The Phenomena of Habits

By Jimmy Warden

Habits could very well be one of the most interesting concepts to study in human behavior. We often don’t know why we have certain habits, and at times, we aren’t even aware of some of the habits that we have. When we find ourselves in a rut, we don’t always think about how the accumulation of our habits could have led us there, no matter how big or small they may be. Our habits feed us, whether we are aware of that or not. They form in very intricate ways and for many different reasons, a few of which will be explored in this post. There are also some misconceptions around habits, such as how long it takes to make or break a habit, and the best part of all, is that there is some fascinating brain science behind this all.

Conscious vs. Unconscious Habits

Each person on Earth has habits and they fall into one of two broad categories. First, there are our conscious habits, the ones that we are aware of, and have some understanding around why we have them. Conscious habits could include habits like going to the gym “x” amount of days of the week, reading or writing for “x” amount of time throughout the week, eating a specific way for specific outcomes, or budgeting a specific amount of money for your savings account. These are often driven with desired long-term outcomes (more to come on that later) with the desire to improve an aspect of life.

There are also unconscious habits. These habits are habits that we are not aware of, we are not sure about how they formed or why we engage in them, and they can tend to be destructive. The potential for destruction comes from the fact that unconscious habits are often driven by impulsive, short-term (often instant) desire for a specific outcome, without the thought of the potential long-term consequences. Unconscious habits could include, but are not limited to things like, having a drink or two after work, eating something high in sugar in attempt to combat a stressful day, or driving recklessly when angry.

Having a conscious awareness of our habits gives us the ability to change our destructive patterns. Unfortuantely, a lot of our habits tend to be out of our conscious awareness, hence why we repeat a lot of our behaviors every day. From brushing your teeth at the same time, taking the same route to work, watching a show before bed, or having the same amount of coffee each morning. These were once conscious habits, that over time, were repeated so much, that they are now out of our thinking mind. We just do them. This is how destruction can manifest. However, the secret formula is trying to create good habits, that eventually become unconscious for us, and we end up doing them automatically. This is a lot easier said than done, due to the many factors that come into play when it comes to habit formation.

The Forming of Habits

First off, I want to clear up any possible misconceptions about habits. The first thought that people have is that a habit can be made or broken in 21 days. This is a very outdated claim and not very scientifically based. Social psychologist Wendy Wood states, it often takes around 2-3 months, as long as their is consistency, and some type of reward present. Another idea to think about too, is that the longer the habit has been engrained, the longer it will probably take to break or change.

In order for a habit to form, there needs to be some type of reward involved, otherwise the behavior will not be repeated. Whether the reward is intrinsic or extrinsic, no reward, no continuation of behavior. Intrisic rewards include raised levels of esteem, which is the feeling we get when we know we’re making improvements in ourselves. In simpler terms, it could be thought of as confidence. Extrinsic rewards could be a body transformation, a new car or gadget, or more money. There also needs to be motivation present in order for action to take place. Motivaton can also be intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation mostly takes the form of someone wanting to make changes in their life to improve their well-being and quality of life. This could the desire to eat differently to feel better physically, and wanting to do it for oneself. It could also take the form of wanting to start yoga or mindfulness to increase mental clarity, with the desire to feel better, and do it for the self. Extrinsic motivation can be thought of as desires for something outside of the self, perhaps a better self-image to showcase to others, the desire for more material items, or doing something in hope the favor is returned. There are some interesting ideas that have come to the forefront when it comes to the habit formation cycle of motivation, behavior, and reward.

According to James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, the desire for acceptance almost always trumps the desire for improvement. The implications of this statement are that people make decisions to be accepted by others more frequently than they make decisions to improve themselves. This tends to be a somewhat unconscious act because our ancestors were more collectivists and needed the group in order to survive. It is hardwired in us to seek acceptance in order to be accepted. The extrinsic motivation often trumps the intrinsic. It isn’t until we think of a tremendous question that Clear also poses to each of us.

The question he poses to himself, and recommends for others is, “what do I really want”? He asks himself this question and writes about it. He’s been engaging in this routine for a bit of time and it has the tendency to change a bit, day to day, but it helps to create some conscious awareness of some desired outcomes. Once this question is posed, we shall take an honest reflection, and really think. What is it that I really want? Quite often, thoughts “pop up” upon the prompting, and this can really help us navigate our path to change because what we want is now coming into our conscious awareness. From here, we can begin to take action steps, no matter how small, to start heading towards that desired outcome. This gives us fuel in the form of dopamine (more to come on that, now), which is another factor in habit formation.

The Role Of Dopamine

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in our brain that is activated when we desire something. This could be the desire to eat, the desire to complete a task, the desire to see someone we love, and just about any other event that creates a feeling of desire. This desire can also be thought of as motivation. The challenge is that desire often wants to get met right away, so it is much stronger than our will power, which is why impulsive behavior is very challenging to control. This is where control dopamine comes into play.

The aforementioned form of dopamine in the previous paragraph is called desire dopamine. We can think of that as our desire for instant gratification. However, there is another force that could outweigh this desire, and this force is referred to as control dopamine. Like its name states, control dopamine allows us to control our decisions, rather than be impulsive because it has to do with longer-term planning and decision making. The concept of willpower actually derives from dopamine because when we exercise our willpower we are often saying yes or no to something in the moment in attempt to manifest a better future. Think about this scenario. You have just changed your eating habits in lieu of wanting your body to feel better physically. When tempted with chocolate cake or pizza shortly after making these changes, you’re more likely to say no, because your motivation for that long-term outcome will outweigh that short-term desire to cave in.

However, this tends to fade over time, and coupled with the fact that we often choose acceptance over improvement, when someone asks us if we want a piece of cake or pizza to celebrate someone’s birthday, we will most likely cave to that desire in order to be accepted, unless our motivation for long-term success outweighs our motivation for short-term acceptance in that moment. This is also how the question “what do I really want?” can help us create more clarity in our lives, as long as we execute properly. Knowing what we really want can help us make more consistent decisions that are aligned with our ideal future outcome.

Putting It All Together

Habits feed our lives, whether we know that or not. In order to start making changes to our lives, it really starts with habits, which is why we need to recognize which ones we are aware of, as well as the ones that we are not aware of. The ones that we are not aware of tend to be more destructive because they often take the path of least resistance and give us some type of instant gratification, like stress relief. Once we start bringing our unconscious habits into our conscious awareness, we can start making changes.

Just know that this is going to take some time. It will not be done in 21 days, like the old science claims, but rather it will most likely take 2-3 months, especially if it’s a strong habit. This is why we should try to ask ourselves, “what do I really want?”. That way we can start to articulate that concept and take action steps, no matter how small, towards that concept. Keep in mind that there is an intense battle going on with desire dopamine (instant gratification) and control dopamine (willpower towards a long-term goal) going on inside of you and the desire dopamine often wins, so this too will take time to build.

However, if you’re willing to take the time and effort to recognize what habits you’d like to change, figure out what it is that you want, and take some steps towards that, change is on the horizon.

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