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.