The Power of Habits

Everyday your brain is constantly engaged in doing a whole range of things, some of which you are consciously aware of and some of which you are pretty much completely unaware of. For example, when you get up in the morning you probably don’t think too hard about the way that you lift your body up out of the bed, of the way that you brush your teeth (e.g. do you start on the left or the right?) if you are a man, the way that you shave your face (do you start on the left or the right?). You probably are conscious about what you have for breakfast, but I expect you don’t put too much thought into it. Then when you are on your way to work, you probably don’t think too hard about your journey. In fact, you probably don’t consciously think about it at all, and your mind is actually thinking about something totally different. 

And so on.

Throughout our days we do all sorts of things without much awareness. Mostly these are habits. When we think about habits, most of us think about bad habits, the things that we need to give up. But there are also good, helpful habits. There are also times when it’s useful to use habits, and times when it can be counter-productive. I’ll explain more about that in a minute, but first think about what habits actually are.

What are habits?

I like to think of habits as little robots that you can teach to do things, and once they’ve learned they can do those things repeatedly with almost no help from you. Just imagine if you could have your own robots to perform tasks for you. The rules are as follows:

(1) You can have as many robots as you like, but you can only train them one at a time.

(2) The training may take several weeks, but once trained they can perform their task for you with minimal effort on your behalf.

(3) The robots can perform almost any task, but only one task per robot.

(4) The tasks they do must have an underlying pattern or structure: you can’t expect them to be very creative in coming up with new ideas.

Now, if you were offered the chance to have some of these robots, wouldn’t you jump at it? Wouldn’t you be desperate to have the free labour that they can offer?

Of course, as with everything that appears too good to be true, there is a downside. Yet as long as we are smart, we can minimise this downside. It’s the fact that these robots can also harm us if we train them incorrectly. They can lead us to think negatively, eat unhealthy foods, or relate to other people in destructive ways.

This is the power that habits represent. They can be useful or destructive.

Basically, the way our brains work is that only a tiny part of what is going on in our cortex at any time is conscious, the rest of it is like an unconscious computer program, crunching numbers without any awareness. Our conscious minds are great at learning completely novel things, and putting ourselves into imaginary situations in order to make decisions or solve problems, but the trouble is that this part of our mind is rather slow and limited. It takes a long time to do things (compared to our subconscious minds) and it can only focus on a tiny number of things at once. So what tends to happen is our brain organises itself so that once it’s figured out how something works, it automates it by giving it to one of the robots. And the robots are, of course, like the little software programs that are running in your subconscious.

Take the example of learning to drive. For most people there are a whole sequence of somewhat un-familiar body-movements that need to be learned at the same time as learning how the movements of the car relate to those body movements, how to monitor the road constantly and judge the movements of other cars, and how to make just the right combination of movements to park the car in a tight spot, or to start it on a hill. None of this is easy, and most learner drivers have to put in a lot of effort and are pretty slow at driving to begin with. However, with time and practice, each of these skills gets pushed from the conscious parts of your brain to the unconscious parts. The habit robots figure out the rules and the patterns that govern how to drive and they take over from you. Gradually driving becomes a lot easier, you are more fluid and faster as you no longer have to consciously think through every movement.

The key thing is that this exact process is going on all the time whenever we are learning anything new. You have to consciously work out how to perform the task, and all the time your robots are watching, trying to hack the underlying rules and patterns. Once they’ve got them, your learning process gets easier and requires less energy. The robots are taking over.

However, the true hidden power of habits is their potential to work over the long term. Once a habit robot is set off and running, it can operate for years. For the rest of our lives. If it’s a good habit, this can have a huge positive impact on our life. Done repeatedly over the course of years, even little actions can really ad up.

How can you avoid the negative power of habits?

So the power of habits are that they can free up your conscious mind, and that they can eventually make things easy that at first seem hard. Yet the danger is that once you set them off on destructive behaviour patterns, they can be hard to stop. A little like the spell that Mickey Mouse performs in the Cartoon film ‘The Sorcerer’s apprentice’ (which is a segment within the film ‘Fantasia’). Mickey – as the Sorcerer’s apprentice – has been tasked with mopping the floors clean. But when the Sorcerer isn’t around, Mickey tries to make the job easier by casting a spell on the mops to get them to carry the buckets of water. Yet things get out of hand when the mops get too much water, and flood the room. Mickey can’t stop them, and has to rely on the (angry!) Sorcerer to stop them.

The longer that bad habits have been running, the harder they can be to stop. The habit robots become like the out of control magical mops, operating over and over at tasks that we don’t want done anymore. It’s also harder to break than make a habit. Often we get addicted to our bad habits, especially if they are giving us some kind of neuro-chemical reward that makes us feel better.

The solution is to become more conscious of what habits you are creating to begin with. Be aware of whenever you start to do something you know is harmful repeatedly or regularly. Even if you can’t, or don’t want to, stop doing it completely, try to break up the regularity with which you do it. For example, if you don’t want to become addicted to coffee or soda drinks, avoid drinking them every day and just have them once a week, or every several days.

