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Habits

This is part 1 of our chapter on "Habits". In part 2, we examine how to create better habits

There is no benefit to toothpaste (or body soap/shampoo) foaming. So why do our toothpaste foam? 

Also, just 100 years ago, only about 7% of people brushed their teeth. People suffered from poor oral hygiene. And even the military identified this as a major problem - soldiers were hampered because of problems arising from poor dental health. So why do all of us brush our teeth today? What's the difference? 

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Of course, after brushing comes the eating. Have you ever had the experience when you weren't hungry, and a colleague or a friend came by and starting eating this delicious-looking cake in front of you? You weren't hungry before. You weren't thinking about cake before.

But suddenly, all you can think about is cake. You want a slice. Maybe some of you want one right now. (perhaps you might want cake more if I had picked a better picture, but hey cut me some slack, I'm trying to finish writing this, so if I had found a really tasty looking cake I'll be shooting myself in the foot). 

Image by Ting Tian

And the language, English, that we are interacting in right now - there are so many rules involved in using the language correctly. Why is it 'involved' and not 'invole'? Why is there no comma in this sentence? Why is the sentence not, "in this sentence, why is there no comma?" 

Imagine having to think about all these rules all the time. You'd barely be able to write anything. But again, notice the automaticity. Even if we made the odd error to give the Grammar Nazis a reason to live, mostly we don't need to think about something as complicated as language. People understand us. 

All the examples have a common underpinning. Habits. 

Image by Ivan Shilov

What is a habit?

A habit starts off as a choice we made.
 

  • We chose to brush our teeth, we chose to eat that first slice of cake, we accepted that there be tenses in the English language, we decided what was our routine when we reached the office each day. 

  • But at some point, after repeating the same choice many times over, it becomes automatic. You don't really make the choice anymore. You just perform the action without a need to think about it. 

  • Neurologically, there is an actual change in how the brain works - when you were first making the choice, many regions of our brain are activated. But once it becomes a habit, only one part of your brain (the basal ganglia) is really active. 

  • Forming habits is innate in us. Once we are born, we are already capable of forming habits - just think of babies crying for attention. 

  • All habits follow a certain cycle:

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All habits start off with

 

1. A cue or a trigger 
 

  • Cues are what triggers off the action cycle. For habits to form, use must have 2 major characteristics:

  • a) it must be something you notice or feel: For example, brushing your teeth. The cue here is time - namely after you wake up and get out of bed. Once we're out of bed, most of us would head to the bathroom, where we will certainly brush our teeth. 

  • b) It must be something we desire. For example, we might notice an actual cake or a photo of a cake. For those of us who have sweet tooths and like cake, we immediately feel like having one. For those who do not like sweets or dislike cakes, then there is no desire, and there is no action, and hence no habit

  • It's useful to note that this "desire" is related to one of the most important neurotransmitters in our brains - dopamine. Dopamine is often confused as a pleasurable sensation when we do something enjoyable. This is not correct, dopamine triggers in anticipation of a reward we like and have a reasonable chance of attaining, and drives us to pursue this reward. Find out more about the fascinating world of dopamine here. This segues nicely into the ​next section of the habit loop. 

  • Cues can come in a variety of forms. We mentioned time as a cue to brush your teeth. Another cue could be physical - the vibration of your handphone. It could be a location - when I pass by this particular street, I feel like smoking. 

    Or it could be incredibly subtle or unexpected. Imagine lying in bed feeling really comfortable. Yet you know that you should brush your teeth and wash your face before you go to sleep. But you're just soooo lazy to get up. And so you procrastinate by playing on your phone checking out Instagram and this happens night after night. We might think that cue is the phone and social media. But the real cue is our laziness to go brush our teeth.


     

That cues can take so many different forms explains why we have such a wide variety of habits. But it also provides a lever to make changes to our habits. We will get to this in Part 2: How we can change our habits

2. Action
 

  • This is the actual habit itself. After noticing a desirable cue, a habit is when we take action almost automatically.

  • We are able to perform this action in a very consistent way, without needing to think about it - walking, driving, swimming, how you start each presentation, your body language when you meet someone new, the list goes on. 
     

3. Reward

  • The performing of this action brings us the desired reward or the feeling of a higher chance of getting this desired reward. 

  • Just like cues, this reward can be very varied, subtle, and unexpected. Some examples:

  • At the top of this page, the question was why do toothpaste foam when the foam doesn't matter. And why were so few people brushing their teeth less than 100 years ago, even though many were suffering from terrible health issues due to poor oral hygiene? The answer is because there was no obvious cue and no desirable reward for people to brush their teeth. The foam was added as a reward for brushing our teeth. Imagine if our toothpaste didn't foam. Think about that sensation of just applying some random cream onto your teeth. How would you know if you've cleaned them properly? But with foam, this becomes obvious - it indicates that we've brushed our teeth, and makes us feel like our teeth are cleaner than before. 

