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The magic of habit

Think about all the things you most enjoy—spending time with family and friends, reading, exercise, that first cup of tea or coffee in the morning, the Wednesday night curry club, sitting on the couch with the Sunday papers. Then, think about all the things you know you should stop doing—getting annoyed on the road, eating too many sweets, idly swiping through your phone in the evening, drinking too much on a night out.

All of these are habits. And on both surface and deeper levels, habits—the good and bad—make us humans feel safe. From a purely evolutionary point-of-view, habit implies structure. Habit implies we know what’s coming next. Habit implies equilibrium. Habit also helps us to learn new skills.

It’s in our basal ganglia—a structure that sits in our primitive brain’s limbic cortex—that habit is generated and repeated. When our ‘new brain’s’ neocortex—with all its capacity for creativity, abstraction and reason—has to contend with the older brain’s primal desire for the safety of habit, the outcomes are both good and bad.

It’s the same reason, whether we’re prepared to admit it or not, we like routine. The familiarity is comforting—no surprises, no unexpected disruptions, no drama. Just try not to have a routine. It might work for a little bit but eventually your old routine will be replaced by a new one; even having no routine eventually becomes a routine.

I know this from experience—a couple of years ago I took an extended sabbatical to finally tackle the novel I’d long been promising myself I’d write. I pictured days free of the routine I’d become so used to in my regular work life and, at first, I indulged in this liberation. I got up when I wanted, worked when I wanted, went to gym when I wanted and went to bed when I wanted. But do you know what I found? I couldn’t get my mind to work as effectively as before. Without some sort of timetable, my brain just couldn’t settle into the work. And it was really almost without any thinking or effort on my part that within a few weeks I began to develop a new routine with new habits and very quickly my motivation and productivity took off.

When you think about it, habit basically rules the universe. Without the dependable, habitual laws of physics and gravity, there would be no time, no space, no spinning planet upon whose hours of light and darkness we organise our lives; without habit there would be nothing.

Seven mops leant against a red wall.
Photo by pan xiaozhen on Unsplash

Evolve’s ‘Habit Creation’ workbook—presented and discussed at our Peer Groups—begins: “What you repeatedly do ultimately forms the results you see and the person you are—Your life today is essentially the sum of your habits.”

This idea—that you are essentially the sum of your habits—is both unsettling and encouraging, depending on the balance of your good habits versus your bad habits. Evolve’s workbook goes on to list the five most common habit cues, i.e. the thing/s that spark a particular habit, plus the response and reward that follows. The five cues are:

1) Time (certain tasks and behaviours occurring at set times of the day)

2) Location (assigning certain behaviours to particular locations)

3) Preceding event (what might trigger a particular habit?)

4) Emotional state (boredom, stress, anger, depression—feelings that might see us seek out a bad habit)

5) Other people (how the people you choose to associate with might drive both good and bad habits)

The workbook also talks about the feedback loop of four stages which form a habit: The cue, followed by craving, followed by your response, followed by the reward. What is key—and this is how habit can make or break you—is knowing whether a particular habit is beneficial or detrimental to your personal and professional development.

The obvious ones—eating healthily, exercising, working smart as opposed to eating junk food and being lazy—are easy to identify and continue or try to minimise. The true hard work, and therefore the most profound in terms of how it affects your life, is examining yourself on a deeper level and looking for those habits which are entrenched in us almost from birth, habits that have turned into your way of thinking and seeing the world. Oftentimes these habitual thoughts can be negative or self-sabotaging, simply because of what we’re taught at school and the way we are brought up, the labels we give ourselves and, whether we’re aware of it or not, the limits we set upon those labels.

The that you are essentially the sum of your habits is both unsettling and encouraging.

There have been numerous, extensive studies by cognitive psychologists and neurobiologists into habit and the mind and just how much of our behavior is habitual. The general consensus is that an incredible 95% of what we do is potentially habitual. Even using a more middle-of-the-road estimate of, say, 50%, it is apparent that what we do at least half the time is done by our subconscious.

A section of Charles Duhigg’s book ‘The Power of Habit’ portrays cases in which people have experienced severe personality change and/or memory loss through brain trauma (specifically to the frontal lobe of the brain where memory and much of our personality is stored), yet still maintained the habits they had prior to the trauma. This proves just how deeply habit sits inside our brains, and why habits are so hard to break.   

Charles Duhigg speaking at a microphone.
Charles Duhigg
Photo by Wikimedia Commons

When we’re employing our subconscious for mundane, repetitive tasks, this kind of autonomous behavior is a blessing, but what about when we slip into that mode professionally? Habit, then, has the ability to blunt your creativity, to leave it stagnant. This is why a new project or unexpected challenge enlivens us and often leads us to find solutions or excel in ways we didn’t know we could.    

So, are you ready for some proper self-examination? Are you prepared to reduce or even completely abandon certain habits that you might ‘love’ but also know are damaging your potential for further success?

According to the Evolve workbook, “Some habits are especially significant as they link to other behaviours and will have a ripple effect in your life.” It also points out that not all bad habits can be eliminated but they can be replaced, even very slowly. The aim is to identify a habit that is not beneficial to you and replace it with one that is. Think about the amount of accumulated time you waste in a month mindlessly swiping through social media. Now imagine utilising that time to learn a new language or instrument, or read a good book or train for a challenging physical adventure.

As with anything worth doing in life, it’ll be difficult at first. But once you repeat it a few times and get used to it, it becomes automatic. This is the magic of habit.

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