Controlling Your Life With Habits
Posted on June 13, 2018

40% of all the things you will do today will be out of habit.1 40%. That’s almost half of what you will ever do.

Therefore, it seems like a good idea to not only recognize what the 40% of your life is but also try to form good habits so 40% of your life already starts out great.

Imagine if you took control of that 40% of your life. Imagine forming habits such that 40% of your life is a great life.

The problem is that we don’t control that 40%. Instead, we let the 40% of our life that is habits simply form on their own. And yet most of us have developed some very bad habits because of this.

Luckily, habits are quite simple to change (albiet sometimes frustrating).

So in this post, we are going to first start looking at how habits operate, one very dangerous habit that most of us have formed, and how to replace bad habits with good habits such that we can live a great life formed on great habits.

Understanding Habits

The Habit Loop 2

Habits are involuntary. Once they are set in motion, you cannot stop them. To understand why, let’s start by unpacking what exactly a habit is.

There are three fundamental parts to every basic habit. The first part is the cue. The cue is some sort of trigger that will set the habit in motion. For instance, you might be hungry right now (I am). The hunger is the cue.

Next, you have the routine. The routine is the action. In this case, my routine is going into the kitchen to get some bread to eat.

Finally, there is the reward. The reward is the great taste of “artisan plain ciabatta bread” hitting my tongue and chewing it.

All three elements are essential to keeping and forming a habit. For instance, if you remove the cue, there is nothing to tell your brain to perform the action. If you don’t have a routine, you are not doing anything and therefore not doing a habit. And the reward is some positive outcome that makes you want to do it again.

And by repeating these three things over and over, you can form a habit.

Because after eating a bite of this cheap yet tasty bread that one of my roommates picked up for free and shared with everyone, I wanted to eat another bite to get the same taste. And I was still hungry. So I had a bite and got the taste again. Repeat.

Yes, I was actually hungry and did eat bread during the writing of this section.

Habits in Neuroscience Terms

The Anatomy of a Neuron 3

In the brain, any action or thought is simply a series of electrical/chemical signals being sent through many neurons. These signals go from the dendrite, through the axon (the wiry thing in the middle), and to the axon terminals. At the end of these terminals there are synaptic nodes that send the signal off to the next dendrite. This is the general process for actions and thoughts.

This is the same for habits.

But habits are a very special type of action. They are actions that have been repeated many times.

The problem is that this process of sending signals down the neurons is slow. In real life, the axon is much longer than shown in the diagram and jumping through many of these neurons take time.

Luckily, there is a process for speeding this process up. If an action is repeated many times, a process known as myelination starts occurring. When a series of neurons fires in succession many times, the myelin sheath that covers the axon becomes thicker. The axon becomes more insulated. And this results in lightning fast transmission—up to 300 times faster!4

And the next key is that neural pathways with the highest amounts of myelination are the easiest pathways to fire. Therefore, they become the default pathway.

This means that whenever a cue occurs, that sequence of routines in the habit must occur. You cannot consciously decide to do something else because the neurons that will fire will the myelinated ones.

So if you set up habits that benefit your life, all you need is a cue to set up a good series of actions.

However, once bad habits are formed, a simple cue can drastically hurt your life.

The Cell Phone

If you watched the video, I don’t think I need to repeat it too much: cell phones are addicting and they can be bad.

But the actual question is why? Sure, cell phones are addicting because of habits. But why are they more addicting than many other things?

The answer is that they have a stronger feedback loop to get you hooked.

Normally I would explain this stronger feedback loop myself. However, who better to explain it than the person who literally wrote the book on it: Nir Eyal. To get a more detailed explanation, you should read his book Hooked.

That is why phones are so addicting. Here’s another clip from Simon Sinek to help drive the point even more.

So if cell phones can be harmful to meaningful social relationship, how do we curb the addiction?

Forming Good Habits

This is where our trouble comes, because you cannot break bad habits; you can only replace them. I’ll repeat this because it is crucial.

You cannot break habits, you can only replace them.

This is because of how habits are formed. Because of the myelin sheath, anytime the cue is present, the routine must happen. Breaking a habit would imply that after the cue is present, you choose to do something different.

I’m sorry you can’t do that. Habits can’t be broken.

