habitsHabits are present throughout our everyday lives. They are the reason we fail but also the reason we succeed. They are the reason we are effective but also the reason we are ineffective. They are the reason we are happy but also the reason we are extremely dissatisfied with our lives. But how do they form?

Think about something it took you a really long time to learn, like how to do a hill start. At first, you couldn’t do it. You were consciously incompetent at hill starting. Then you had to devote a lot of mental energy to this difficult task, you could do it but you had to be aware of every little move, you became consciously competent. However after you grew comfortable with how to do a hill start, it became much easier — almost habitual, you could say you became unconsciously competent at it. That is you could do it automatically while say having a conversation with a passenger in the car.

Driving a car, gambling, exercising, brushing your teeth and every other habit-forming activity all follow the same behavioral and neurological patterns, a movement from conscious incompetence to unconsciously competence or habit.

So how does this all work? It turns out that every habit starts with a psychological pattern called a habit loop, which is a three-part process. First, there’s a cue, or trigger, that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and let a behavior unfold. Then there’s the routine, which is the behavior itself. The third step is the reward, that is something that your brain likes that helps it remember the habit loop in the future.

Neuroscientists have traced our habit-making behaviors to a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which also plays a key role in the development of emotions, memories and pattern recognition. Decisions, meanwhile, are made in a different part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. But as soon as a behavior becomes automatic, the decision-making part of your brain goes into a sleep mode of sorts. In fact, the brain starts working less and less. The brain can almost completely shut down. This is a real advantage, because it means you have all of this mental activity you can devote to something else. That’s why it’s easy, while when driving a car, let’s say, to completely focus on something else like the radio, or a conversation you’re having.

You can do these complex behaviors without being mentally aware of it at all and it’s because of the capacity of our basal ganglia to take a behavior and turn it into an automatic routine.

Studies have shown that people will perform automated behaviors — like backing out of the garage or brushing teeth — the same way every single time, if they’re in the same environment. But if they take a holiday, it’s likely that the behavior will change. You may put your shoes on in a different order without paying any attention to it, because once the cues change, patterns are broken up. That’s one of the reasons why taking a vacation is so relaxing. It helps break certain habits.

It’s also a great reason why changing a habit on holidays is one of the proven most-successful ways to do it. If you want to quit smoking, you should stop smoking while you’re on a holidays because all your old cues and all your old rewards aren’t there anymore. So you have this ability to form a new pattern which you can use as the basis to carry it over into your life.

Emotional Habits

Have you ever noticed that whenever you’re thrown off center by a bad experience or bad news, or when you’re really tired or not feeling well, you automatically fall into a “default” emotion, such as fear, anxiety, despair, anger, sadness or depression? This response is most probably an emotional habit. Most of us learnt emotional habits in our childhood when we had very little of the wisdom that we have now. However we still get triggered into these automatic habits that can limit our personal growth. With practice such habits can cause our brain to rewire to support our repeated behaviour, without us being aware of it, until we get to a point where many things triggers the same responses of fear, anxiety, despair, anger, sadness or depression.

I was going to quit all my bad habits. I really, really was. But then I thought no one likes a quitter!

In summary when a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately become conscious or mindful of your behavior (be it is a physical task or an emotional response) and deliberately choose a new routine or response, the old pattern will unfold automatically. For some help on changing habits first get the hardware (the brain) right (my recommendation is to use Brainwave Optimization to balance and harmonize the brain), then get then upgrade the software. The best way to do this is to understand the structure of the habit. Once you recognize the trigger and the reward factors active in a habitual behavior, it becomes much, much easier to change. For some practical tips please see my follow up article on ten tips to change your bad habits.