    Sometimes, the reward might not actually occur, yet we feel good about it. Gambling is a great example - casinos have been designed such that even when people lose, they feel like they are getting closer to winning. For example, how jackpot machines often have 2 in a row. Or roulette where red and black is just one colour off. Or blackjack where just that one card made all the difference between winning and losing. 


    Sometimes, the reward is simply picking something less painful over what is perceived to be more painful For example, when faced with difficult personal problems, some of us choose to bury ourselves in work.  Why? Because work becomes an escape from these difficult personal problems. It is a very useful excuse to justify to ourselves and others why we're not doing anything on the personal front. And in many cultures being "busy at work" has the added benefit of being associated with someone successful, and some folks might get a good feeling from that. 

So there we have it. The 3 steps of a habit loop: Cue >> Action >> Reward ( or CAR if you are looking for a lame acronym). The identification of the habit loop is very important because it allows us to think about how the loop, and the habits that we want to change can be tackled. 

But before that, there is one large area to examine: how important are habits exactly? So what if we have bad habits? How much of an impact do they play in our lives, and is it really worth our effort to change our habits (when we could change other parts of our lives?)

How important are habits, really? Is it even worth my time reading on?

Try this simple test out.

Let's say you are driving and you want to change lane to the right. 
How would you turn your steering wheel?

Try it.


How did you do it?
Did you turn the steering wheel right slightly?
Then straighten the steering wheel?

Guess what, doing so will make you drive right off the road.
The right way to do it, the way YOU do it is:

Turn the steering wheel to the right

move into the right lane

and then turn your steering wheel to the left

before straightening. 

Changing lanes while driving is a habit. If you drive, you've probably done it thousands of times that you no longer even need to think about how to do it. Even if you don't drive, you've probably seen other drivers do so. 
Almost everyone can change lanes successfully in real life

But almost everyone gets the explanation wrong!

Even more crucially, our habits happen subconsciously - we do them unthinkingly. When the cue strikes us, we just go through with the routine. Just like the change of lane example above, sometimes these happen so automatically that we no longer consider how we do things or why we do them. 

There are pros and cons to this.

1. Habits are important because they enable us to replicate actions with much less effort

This is a great example of the impact habits have on our lives. A good proportion of our day is reserved for habitual actions - what we do when we wake up, when we check out email and phone, what we do when we are travelling to places, the video we choose to watch, the times we watch these videos, the manner in which we respond to new ideas or new suggestions. How we walk or talk. What time we usually sleep. the list really goes on. 

This is a really important point because, without habits, we literally cannot function through life. Just imagine having to think about how to walk or breathe or drive or use English every day. There are so many things in life which we simply depend on our habits, where we complete certain routines in a painless, consistent, hence sustainable way. 

Further, the more established the habit, the easier it gets. Riding a bicycle is hard the first time. Riding a bicycle has occasional challenges after 10 rides. After 100 rides, there are few challenges. And if you ride the bike every day for many years, you barely even notice it.

It's the same thing for a cognitive habit. Say every piece of information that comes you, you develop the habit of asking what is the source of the information, and if there are other sources which support or oppose the information given to you. The first few times might feel unnatural. But again, over time, it becomes automatic. In the next point, we see a technical explanation of how this happens 

 

However, the converse must also be true. Since habits are performed with minimal effort and easily replicated, we also often find bad habits very difficult to change - we've become so comfortable following our habits

 

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Initially, when the rat is still unfamiliar with the maze, it has to work hard. There is a flurry of brain activity in many brain regions, as shown in the picture below.

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Over time, as the mice became more familiar with the maze, and the chocolate was always placed in the corner. And soon, the mice no longer needs to explore the maze. They just walked straight to the chocolate. In other words, it became a habit:

- The cue was the click

The routine was finding the chocolate which the mouse can now do effortlessly and repeatedly.

- And the reward was, of course, the chocolate. 

Now take a look at the brain activity of the mice.

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Look at the massive reduction in brain activity once the habit is triggered - when the mouse hears the click. The routine is activated, and the mouse simply goes through the motions to get the reward.

At a more technical level, once a habit is established, the various parts of the brain that were working previously to figure out something works are no longer needed. Instead, the established habit gets stored and moderated in a part of the brain called the basal ganglia.

 

In other words, the parts of your brain responsible for thinking, creativity, analysis, decision-making -are now freed up from the grind of the many habits we go through every day. This is a real gift. Your brain gets tired from having to assess too many things daily. This is why it functions on the principle of efficiency over accuracy (read more here). And when it gets tired, your performance drops. You only have to look at this study, on when it is a good time to see the judge. 

 

Establishing good habits not only allows us to perform the routine better, more painlessly, and more sustainably. It allows us more capacity to do everything else, especially the more difficult tasks. 

(You might be wondering about the spikes around the click and the consumption of the chocolate. These are brain activity related to reward - it's the trigger of a chemical called dopamine which gives you pleasure knowing that your actions will bring a reward. In other words, the brain isn't quite so much as working as feeling pleasure. Read more about this in our chapter on dopamine).

