A Happiness Journey

Habits

Our brains use the most energy out of all of our organs. When we think of burning calories, we often think of what we burn when we move around or exercise, but just being alive uses the bulk of the energy we consume. The basic functions of breathing, pumping blood, dividing cells, digesting, metabolising etc all require a huge amount of energy from food, and our brains, are the organ that requires the most energy to function. Habit, therefore, emerges because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save energy and effort. It does this by automating as much as possible.

 

With only 5% or our brain working consciously and the other 95% working subconsciously, it makes sense that we outsource as much of our lives as possible to the subconscious mind. If you had to think about everything you did, you’d be exhausted before you even got out of bed! A perfect example of how the body does this is learning to drive. I don’t know about you, but I remember passing my driving test and then being able to drive on the freeway for the first time. Merging onto a busy 3 lane Motorway was one of the most terrifying things I’d ever done and took ALL my powers of concentration to make sure I managed it safely. Now I don’t give it a second thought.

 

It has been discovered that the area of our brain where habits are formed is the deep ancient mammalian part of the brain that operates our automatic responses, the Basal Ganglia. This small primitive structure, that evolved millions of years ago, and is similar to the structures found in the brain of fish and reptiles, controls our automatic behaviours such as breathing and swallowing. It is also central to recalling patterns and acting on them. As we practice something new, we may be thinking about it with our pre-frontal cortex, but once those pathways in our brain become entrenched enough, the routine is taken over by the Basal Ganglia and we can easily perform those tasks without giving any thought to them at all, saving us tons of thinking energy.

 

How habits are formed

Chunking is the process whereby the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine. This allows us to perform thousands of actions a day without having to think about it. This includes very simple things like putting the toothpaste on your toothbrush, getting dressed, putting the kettle on when you want tea, opening the fridge when you’re hungry etc. It also works for much more complicated tasks involved hundreds of actions such as backing your car out of the driveway, whilst fiddling with he radio and having a slug of coffee.

 

At the beginning of a new task, the brain isn’t sure what’s going to happen next, so it searches around for a ‘cue’ which tells it what pattern it needs to run. Once the action is completed the ‘reward’ appears, waking the brain up again, to make sure everything has happened as expected.

 

So the process of an automated habit is a three step loop. First there is a cue, a trigger that tells the brain to go into automatic mode and which pattern to use, then there is the routine, which is physical, mental or emotional. Finally, there is the reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.

 

The more often we complete the loop, the more it become automatic. Finally, the cue and the reward become so intertwined that a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges, this is where the habit is formed. Once formed, the brain stops participating in decision making and diverts its attention to other tasks. Therefore, unless you deliberate fight the habit by finding new routines, the pattern will unfold automatically.

 

A cue can be anything from a visual trigger (such as an advert on TV), a place (such as going to the beach and buying an ice cream), a time of day (like a coffee in the morning), a sequence of thoughts, an emotion, the ping of our mobile phone or a particular person. And rewards are just as varied, such as physical rewards like food, drugs and alcohol to emotional pay offs such as pride or satisfaction.

 

Habits form whether we like it or not, so being somewhat aware of our cues and rewards is important. If we’re not careful, we will repeat a loop enough times that a craving will appear, and once we get the craving, the habit owns us, and it’s so much harder to walk away from it then. It’s the craving that becomes the power behind the loop.

 

Forming a new habit

To create a new habit from scratch the brain must utilise The Habit Loop. There must first be a cue, such as seeing your running shoes by the bedroom door, a response, going for a run, and then the reward, the endorphin high or the sense of satisfaction for example. Once this loop has been repeated a number of times, the cue and reward combined will create the craving for the response. This explains why every time we walk past the pantry door we think about the biscuits residing within. Once you have the loop, and craving is created, you have yourself a new habit.

 

If you’ve been trying to form a new habit for a while and it doesn’t seem to be sticking, you may need to reassess the reward. Often, we think we know why we want to do something but we’re actually wrong and if the ‘why’ isn’t right, or big enough, then the reward won’t be enough to make the habit stick. I have personally been trying to create a healthy whole food plant based diet for years and years. I thought the reason I wanted to do it was for my health. Every time I tried to stick to eating WFPB it just wouldn’t stick. The reward of knowing I was positively affecting my health just wasn’t a big enough driver for me. Plus it wasn’t an immediate tangible reward that I could experience in the moment, so every time I attempted to change my diet, it would last a few weeks and I would go back to eating my old way which gave me tons of immediate gratification. Once I watched ‘Earthlings’, a documentary on the cruelty of the meat industry, I changed to a WFPB diet immediately and what was once so hard to stick to, become so much easier. My ‘why’ became about not contributing to animal suffering and the reward that I felt from that was big enough to get the habit to finally stick.

 

They’ve now discovered that you can’t actually undo a habit. Once the pathway has been formed for it then it’s always there. What you can do though, is overwrite it with something else. Have you ever noticed that sometimes, when you’re super tired or your defences are down, that you accidentally revert, or think about reverting back to, a really old habit of something you haven’t done for years? That’s the subconscious falling into the groove of an old pattern. Like the tracks on a dirt road that have had the same tyres go over and over through the years, the grooves are always there to fall back into if we’re not careful.

 

How to over-write an old habit

It’s actually extremely difficult to just end a bad habit. It is now widely accepted that it is so much easier to simply replace it with a different, more constructive habit. This is known as The Golden Rule of habit change; you can’t extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it. This has been an extremely effective tool for Alcoholics Anonymous and for people who have quit smoking, gambling or taking drugs. The drug is rarely the reward, it’s usually something like the need to relax, or the need to avoid a negative emotion, get some human connection or gain some confidence that is the reward we are seeking and that causes us to reach for the drug in the first place. So working out what the cue is, then what the reward is, and finding some other means to achieve the reward, is the key to removing the toxic substance or behaviour.

 

So, to overwrite an old habit you must keep the cue and the reward the same, and change the middle process, which is the response. This means you have to look at your habits in detail to analyse what the cue is, and what the reward is. This can be tricky and requires some work but well worth doing if you want to do away with a bad habit.

 

For example. If I get up out of my chair to go to the kitchen at eat a biscuit at 3pm every day, and I’m getting fat as a result, I need to look at that behaviour and establish the cue and reward. Is the cue that I’m hungry or is it the time of day? Is the reward the food to satiate my hunger, the sugar to satisfy a sugar craving or merely the desire to take a break and step away from my laptop? After observing my habit for a number of days I ascertain it’s both the time of day that’s my cue and the energy drop I experience at that time of day. This has me reaching for some sugar I need for a drop in energy. So now I make sure there’s an apple nearby to achieve the same reward as the biscuit. If it was the break, I needed then a walk around the block could have been my way of changing the habit. I could also look at ways to avoid the mid afternoon crash like having a bigger lunch or looking at what I’m eating at lunch. Lots of different ways to change my habit by understanding the cue and the reward.

 

So as James Clear (bestselling Author of Automatic Habits) once said, “The habits you repeat (or don’t repeat) every day largely determine your health, wealth and happiness. Knowing how to change your habits means knowing how to confidently own and manage your days, focus on behaviours that have the highest impact, and reverse engineer the life you want.”

 

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