What’s a habit, why are habits so important and why are bad habits so hard to break?

I never realized how much of our behavior is habitual and how beneficial that is. If we had to think about how to do everything we do we would be exhausted and wouldn’t accomplish much. As I type these words, as my fingers dance over the keyboard I’m reminded of when I first learned to type and how trying and cumbersome it was to learn. Now typing is a habit, I give zero thought to the act of typing, all I think about when I type is what I want to say.

According to Charles Duhigg (2012) a habit is a behavior that starts as a choice and then becomes a nearly unconscious behavior. Here, for me, the most important word is unconscious. The unconscious part of habit formation is both our friend and our enemy. Like I said at the beginning of this post if we didn’t have habits, if we had to think about everything we did, we wouldn’t do much. Habits allow us to relegate the everyday tasks (making coffee, brushing our teeth, driving, etc) to the unconscious, freeing up mental energy, which allows us to think more complex thoughts. Habits allow our brains to be more efficient, in this case making habits our friend.

Every habit begins from a psychological pattern called a habit loop. A habit loop consists of three elements – a cue, a routine and a reward. A cue is what triggers the behavior, it tells your brain to go into automatic mode and sets off a consistent routine. A routine is basically the behavior itself, it is the most obvious part of a habit. Lastly there is the reward. The reward is what makes you repeat this loop over and over, it’s the positive outcome of the behavior. Remember all of this is unconscious.

The unconscious part of this process becomes our enemy when we want to change bad habits. Because cues tend to be unconscious, habit loops take on a life of their own. To begin with, in order to break bad habits we must become aware of what triggers our bad habit. This is the tricky part, given that by definition this whole process is pretty unconscious.

Starting today what can you do differently to change your habits? According to Duhigg (2012) one way to change a habit is to keep the cue and the reward and change the behavior. However, in order to do this you must become aware of the cue. What triggers the behavior you want to change (remember habits are unconscious)? One of the best ways to become aware of what triggers behavior you’d like to change is to track the cycle of the loop. According to Duhigg, if you can diagnose your habit, you can change your behavior. So for the next few weeks, watch what you do, take notes, become aware of what triggers the behavior you’d like to change. Most of all remember real change happens slowly.

How often do you think about the questions you ask? Actually now that I think about it, the question I really want to ask is, How often do you ask questions bearing in mind the result you want?

Like I’ve said before questions create our reality, honestly they create the world we live in. What do I mean by this? Most of our actions and interactions are initiated by a question. Let me give you a few examples. When I woke up this morning one of my first questions to myself was do I want to exercise? (the answer is usually no, but I still ask the question) Sometimes I will then ask myself how can I motivate myself to do exercise. I then go on to ask myself a slew of other questions which will subsequently form my day.

An example of how questions initiate our interactions and subsequently create our reality is when parents ask children how their day was? The answer usually is a FINE and maybe an eye roll – not exactly the kind of interaction most parents hope for. Most parents tell me that the ensuing interaction is not very gratifying. Nevertheless parents still continue to ask the same question.

What I’m proposing is to start thinking about the outcomes you want and then formulating your question based on that. Let me give you an example. I know exercise is good for me, I usually feel good after I’ve exercised, so I would like to exercise. I’ve found that instead of asking myself do I want to exercise today, if I ask myself when am I going to exercise today, it is more likely that I will exercise. That small change in the question begets a different outcome. The same with asking your children how their day was. What do you really hope to get from that question? Do you want to bother your children (keep asking the same question), annoy yourself (again keep asking the same questions) or learn more about your children’s lives (“Which class did you find most interesting today?”), forge a closer relationship (“How was that test you studied so hard for last night?”), let them know you are interested in them (“Were you able to talk to Jane about the misunderstanding you had?”)? Bearing in mind the purpose of the question I suggest you change what you ask.

Starting today what can you do differently? Take time to think about what results you want when you ask a question and formulate your question based on that information. Do I want to know…(How was the presentation you gave?), do I want to have a laugh (What was the funniest part of your day?), do I want to know more about my child (Who did you have lunch with?) (Obviously this is all based on knowing your child and what is going on in their life). Remember the more specific and targeted your question the better the answer. The more you do this the easier it will become.

Yes/no or maybe. Which is it, or is it? Thinking in terms of either/or can be very useful. Binary thinking is a great way to compress information, it allows us to respond quickly to a dangerous situation. Compressing information helps us survive. It helps us to make quick decisions. Putting our thoughts into categories helps us begin to process our thoughts, it’s an important starting point. The operative words being starting point.

When we leave our thoughts in categories we are doing ourself and others a disservice, we are failing to see the entirety of the interaction. Cognitive distortions are good examples of binary thinking, should/should not, fair/unfair. Cognitive distortions are a great example of compressing information albeit a dysfunctional form of thinking. When we think in terms of good/bad, pretty/ugly, right/wrong, my way or the highway, etc, etc we are missing the nuance of life. This type of thinking does not allow us to think flexibly and makes our lives more difficult.

Flexible thinking is important because it allows you to calibrate your response to the situation at hand by seeing all the colors of the story. This in turn allows you to choose your response as opposed to reacting. So instead of basing your response on feelings or thoughts that might not be rooted in the moment flexible thinking allows you to see all your options and choose the most appropriate response. Flexible thinking makes life better because by allowing you to respond appropriately to the situation at hand you are also enhancing your relationships. You are enhancing your relationships because you are responding from a place of current experience.

How do you become a flexible thinker? I believe the best way is begin is to be curious. Why is this the way it is, why did that person say that, what does that mean? Being curious motivates you to understand the other person’s perspective. And seeing something from someone else’s perspective is the essence of flexible thinking and empathy. Make a list of as many other alternatives as you can think of. Another way to become a flexible thinker is to practice mindfulness. Taking a moment to react will give you the opportunity to respond effectively. There is something to be said for counting to ten.