By Neha Ayyer
Change is tough, especially when you’re trying to stop doing things that you’ve always done. A routine is a powerful tool that keeps us from getting exhausted all the time. Some routines may even seem automatic, and that’s because they are. These almost automatic “routines” are what we call habits.
Habits emerge because our brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. This instinct of saving effort is a huge advantage, as it allows us to stop thinking about basic behaviors. The pattern of our habits happens almost automatically, as if we have no control over them because, in fact, we don’t. When we start to do a habit, our brains stop “working.” It stops fully participating in the decision-making process. It diverts your focus to other tasks so that you won’t put in thought, or notice when a habit unfolds.
But, how exactly do habits form? Well, there is a three-step process, called a “habit loop.” The first stage is a cue. It’s a trigger that tells your brain to go into “automatic mode” and to let a behavior emerge. This cue usually falls under one or more of the following categories: location, time, person, emotional state, or immediately preceding action. For example, at noon every day, someone could crave chocolate or an iced coffee. The main idea is that there is always a cue that triggers your habit.
The second stage is the routine. This is the behavior itself; what we usually think about when we hear the word “habits.” It can be physical, mental, or emotional. The third stage is a reward. It helps your brain decide if this specific behavior is worth remembering for the future. The reward provides positive reinforcement for that behavior, making it so that you do it again. Over time, this three-step loop becomes more and more automatic, eventually creating a habit.
Because our habits form unconsciously, it can be very hard to break them. But, it’s not impossible! Instead of completely eliminating bad habits from our lives, we can replace a bad habit with a good one. A habit provides similar rewards, but the routine is healthier.
Studies show that people will continue to perform automated actions in the same way, if they are in the same environment. If they take a vacation, it’s likely that the behavior will change, since the cues and patterns are broken up. That’s also why taking a vacation is so relaxing—it helps break certain habits. Changing a habit on vacation is also quite successful, as your old cues and rewards aren’t there anymore. You can create new patterns.
However, going on vacation isn’t the only way to change your bad habits. First, you need to choose a substitute for your bad habit. Like I mentioned before, instead of eliminating bad habits, we can replace them with good ones. Instead of going on Instagram every 10 minutes, try walking from one end of your room to the other. Whatever prompts your bad habit, you need a plan on what you will do instead of that habit. The next step is to try to get rid of triggers. Habits happen because of a cue that tells your brain to start performing a behavior. For example, if you use your phone whenever you start to do your homework, give your phone to a family member until you finish.
When changing bad habits, the common misconception is that you need to become a whole new person. In truth, you just need to return to the “old” you. Even if it was a long time ago, you have lived without this bad habit, which means that you can do it again. Remember: there is no one way to change your habits; it’s important to find whatever works for you.
Now, it’s also important to note that not all habits are bad. Most of our day-to-day activities rely on habits. Imagine how hard it would be if you had to think about drinking water, going to the bathroom, or brushing your teeth. Habits help make our life easier.
Our brain creating habits is like going on “power-saving” mode. I mean, re-learning everything all the time would be time and mind-consuming. This automatic routine allows us to devote all our mental activity to something else, something that would take up more energy. Without habits, we would be drained from doing simple tasks, not being able to achieve more because we are so exhausted all the time.
Habits are an important part of our lives. Without habits, we would be stuck in the same place our whole lives. We would be re-learning every little task, exhausted and tired from just one day. We indeed have both bad and good habits (some easier to break than others), but they are essentially just the same. Our brain needs rest now and then, and habits are one way for it to do so.
“The Habit Loop.” Habitica Wiki, habitica.fandom.com/wiki/The_Habit_Loop#The_Cue.
“Habits: How They Form And How To Break Them.” NPR, NPR, 5 Mar. 2012, www.npr.org/2012/03/05/147192599/habits-how-they-form-and-how-to-break-them.
“How to Break a Bad Habit (and Replace It With a Good One).” James Clear, 4 Feb. 2020, jamesclear.com/how-to-break-a-bad-habit.
“The Science Of Habit Formation And Change.” Farnam Street, 22 Oct. 2019, fs.blog/2012/03/everything-you-need-to-know-about-habits-the-science-of-habit-formation-and-change/#:~:text=The%20process%E2%80%94in%20which%20the,root%20of%20how%20habits%20form.&text=Habits%2C%20scientists%20say%2C%20emerge%20because,for%20ways%20to%20save%20effort.