But we can replace them. And luckily for you, the first step to replacing a bad habit is to understand what habits are and why they develop. Since you already know that, we can start getting the specifics on how to replace them with good habits.

Route 1: Standard Replacement

Step 1: Remove the Cue

The first step is to remove the cue. Because if the cue is present, the routine must happen.

In the case of cell phone addiction, this is putting the cell phone away. Depending on where you normally keep your phone, you can either put it in your pocket or put it somewhere else. Make it harder access than normal. If it is in its normal location, then the cue is still present because if you decide to check it, you’ve started the routine.

For instance, with me, my phone is almost always in my backpack. This just makes it hard to check to begin with so I rarely get the cue to start the habit of checking it.

Step 2: Establish New Routine

Now that the cue is gone, you are able to establish a new routine.

For instance, if you are at dinner and have your phone away, start conversing with the people around you. As Simon Sinek pointed out, the reason why we are addicted to our phones is because we have a dopamine rush. Well, good conversation has the exact same dopamine rush. So over time, conversing with those around you gives you the same reward as using your phone.

And that’s the key. Make sure the new routine gives you the same reward. And as a bonus, you will get deeper and more meaningful relationships.

Step 3: Replacing the Old Habit

Now that you’ve successfully established a new routine, you need to make it a habit. Often times this means iteratively moving the old cue back over time. If doing this, you need to make sure that at every step the new routine is the action and that you don’t ever go back to the old routine.

In the case of cell phone addiction, though, this might not always be the best idea. Remember the second Simon Sinek video? Let’s say you’ve stopped placing your phone on the table. Why would you want to start placing it on the table if it shows that you do not value the other person as much?

Instead, find a new cue that makes you want to converse with the other person.

Route 2: Disrupt the Routine

Step 1: The Disruption

Okay, maybe you don’t want to put your phone in another room like I suggested in Productivity Part 2. Luckily for you there is another way. And that is to disrupt the routine itself.

Don’t place your phone in your right pocket anymore. Place it in your left one. That way, when you habitually reach for your phone in your right pocket, it won’t be there.

Step 2: Use Your Brain

Kind of misleading because habits are formations of your brain. But anyways, think. When you reach for your phone in your right pocket, you will have a crucial decision to make. The normal routine is broken which means you are no longer stuck in the habit loop. You can now decide to not check your phone.

But be aware that during this step, if you start checking your phone in your left pocket, you will soon have the habit of searching your right pocket then your left to check your phone. And that leaves you no better than when you started.

Step 3: Repeat

Repeat until the internal cues to check your phone are not present.

Route 3: Remove the Reward

And why won’t they be present? Because you’ve removed the reward. Remember that part of the habit loop? I’ve said this before, but it’s crucial because without it, there is no incentive to go through the loop again.

So you can also break the loop by simply getting rid of the reward.

But wait? If the cue is still present, then the routine must happen. And that is irrespective of the reward. Or is it?

Well, in 2013 a team of researchers led by Hani Elwafi tested this out with a group of serious smoking addicts.5 Smoking addiction has the problem that addicts can have intense cravings to smoke. This means that even after periods of months or years of being sober, they can still relapse into their old addiction.

Specifically, these addicts were given mindfulness training. This is not the kind of mindfulness like asking themselves if they really want to smoke before lighting up. Rather, it was mindfulness of the experience itself.

But did this work? Well, in an effort to not only give you more primary sources instead of simply my interpretation and a very nice conclusion to this post, I’ll simply let another researcher in this field explain the outcome to you.

Citations

  1. Eyal, N. (2014) Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. New York, NY: Portfolio. 

  2. Duhigg, C. (2014) The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York, NY: Random House Trade Paperbacks. 

  3. Dhp1080. (2009). Neuron.svg [Diagram]. Retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Neuron.svg 

  4. Comaford, C. (2014, November 7). The Truth on How Your Brain Gets Smarter. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/christinecomaford/2014/11/07/the-truth-about-how-your-brain-gets-smarter/#68b7ce7119bc 

  5. Elwafi, Witkiewitz, Mallik, IV, & Brewer. (2013). Mindfulness training for smoking cessation: Moderation of the relationship between craving and cigarette use. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 130(1-3), 222-229.