top of page
HABITS

 

 

By definition, Habit means “a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.”

 

There is also the more specific physical habit - a distinctive attire worn by a member of a religious order, which in many ways was a good Habit.. It covered the hair and kept it out of the way during work, and made it easy to identify the nuns who were often sought out for help.  Interestingly a useful side effect of the habit, while not it’s main purpose, was that it stopped certain men (who would hassle women inappropriately) from doing it to the nuns - whether on recognition of their role, or because of the hidden hair and physique, it is in clear.  And it did have a downside - turns out they’re hard to see out of, so when the automobile hit the road, the nun’s found it hard to drive! 

This is probably a great simple example to start our discussion about how habits work in our lives. At first glance, a habit seems like a simple concept, even mundane. They're the automatic gestures and routines that lace through our days – a morning coffee, checking social media at lunch (and dinner, and about 8 other times during the day), a bedtime book. Yet, beneath the placid surface of these unconscious actions lies a whole bunch of impact: habits can be lifelines, unconscious saboteurs or the beginnings of a self-improvement journey.

For the most part, habits are useful in some way.  They’re a tool (albeit one we pick up without thinking sometimes), and they give us something that helps us get through our day, and therefore our lives.  The habit of exercising regularly promotes physical and mental well-being, as well as giving us an endorphin rush and sense of pride. The habit of saving a little money each week builds financial security and shows we are responsible and perhaps a bit smarter than our living week to week friends.  And the fact we have made these things a habit makes it easier to do, so we aren’t noticing the trade off so much perhaps - the pain in our legs the day after that run, or the time it took to get to the yoga class, or the dinner we didn’t go to because it would have cost half our weeks salary. It’s just what we do, so we don’t weigh it up every time, it’s not a battle.  And that is very useful in a world where we seem to have endless decisions to make (if I have to look at any more Uber ride options, and try to calculate the price difference, I think I’ll just stay at home!).  

 

But there comes a tipping point—a habit is useful until it's not. That evening glass of wine to unwind can, with time and repetition, transform into a much larger dependency with significant repercussions . The social media check morphs into a compulsion that challenges our identity while bleeding productivity and real life interactions. And then there are some habits which are quite clearly a bad idea from the start - but our human desire for immediate satisfaction or sense of coolness and belonging picks up that cigarette again, or puts those chips down on the poker table, despite what our brain tells us should never become a “normal thing to do”.  

It's tempting to relegate many habit to the realm of the trivial: the nail chewing, the muttered "um" between words, or the way we clean up the house. But even these seemingly insignificant acts possess an unnerving persistence. They resist change which is fine until we are trying to share a space with other people who, without the same habits, start to interpret the nail chewing as dirty, the “um” as confusion, or the picking up of things as OCD.  But trying to unpick these behaviours from our lives is hard, as they are by then attached to so much of what we do, and these small habits can become the hill we choose to die on, because breaking them, or being unable to, somehow reflects on our personal capacity and strength in a way that we can not understand

Breaking a habit, even a seemingly innocuous one, can feel monumental.

There is a whole underworld of what habits become… words like 

  • addiction, compulsion, obsession, craving 

seem very far away from the somewhat cute and likeable 

  • manner, disposition, quirk, peculiarity, eccentricity, idiosyncracy, bent. 

And the interesting thing that seems to differentiate whether you are above or below the water line is how much control you have… which is funny when the whole point of making something a habit is that you don’t have to think about it. The reality is that in creating a habit we are just adjusting the tempo of the dance between our free will and the subconscious wiring of our brains. While we possess the power to initiate change, habits exploit a fundamental truth: the brain conserves energy. Once a behavioral pattern becomes etched into our neural pathways, executing it requires minimal effort. The brain, ever efficient, prefers this familiar, tested route, a folk dance playing softly in the background, so we can focus on the neverending Ibiza dance party the world keeps throwing at us.  

Which is both fine and useful - but the important thing to keep in mind is that we do choose what music is playing and how loud we play it.

 

Forging and breaking habits, then, becomes an exercise in willpower. But it is very possible.  It’s a bit like learning how to swim where you realise that, unlike walking, your arms are actually very important in being able to propel yourself, and you have to change not just the way your body moves but also how you think about moving forward.  But you can step out of the pool, and go back to walking without flailing your arms around as you move towards the change rooms.  They’re just two different ways of working, and you have the capacity to do both. 

With habits, the part of the brain that manages the action moves FROM the prefrontal cortex ( active planning and decision-making) TO the basal ganglia (linked to automatic actions). Habits literally become ingrained in the brain's hardware.  So to build new habits, or undo old ones, we need to take control of both of these muscles, and choose which one is working more.  Neuroplasticity assures us the brain can rewire itself. The very practice of challenging a habit, of consciously intervening in an automated process, can forge new neural connections. It is a slow and sometimes frustrating war of attrition, but one that can ultimately be won, as anyone who has tried to learn Butterfly can attest to! 

To make it a bit easier, this "PACRABBIT" acronym was a little summary play on words I created after reading James Clear’s Atomic Habits (2018), and it gives us a structure with which to learn a habit, and realistically to create a new habit that will take over from an old one. 

  • Plan – create a plan over a period of time so that you are doing the habit for an extended period, as life goes on and changes around you, the habit can be a constant. 

  • Audit - Find a way to measure the habit and how often and successfully you did it. Make sure you know how successful you were, but allow success to be more than just finishing something - starting it, enjoying it, choosing it - they are all part of the achievement. 

  • Cues – Make it easy to remember by having things to remind you - Your sneakers ready to go next to the front door, an alarm with words that says stop reading social media now, the book beside your bed.  

  • Reward – Be clear about what you are trying to really achieve - it is rare that we just want to “run every day” or “clean up after dinner”.  What is the bigger picture - be more healthy, hygienic, learned, secure… these are the things that help us choose the thing that may not be the easiest right now, and make them the easiest in the long run.   

  • Attainable – Don’t create a habit that you are very unlikely to be able to do.  That would be called self sabotage.  I can’t make/break a habit, because I’m not good enough… No, it’s because you are actually not X, Y or Z, so it’s very very difficult.

  • Break it Down – Attainability (above) can be often be helped by structuring and simplifying the process.  Clear steps and feedback of completion, even if it’s just putting on those shoes, makes behaviours much easier to move through and complete. 

  • Bundling – Piggy back the new habit on existing things you do. We all wash ourselves, eat, have some kind of work activity, and most of us managed to learn how to brush our teeth sometimes… if the new habit is attached to one of those, we’re more likely to at least remember that we should be doing that thing now, which also means it’s more likely we’ll do it. 

  • Instant gratification - the big reward is essential, but it is rarely immediate. So find little ways to congratulate and appreciate yourself for doing the habit - funnily enough often the habit itself creates the sense of gratification, but this may take a bit of time, or may not be easy to see, so feel free to add something else to the experience that will make you smile. 

  • Two to Three Maximum – This works in a few ways - don’t try to change too many things at once. But also, if you want it to be a habit, it shouldn’t involve too many actions.  2-3 steps at most in a habit, otherwise it’s going to require that frontal cortex to keep track of all the bits. 

  •  

In the end, the most valuable insight may be accepting the inherent duality of habit. They are both the building blocks and the potential stumbling blocks of our lives. Habits can be a means of self-improvement, a ladder towards our aspirations, or a path towards self-destruction. Recognizing their power is the first step towards mastery. We must learn to wield our habits rather than be wielded by them.

 

Good luck!

bottom of page