Cracking the Habit Code
Updated: Jul 19
Many of the ideas in this blog were inspired by James Clear’s Excellent book Atomic Habits.
Why is it so easy to pick up a bad habit, and so hard to pick up a good one? You don’t have to think about going to the fridge to get a cookie, but going to the fridge to get a glass of water takes deliberate effort. Sitting down to watch TV is automatic, but sitting down with the self-improvement book that you have promised to read for months takes a momentous act of will. We descend into anxious thoughts in a heartbeat, but positive thinking and relaxation are a labour of love. Sometimes it seems like our brains are programmed against our success. Why is it so easy to do the things that hurt us, and so hard to do things that serve us?
The answer to this question lies in the science of habits. Everything we do, and a large part of who we are, is defined by the habits we repeat day after day. If you think of yourself as an artist, it is because day after day you repeat activities that are creative and artistic. Your brain has literally become wired for art. If you hold the potential for art but never create anything, can you call yourself an artist? We become the things we practice, but this truth has the power to make us or break us. We can harness the power of habits to craft ourselves into virtually anything we choose to be; or we can allow our identity to be held hostage by a soulless jumble of knee-jerk responses to the onslaught of life. How do we swing the scale towards the good habits when our brains seem programmed to defeat our ambitions?
Hack the habit program. Our brains love to automate. Deep thinking is a massively difficult and resource-consuming job, which is why very few species have evolved the ability to do it. If we had to think every time we took a sip of tea, or brushed our teeth, or turned the page of a book, we’d never have had the brain capacity to become the innovative species we are. The more we can pre-program, the more resources are available for useful thought. We can harness our brain's tendency to automate to deliberately rewire our brains for good habits.
When you are born, your brain is like a wild uncharted land. From our earliest consciousness, we begin testing out behaviors. Those that result in a reward, such as food, stimulation or comfort leave a faint neurological track. When faced with the same choices, we automatically choose the track over the wild, uncharted terrain. Every time we use it, the track gets a little clearer. All of the learned behaviors of our childhood - the discipline enforced by our parents, the cultural idiosyncrasies, the responses we learned through trial and error - become like a network of familiar paths across our mental landscape.
When you want to chart a new path, you have to leave those safe well-worn tracks and set off across unknown, wild terrain. There are pitfalls, rocks, thorn bushes and dead ends out there, and it may be painfully difficult to make headway at first. Given the option of the easier path, you will instinctively resist taking the road less traveled. Only a conscious effort of will will get you tramping off into the unknown. If your hard-won new path leads to a magnificent waterfall, however, you will quickly wear it flat with use and the hazards you faced to find it will fade into memory. The old track will slowly grow over and be forgotten. If, however, your newly forged road is hard, long, and ends in a ditch, you will never walk it again.
Creating a new habit is no different. To forge a new mental track, you must consciously leave the safe and familiar track that time and experience have cut across your brain. The first attempts at a new behavior may seem very difficult, and the urge to head back to the known path overwhelming. It may take many tries before it feels natural or easy. If there is no reward at the end of that track, you will not have the motivation to navigate its obstacles again.
Reward is the secret sauce of behavior change. Whenever you experience reward of any kind, be it a like on Facebook or a double chocolate sundae, your neurons release a little hit of dopamine. Dopamine makes you feel elated and euphoric, and your brain loves it. The next time you are in the same scenario, it tries to recreate the chain of events that led to the dopamine spike. Repetition lays down habit, and we repeat things that make us feel good. Industry discovered this long ago, and has been deliberately manipulating your dopamine response to rope you into habits that drive up their bottom line for decades. Its not just their products that are engineered to be habit forming. When we repeat a rewarding behavior, the dopamine hit comes before the reward. The brain responds to the expectation of the pleasure rather than the pleasure itself. It remembers everything that came with the pleasure: the bright lights of the restaurant, the smells, the sounds and the colours, and all of them become part of the process that it tries to recreate. This explains why even though you don’t necessarily want the milkshake, you crave it as you pass the coffee shop anyway. The scale of this anticipatory dopamine spike diminishes if the anticipated reward is disappointing or absent, and if it is consistently disappointing, the spike will slowly vanish. This knowledge helps us create a road-map for how to create a new good habit:
1) you have to try the new behavior, even if it seems difficult.
