Our lives are full of actions that we’re almost unaware of. Many of them just help us get little things done more efficiently. But some habits can have a huge impact on our lives in either a positive or negative way. Here’s a quick breakdown of how habits work and ways to “trick yourself” into better behavior patterns.
We’ve looked at why the brain likes habits in a previous article, but it’s worth reviewing again!
Your brain craves efficiency. It looks for the path of least resistance when it comes to using energy. Making decisions takes a lot of brain power. Too many choices in a day can leave you feeling mentally exhausted, so your brain looks for ways to cut corners. It starts automating little decisions that you make repeatedly. Brushing your teeth, tying your shoes, and checking your social media are choices you’ve made so often that your brain stops consciously weighing in and seems to just spontaneously make you do them.
So that’s why your brain likes forming habits. But the mechanics of how a habit forms is essential if you’re trying to upgrade your unconscious behaviors!
A habit can be broken down into three basic components. It starts with a cue. That’s any kind of trigger that makes you want to do something. Actually performing the action suggested by the cue is called a routine. Following the routine usually results in some kind of reward, either physical or psychological.
So let’s say you’ve developed a habit of eating a cookie with your morning coffee. You wake up, put on the pot, and brew a delicious cup of joe. You instantly start craving the cookie when you smell that medium roast goodness. That’s the cue. You reach into the jar, grab the biggest chocolate chip cookie you can get your hands on, and take a bite. That’s the routine. And the tingling joy and comfort you feel when that life-giving treat hits your tongue? That’s the reward that brings you back morning after morning. But the consequence might be that you’ve put on a few unwanted pounds in the last couple of months.
It’s easy to see how certain habits can lead to some undesirable outcomes. We tend to form habits around anything that rewards our brains, whether it’s junk food, caffeine, or dangerous substances. But our brains also like things such as observing progress and accomplishing goals.
How can we use this to encourage good habits? Here are a few ideas: Start really small: Break your desired habit down into pieces and try to regularly perform each one. You might be surprised by how good it feels to accomplish something, which can prompt you to make more and more progress. Reward yourself: Some activities are very rewarding in the moment. But not everything that’s good for you leaves you feeling accomplished right away. Try something like only playing video games after 30 minutes of reading! Be patient: Habits don’t form overnight. You’ll probably mess up before it sticks. Don’t sweat the little failures and keep trying until that habit becomes second nature!
You can also use this knowledge to break bad habits. Try to identify the cues associated with the habit and avoid or eliminate them. Also, consider ways that you might actually be rewarding yourself for bad behavior. It’s worth asking friends and sometimes professionals for insights into your habits!