Power of Habits
a series synopsis and commentary by Ray Silverstein
All of life, is but a mass of habits. Most of the choices we make each day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making, but they’re not. They’re habits. And though each habit means relatively little on its own, over time impacts on our health, productivity, financial security, and happiness. One paper published by a Duke University researcher in 2006 found that more than 40 percent of the action people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits. Only in the past two decades have scientists and marketers really begun understanding how habits work—more important, how they change. Habits can be changed, if we understand how they work.
When you woke up this morning, what did you do first? Which route did you drive to work? When you got to your desk, did you deal with e-mail, chat with a colleague, or jump into writing a memo? When you got home what did you do first? Your actions were habits.
The Habits of Individuals: The habit Loop—How Habits Work:
Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often.
“An efficient brain also allows us to stop thinking constantly about basic behaviors, such as walking and choosing what to eat, so we can devote mental energy to inventing spears, irrigation systems, and eventually airplanes and video games.
But conserving mental effort is tricky, because if our brains power down at the wrong moment, we might fail to notice something important, such as a predator. So our basal ganglia have devised a lever system to determine when to let habits take over. It’s something that happens whenever a chunk of behavior starts or ends.”
The process in which the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine is known as chunking and it is the root of how habits are formed. This process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then, there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.
Over time this loop—cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges. The discovery of the habit loop is so important is that it reveals a basic truth: When habit emerges, the brain
stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the pattern will unfold automatically. Habits never really disappear. They’re encoded into the structures of our brain. The problem is that your brain can’t tell the difference between bad and good habits, and so if you have a bad one, it’s always lurking there, waiting for the right cues and rewards.
This explains why it’s so hard to create exercise habits, for instance, or change what we eat. By the same rule, though, if we learn to create new neurological routines that overpower those behaviors—if we take control of the habit loop—we can force those bad tendencies into the background. And once someone creates a new pattern, studies have demonstrated, going for a jog or ignoring the doughnuts becomes as automatic as any other habit.
Without habit loops, our brains would shut down, overwhelmed by the minutiae of daily life. People whose basal ganglia are damaged by injury or disease often become mentally paralyzed. Without our basal ganglia, we lose access to the hundreds of habits we rely on every day. As long as your basal ganglia is intact and the cues remain constant, the behavior will occur unthinkingly.
Researchers have learned that cues can be almost anything, from a visual trigger such as a candy bar or a television commercial. Routines can be incredibly complex or fantastically simple. Rewards can range from food or drugs that cause physical sensations, to emotional payoffs such as the feelings of pride that accompany praise or self-congratulations.
Habits are powerful, but delicate. They can emerge outside our consciousness, or can be deliberately designed. They often occur without our permission, but can be reshaped by fiddling with their parts. They shape our lives far more than we realize—they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense. By learning to observe the cues and rewards we can change the routines.
The Craving Brain—How To Create New Habits:
Claude Hopkins, a famous marketer in the early 1900’s, was best known for a series of rules he coined explaining how to create new habits among consumers. These rules would transform industries and eventually became conventional wisdom among marketers. Throughout his career one of his signature tactics was to find simple triggers to convince consumers to use his products every day. Craving, it turns out, is what makes cues and rewards work. That craving is what powers the habit loop.
His most famous product was Pepsodent toothpaste. This was at a time people did not use toothpaste. The cue he related to was film on teeth and the reward was a
bright smile and the routine was to use Pepsodent toothpaste everyday. Hopkins first rule was to find a simple and obvious cue and secondly, clearly define the rewards, and lastly to generate a craving.
Habits are so powerful because 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 reward, a subconscious craving emerges in our brain starts the habit loop spinning.
Craving example—email. When a computer chimes or a smartphone vibrates with a new message, the brain starts anticipating the momentary distraction that opening an email provides. That expectation, if unsatisfied, can build until a meeting is filled with antsy executives checking their buzzing smartphones under the table, even if they know it’s probably only their latest fantasy football results. (On the other hand, if someone disables the buzzing—and thus, removes the cue—people can work for hours without thinking to check their in-boxes.)
Countless studies have shown that a cue and a reward, on their own, aren’t enough for a new habit to last. Only when your brain starts expecting the reward—craving the endorphins or sense of accomplish. The cue, in addition to triggering a routine, must also trigger a craving for the reward to come. Craving is an essential part of the formula for creating new habits. And figuring out how to spark a craving makes creating a new habit easier.