That was probably the twentieth time this week that you told yourself that you would stop hitting the snooze button on your life…I mean, your alarm. You probably ask yourself “why is it that I can never wake up on time?” No matter how many times you try, how early you go to sleep, how many alarms you set…you are just not able to get up in the mornings. It’s probably one of the worst habits that plagues most of society, myself included. What if I were to tell you, that there is a perfectly good reason for this bad habit…for all of our habits. What if I were to offer you a way to undo all of these bad habits?
First let us understand what a habit is. According to dictionary.com a habit is “an acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary.” A habit can be the daily routine of making the cup of coffee while you brush your teeth at 7:35AM, before you jump into the shower for only 8 minutes (My showers run at a cool 12 minutes). Or perhaps it’s the alarm clock that suffers a beating every time you hit the snooze button at 8:04AM, 8:09AM, 8:16AM until 8:22AM so you can get that extra 18 minutes of sleep, that seems well worth the risk of being late to work every single day. Habits could also be something far simpler, like your 3PM cigarette or coffee break every day. No matter how your habit is represented in your actions or thought-process, habits can account for nearly half of everything that we do; if not more if you ask me. These habits or what I like to call “mental shortcuts” are so highly ingrained into our routine that we are unaware of them, until they are pointed out. The New York Times article, How Companies Learn Your Secrets by Charles Duhigg, states that in a research study conducted by Duke University “habits rather than conscious decision-making, shape forty-five percent of the choices we make every day.
At forty-five percent, it begs the question, “what triggers an old habit to react to a new situation?” How does the human psyche choose to develop and assimilate certain external behaviors or actions as its own? The notion that habits shape forty-five percent of our choices signify the existence of a psychological cycle that is caused and effected by emotional responses to external interactions. According to the NPR article Habits: How They are Formed and How to Break Them, habits consist of a three-part process that involves a cue (trigger), a routine, and a reward. The cue or the trigger is the surrounding factor that sends our mind on autopilot, the routine is the action itself, and the reward is the emotional response that reinforces the existence of this habit.
According to this NPR article, habits are formed in the same part of the brain, the basal ganglia, that is essential to the formation of “emotions, memories, and pattern recognition.” Habit-formation being housed in the same area as memories and pattern recognition can shed potential clarity as to the “blackouts” we encounter when attempting to recall small and overlooked actions, especially when slightly outside of recurring behaviors. When I used to work in Human Resources and followed a 9-5 schedule, I can think of the few times in which I would decide to do something different in the mornings before work. I’ll never forget how one morning I decided to actually cook and eat breakfast at home and fast forward to twenty minutes into my commute, I could not help but wonder if I turned of the stove or if I was going to go home to a pile of ashes after work. I ended up double-backing home, only to see that there was not even a flicker of a flame on the stove. This is a perfect example of how the action of cooking came with subtle habits such as turning on/off the stove without conscious awareness, yet as it was not habitual of me to cook in the mornings, I encountered a “blackout” that prevented me from confidently recalling whether I had turned off the stove.
Our habits allow us to remain functional and efficient without skipping a beat. Typically, we do not go around questioning our actions, let alone the habitual ones, until they are disrupted. I mean, could you imagine if we had to think about EVERYTHING that we did? The benefit about our habits is that they allow us to mindlessly multitask through a variety of different actions, while allowing us to (hopefully) remain fully functional. Unfortunately, when our habits are “misplaced” it makes it that much more difficult for us to fully remember all that we do.
Habits can become problematic when they prevent us from developing and implementing behaviors and actions that may be of greater use, while concurrently preventing us from realizing behavioral and emotional patterns that maybe harmful, negligent, and/or self-destructive. One of the minor risks about our habits being so inconspicuously prevalent is that when they are misplaced, they can lead to inconsistent results. The greater risk in some of our habits is that they can often undermine the pursuit of our goals, even the ones as simple as waking up on time.
Success in life, whatever that may mean for you, comes down to one’s daily activity which has much to do with our habits, and if these actions are in support of one’s goals and life vision. How can you expect to lead a happy life, if you have the bad habit of taking every comment thrown your way personally? How can you expect to wake up on time, if you constantly hit the snooze button because you subconsciously love the short-term reward of a few minutes of sleep over the long-term possibility of starting off your day powerfully and with intention? A former personal struggle of mine, which I am so thankful to have transformed was second guessing myself as an artist and entrepreneur. How could I expect to enjoy my career if I was constantly going back to the habit of questioning my purpose and abilities?
Habits’ being in the same part of the brain where memories, pattern recognitions, and emotions are, not only explain why habits are so ingrained in our daily activities, and potentially why it can be challenging to develop or break certain habitual routines, actions, and thought processes. For example, a drug addiction…what could start as a habit with a temporary reward of feeling great, when left unchecked can lead to a downward spiral of negative emotions that continuously triggers the drug use, which can then become the impetus of a dangerous habit loop. As a coach, my experience with my clients has allowed me to see how habits can shed light as to one’s emotional state and inner belief system, that fuels their thought process and therefore their actions. However, since actions thoughts, and beliefs can reinforce one another (i.e. actions seemingly stem from thoughts and beliefs, and conversely repeated actions reinforce belief systems) modifying one’s habits can potentially lead to gaining new insight about one’s self and transforming both the external action and internal processes.
Some may argue as to where one should start with replacing habits, personally I have experienced that actual habitual action should be tackled wholistically. Replacing one’s habit with a new one, from what I’ve witnessed in my own clients and in myself, comes down to a few key steps. A condensed version of the strategy that I have developed is as follows:
- Identify the specific habitual action you are committed to transforming
For example, one may decide on transforming the habit of going to sleep late.
- Perform a cost analysis of the habit (s) you want to replace
For example, I replaced the habit of being late to ANY meeting or appointment, with showing up early because though I reaped the benefit of spending more time on what I was doing previously; it was costing me to experience more stress via rushing and my reliability was constantly questioned by others and myself.
- Identify the new habit you are committed to implementing, with practical parameters that would allow you to execute this implementation.
For example, if you would like to build up the habit of working out; one may plan to work out two times per week before augmenting the frequency.
- Similarly to step two, identify the benefit of this new habit
For example, replacing the habits of oversleeping or being late, could reap the benefit of being trusted by others while also allowing you to develop the inner belief that you are reliable and trustworthy.
- Enact the action steps required to replace the habit.
Leading a life with intentionality and clarity that supports one’s individual goals and life vision is in my humble opinion of the utmost importance. And to realize such feats, requires the undoing and replacement of certain habits. Habits are never created or destroyed, they are replaced, so in closing I leave you with two things: 1) what is one habit that you need to develop or replace that would make you feel better about yourself and 2) though Jim Ryun states that “motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going,” More importantly, the right habits will help you go in the right direction of your dreams.
 “Habit,” Dictionary.com LLC, 2021 https://www.dictionary.com/browse/habit
 Charles Duhigg, “How Companies Learn Your Secrets” New York Times, 19 February 2012, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/19/magazine/shopping-habits.html
 “Habits: How They are Formed and How to Break Them,” NPR 5 March 2012, https://www.easybib.com/guides/citation-guides/mla-format/how-to-cite-a-website-mla/