Habits, Part 3
I had the flu last month for the first time since the early ‘80s. One of the most annoying side effects was the crimp it put in my exercise routine. I delayed going back to the fitness room until I’d built up my stamina by walking around the neighborhood. I determined ahead of time exactly which day I was going to get back on the treadmill. When that day arrived, I went through my usual morning routine, including five minutes of stretching. But I had more work to do than usual that day and getting some of it done before exercising seemed like a good idea. I told myself that even if I didn’t go to the fitness room, I could always take a walk later. But it wasn’t so easy to derail my exercise habit. Not only did my brain pick up on the cue for that routine, it was actually anticipating the reward—energy and a sense of well-being. In fact, my brain was craving the reward.
This explains why habits are so powerful: They create neurological cravings. Most of the time, these cravings emerge so gradually that we’re not really aware they exist, so we’re often blind to their influence. But as we associate cues with certain rewards, a subconscious craving emerges in our brains that starts the habit loop spinning.
– Charles Duhigg
Duhigg says that a cue and a reward are not enough to create a long-lasting habit. The cue has to trigger a craving as well as the routine. In order to change a habit, we need to identify the cue and the reward and then replace the old routine with a new one. But the new routine has to satisfy the craving for that particular reward or it won’t work.
One of the problems with automatic behavior is that we’re likely not aware of what’s going on in the brain when we’re doing it, so it isn’t easy for us to tease apart the elements of a particular habit loop. This is the same issue we face when trying to become aware of our type-based automatic responses in life. In both cases, we need to try to make conscious something about which we’re unconscious. We need to become more aware. We need to develop our self-observation skills.
There are lots of ways to develop self-observation skills, including meditation and journal writing. But the idea of identifying and focusing on one “chunk” of automatic behavior—one habit—at a time is appealing to me. It’s very do-able, for one thing. And success in inserting one new routine into an existing habit loop can lead to success in inserting other new routines into other existing habit loops. Each time we do it, we become a little more aware of the unconscious underpinnings of our behavior. Yes, we’re still handing off “chunks” of behavior to the basal ganglia, but we are the ones choosing those routines. The process is not occurring outside our control.
Habits never really disappear, Duhigg says. They’re encoded into the structures of our brain. So we can be at the effect of our existing habits, most of which were created without our conscious intent, or we can learn how to modify them in ways that better serve us.