2) when you try it, the end result must be pleasurable.
3) you have to repeat the new behavior, and sustain the pleasure associated until the habit is automatic.
If it's competing with a bad habit, you need to reverse the process:
1) you have stop doing the bad behavior, even if you desperately want to do it.
2) you have to make the end result of doing the bad behavior unpleasant.
3) you have to avoid repeating it until the craving vanishes.
Now, if you are trying to lose weight, rewarding yourself with chocolate is not going to further your goals. How can we leverage pleasure without just creating new bad habits? Here are a few strategies you can try:
Affirm your identity.
Human beings love affirmation, so much so that being affirmed causes a dopamine spike. That's right: simply recognizing your own success can give you a dollop of that good old habit-forming secret sauce. At the same time, you can diminish the appeal of competing bad habits by calling out how they diminish your success.
Taking the time to define the kind of person you want to be is a powerful transformative process with real neurological effects. When you align your actions with a chosen identity, those actions wire together and reinforce each other. It becomes progressively easier to make choices that support that identity. For example, going for a walk after work affirms the identity of being a healthy, active person; whereas turning on the telly and settling down on the couch detracts from that identity. Once you have made the choice to walk, it makes it easier to turn down the junk food you might once have reached for because you have affirmed being that healthy active person already.
Write down the characteristics of the person you would like to be, and revisit them often. Do you want to be strong, healthy, wise, balanced? What behaviors would affirm those characteristics? Once you have defined who you want to be, consciously celebrate every action that takes a step in that direction.
Piggyback your new habit on something you enjoy.
Our lives are already filled with benign habits which bring us pleasure. We can piggy-back on those habits to introduce new ones. For example, if you enjoy a good TV series, you could watch Netflix as you walk on the treadmill. This way, we leverage the largely benign habit (watching Netflix) away from a bad habit (sitting on the couch for hours) and towards a great one (exercising on the treadmill). Playing your favourite music whilst preparing meals, getting a pedicure while you write reports or meeting a friend for coffee whilst picking up veg at the organic food market are all examples of piggy-backing habits.
You can also piggyback bad habits on things you don't enjoy. If social media is denting your productivity and preventing you doing the dreary work of checking your emails, set a rule that you may only check social media when you have no unread messages. You make the bad habit less appealing, and the good habit more appealing.
Engineer your environment for good habits
Avoiding the bars where an alcoholic used to drink is as crucial to his recovery as removing the alcohol from his house. Your dopamine response is tied to the cues and environment that surround a behavior, so managing your environment is key to transforming your habits. Avoid the places where you have frequently indulged in bad habits, and seek out environments where those around you practice good ones. Dismantle the triggers in life that you associate with bad habits, and reconstruct them to make better habits easier. Rearrange your food cupboard, move around your furniture, set out your gym equipment and put reminders on your phone. Create an environment that embodies the goals you are aiming for.
For example, if you habitually snack on a bowl of sweets when you sit down to watch TV, move the table you put the bowl on away from where you sit. Hide your sweets in a cupboard that is difficult to reach. Put your remote in the cupboard next to the raw almonds every night when you finish watching, so that choosing them as your snack next time is much easier than choosing sweets. Hack your environment so that you don't have to work so hard to change your behavior.
Build your own rewards into good habits.
Sometimes, its hard to get a difficult new habit to feel pleasurable. Going out for a run when you are unfit and exhausted after a long day at work is a hard sell. You have to make it worth your while, and the best way to do that is with something you really want but hardly ever give yourself. I have applied this concept in our house with a bean jar: every time any one of us completes one of the hard new habits on our list, we get a bean in our jar. For my kids, its making their lunches for school. For me, its an evening run. When we have enough beans, we can trade them in at ten rand per bean to buy the item we have been working towards. I'll be getting a new dress; my daughter is after a beautiful toy horse. One simple strategy effectively motivates our whole household’s new individualized habits.
After a while, you won’t need the reward system anymore because the behavior will be automatic. As the identity your habits affirm grows stronger, other good habits follow naturally. Every time you liberate yourself from a bad habit, you make room for new, better ones. One tiny change at a time, you can design the identity you choose, and stop letting your bad habits define you. Once you take ownership of your habits, the sky is the limit.