parks and the success of the Montgomery bus boycott can be explained by how habits changed a community.
  • The question of whether we have free will takes an interesting twist when viewed from the perspective of habits.  In a range of odd situations, judges have ruled that actions controlled by habits made free will impossible.
  • To know ourselves, there may be no better place to begin than with an understanding of our habits.

Potato Saladwith Horseradish Vinaigrette

            Fresh dill is the perfect flavor partner for horseradish in this plan-based whole food potato salad. New potatoes work well in this dish because they hold their shape well even when cooked tender; brighten things up by choosing new potatoes in a variety of colors.

Published by Nancy Neighbors, MD

... Dr. Neighbors provides a blend of traditional family medicine and evidence-based lifestyle medicine in Huntsville, Alabama. When indicated, lifestyle change is recommended as the first line of therapy.

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