Our habits play a larger role in our lives than we might think.
Did you pause this morning to decide which foot to put into your pants first? Did you have trouble figuring out if you should brush your teeth before or after you showered? Probably not.
This is a result of your ingrained habits: a series of effortless decision-making that takes place every day in the form of subconscious actions.
But habits don’t just live in little things like putting on your pants or brushing your teeth – they can be complex and influence many of the actions we take each day. How we react to stressful situations, what we think when we’re given a compliment, how we present ourselves to the world; these are largely due to the habits we’ve created and how we subconsciously respond to our environment.
So whether you’re happy or unhappy, in shape or out of shape, successful or unsuccessful – habits end up shaping our lives far more than we may realize. But they’re not set in stone. By learning to observe and alter the habits we’ve created around how we feel, think and act on a daily basis, we can start to create real change to our regular routines and, over time, transform our lives.
What are habits?
Habits are all the routine behaviours you perform in a day that occur in a repeatable, and often predictable, pattern. It’s estimated that up to 40% of the actions we take happen out of habit, and that most of these will occur without you ever having to think about them.
Habits live in all aspects of our lives. They can be formed subconsciously, or can be purposefully designed. They can occur without our awareness, but can be reshaped when we tweak our environment. They can be as simple as tying your shoes, or as complicated as driving.
Have you ever walked in the front door after taking your typical route home from work and thought, “how did I get here?”. Those are habits at work.
Why habits exist
With so many things jockeying for our attention all the time, habits emerge mainly out of necessity.
As your brain can only focus on so many things at once, there is a strong incentive for it to find ways to become more efficient and save energy. Actions that we perform consistently every day don’t need to be reimagined each time we do them, so the brain is constantly looking to shift focus away from those tasks and towards new behaviours that allow us to grow and evolve.
If we had to pay close attention to every step we took when we went for a walk or every stroke we made when we brushed our teeth, we’d be pretty hard-pressed to find the additional brainpower in the day that’s needed to learn a language or think critically.
How tasks become habits
Think back to the first time you ever rode a bike. A shaky kid, just trying not to fall over as you coordinated the physics behind pedalling, braking, weight distribution and steering. Each of these actions on their own requires an enormous amount of concentration and, performed together, can seem like an almost impossible task. But over time, you eventually got it down.
So what happened?
Riding a bike is made up of a sequence of tasks that repeat themselves over and over. As you push one foot down, you grip the handlebar, shift your weight, and lift the other foot back up. Then you do the same thing on the other side. You repeat this again and again until you decide to stop riding.
With practice, your brain learns that this is a predictable pattern and looks for ways to perform it more efficiently. It designates a starting point and hits the save button on the whole sequence – a process known as “chunking” – so that every time you push your foot down, the other three elements are set to occur automatically.
By chunking together the series of actions above, your brain is able to apply less focus on performing each individual task and your movements can flow together to become more coordinated. The pattern becomes ingrained as a habit, and all you have to do is simply wait for the cue and your body will respond accordingly.
When we’re first developing a habit, our brains create a small, hypothetical groove to shape the pattern and reduce the amount of conscious thought it requires to perform the action. Each time the habit occurs, the groove gets deeper and deeper, until the brain really doesn’t have to participate at all.
When we’re creating useful habits, this plays out to our advantage – it would be awful if we had to relearn how to drive a car every time we came home from a vacation. But when the habits being formed are negative, this can bring about a lot of frustration when we try to change our behaviours.
This explains why it can be so hard to create new exercise habits or to consistently change the way we eat. Once we develop a routine of sitting on the couch rather than running, or snacking whenever we pass a donut box, those patterns can become so strong that our brains cling to them at the exclusion of common sense. Unless we deliberately fight the sequence, they’ll continue to unfold automatically every time the right cue comes along.
But habits can also be delicate. They can be ignored, changed or replaced by breaking them down into their components and fiddling with the gears. If we learn to create new routines that overpower these negative behaviours and force the bad tendencies into the background, going for a jog or ignoring the donuts becomes as automatic as any other habit.
Habits are a necessary part of our lives and are present in almost everything we do, think and feel. They can be advantageous to us or can present obstacles that we need to overcome to create the life we want.
Whether good or bad, forming a habit can shape who we are and, if we learn to bring awareness to our tendencies and use this tool to change our environment for the better, they can have a profound effect on our health, happiness and success.