3. Habits are important because they add up to make a major difference in our lives.

We will all probably agree some habits make a huge difference to our lives - developing a habit of drinking when stressed or developing a habit to avoid alcohol when stressed can have a major impact on our lives.

But we should not underestimate the impact of what seems like smaller habits. A couple of great examples:
 

  • The British cycling team was very average for many years. But the introduction of Sir David Brailsford completely changed their fortune. Brailsford was a believer of small habits, each creating a marginal gain that accumulates to a major impact. Brailsford didn't just focus on traditional cycling measures like aerodynamics, seating position, and physical conditioning, but he introduced habits such as how the cyclists should wash their hands, what posture they should sleep in, and to avoid hand-shakes with members of the public. These seem like weird habits, but proper hand-washing ensured that cyclists do not fall sick and miss valuable training days, while sleep posture improved recovery. Read more about Brailsford's work here.
     

  • Stephen Duneier profoundly changed his life, developing an incredibly long and diverse list of skills, from flying helicopters to auto racing, to trekking and diving, to learning different languages and coding, to knitting a world record, all within a few short years. How did he manage to do so? From one simple habit of breaking up every task into a smallest possible parts, and committing a small time every day without fail to complete one part. You can read (and watch) more about Stephen Duenier here.

Imagine if we could just design our small habits well. Let's say we always leave a book on our pillow, making it our cue to start reading for just 20 minutes every day. We will probably finish at least 12-15 more books every year, which in turn builds up our knowledge to apply in other areas of life.

Or if we are studying for examinations and you realise that there is so much to cover in so few days. You start feeling anxious, and you set out ambitious plans on what to study every day, only to find that you keep getting distracted. What if we just set in place our habits? Focus on a study pattern, where we develop a routine of being able to study 25 min blocks without stopping, bringing ourselves back to focus every time we get distracted in those 25 mins. And then be able to replicate this 25 mins blocks many times over the day.

Or if we were to leave $100 at the gym every month, and we're able to take back $5 every time we visit the gym. We make working out a habit, which gives us better health and more energy to do other things in life.

 

And on the flip side, changing bad habits can bring a disproportionately large impact on our lives. 
 

  • When Lisa Allen gave up smoking, she didn't realise the trickle-down effect it would have. But by giving up smoking, she was able to jog better. Jogging made her feel good, and she began to schedule her day around jogging, including better eating habits and sleep patterns. With better eating, she actually saved money. And the discipline and planning that she had introduced for her jogging began to carry over to other parts of her life. Lisa Allen went from being in the lowest point of her life, facing divorce, in debt, jobless, poor health and in bad shape, to turn her life around. Read more about Lisa Allen here.
     

 Habits can also happen at a group level. In the "Power of Habit", Charles Duhigg wrote about his experience as a journalist in Kufa, a small city in the south of Iraq. The city often broke out in riots. A major in the army watched many videos of recent riots, and he identified the pattern:

  • Locals would gather in an open space, a natural place of congregation of a disgruntled city

  • Street food vendors wills how up, knowing there will soon be business.

  • In turn, this attracted more people to join in.

  • As the crowd grew in number, people grew in boldness. 

  • And soon one of them gets excited enough to throw a rock or a bottle, which stirs up others, and a riot breaks out. 

The major spotted the cue that led to the eventual unfolding of the riots. He requested that the local mayor banned food vendors our of city plazas and open spaces. The mayor was puzzled but he agreed. The next time a small crowd gathered in an on space in front of a mosque. Soon people started joining in, to take a look at what was happening, and the crowd in size. Some started chanting angry slogans. The local police, used to this routine, was mobilised, worried that another riot would break out.

But it never did. People, having gathered for some time, became restless and hungry. They looked for the usual food vendors to get some sustenance, but there were none. Soon, people started leaving. This broke the spirit of the chanters - even though they were chanting vociferously, the group was getting smaller. And an hour past dinner time, the crowd was completely dispersed.  By breaking the habit loop, the major was able to control the crowd without lifting a finger. 

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The above photos were taken by Peter Funch, who was taking shot of commuters entering and leaving the Grand Central Terminal in New York. And he soon realised that he saw what seemed like repeats of certain images - the same people wearing the same outfits, with the same facial expression, at about the same of the day - even if some of these images were months or years apart. 

There's kind of a mixed feeling looking at these pictures. If we have good habits, that's great and we using our time efficiently. But if we have bad habits,  we will relive them over and over again, unless we take active intervention. Our brains are perfectly capable of running on auto-pilot, doing the same thing over and over again.

It's not likely that any single instance in our lives will define us. But as Will Durant puts forth: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” And as James Clear adds, "we don't rise to the level of your goals we fall to the level of our systems."

 

Instead of just setting major goals or constantly trying to find motivation, we should look at setting up a system of habits that can help achieve what we want, to move us forward even when we don't feel like it. So, how exactly can we do so? How can we change or build new habits?

Find out on the next page: Building better habits

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