Also, an important part of being conscious of your bad habits is becoming aware of how strained your own willpower is feeling as you resist them. Think of your willpower as like a character’s energy bar in a video game – the measure of how much energy that character has at any point in the game. If the character gets attacked by a baddie, their energy level is lowered. If it gets all the way to the bottom, they die. Similarly, we all have a limited willpower to resist temptation. Imagine it like an energy bar. If you get tired out, like by the end of your work day, your willpower to resist will be lower. If you feel upset, it will be lower, or if you’ve already had to strain your willpower to resist temptation, it can be lower. By resting, avoiding temptations, and feeling positive, you can replenish it. Therefore don’t overload your ability to resist habits. Try to reform one habit at a time, and try to avoid temptations when you are feeling down or tired.

Another of the dangers with bad habits is that we become blind to them. For example, several years ago I developed back pain that eventually led me to see an Osteopath and then a physiotherapist. What they made me aware of was that I had a number of bad-posture habits. The way that I held myself whilst standing (tending to put all my weight on just one leg), or constantly crossing my legs in awkward ways whilst sitting. I was barely conscious at all that I was doing this, and certainly wasn’t conscious that I was doing it to compensate for the fact that (as the physiotherapist told me) I had one leg very slightly longer than the other. Also, whilst these bad posture habits weren’t the origin of my bad pain (that had come from straining it) they were my body’s way of trying to protect myself against future pain. Our brains and bodies will often create bad habits to protect us against a bad experience. For instance, people who’ve suffered some form of emotional pain will often over-eat.

Yet if we do these habitual things all the time, why aren’t we conscious of them? Well, their regularity itself may be the very reason they are invisible to us. Our brains tend to tune out things that we do a lot, or that are happening around us a lot. Our conscious mind just can’t take everything in, so anything that happens a lot gets pushed out of our awareness. It’s similar to how if you are in a room with a ticking clock, after a while you just stop being aware of the sound. I think also, in the same way that bad habits are created by our brain trying to protect us, our brain will also try to make us unaware of certain things that might make us feel bad.

The other time when habits can be counterproductive is when we might want to become more conscious. For example, if you interact with other people, like your family, in too much of an habitual way, it can make you cold and deadened to their presence (remember, habits are performed by your robots, not your conscious mind!). Also you want to be conscious when you are trying to come up with new ideas. For example, if you are trying to find a solution to a problem, you need to be as conscious as possible in order to avoid falling back on old patterns and old ways of doing things.

The power of habits

So if there are so many downsides and dangers with habits, why did our brains evolve them in the first place? The answer is that they allow us to do stuff with less energy, and allow us to get by in a complex world.

We don’t fully understand consciousness yet, but it seems that we only have a limited amount of it to focus on things. It takes us more effort to process things consciously, it’s like driving a fancy but very fuel inefficient car around. You only want to use it for the important trips, not the day to day routine trips. Also, our conscious minds can’t always cope with tracking multiple things at once. For example, imagine someone is calling out a long list of numbers. The chances are that if they stopped at any random moment, you would only be able to recall the last 5 to 9 numbers. Now imagine that at the same time as the numbers, another person is calling out a series of random words, and another person is playing random notes on a piano. You’d now probably struggle to concentrate on any of them. Yet imagine there is a hidden pattern to each of the apparently random outpourings of numbers, words and notes. Whilst your conscious mind might not pick up on it, your subconscious, habit-robots can. They can sense complex patterns in the world around you and act accordingly. This is important as our world is highly complex, and filled with loads of instances like that example, where there are multiple streams of information bombarding us which we have to somehow get to grips with.

So by using its habit-robots, your conscious brain is free to focus on other things. You are using less energy. Some people like to create habits to avoid having to spend even tiny amounts of energy on daily decisions such as what to eat (for example, they will have exactly the same thing for lunch every day). In the novel ‘Jurassic Park’, the genius Mathematician Ian Malcolm says he only ever wears grey or black clothes. When asked why, he says “These colors are appropriate for any occasion…I find it liberating. I believe my life has value, and I don’t want to waste it thinking about clothing.” Of course, you may enjoy choosing different clothes to wear, or what to eat each day. But if there are routine things that you do daily, perhaps you could consider turning them into an automatic habit that doesn’t require you to think?

How to take advantage of the power of habits

So we know that habits are potentially powerful in reducing the amount of energy it takes us to do things, and allowing us to cope with complex information. We also know that we need to be conscious in order not to allow bad habits to grow in the first place, or to flourish without us consciously noticing them.

I recommend what I call the PAST model for breaking or making habits. Each letter of the word PAST stands for one of the four steps that you need to take.

P = Prepare

In order to develop a habit we first need to be clear what it is we want and why. If it’s a bad habit that we want to get rid of, think about what different things trigger that habit. How can you prepare to avoid those triggers? If it’s a good habit that you want to form, what is going to be the hardest part of doing it? And how can you prepare to deal with that difficulty? It may be more practical to chop the habit up into bits and install the habit in parts. Remember, none of us have infinite willpower, so plan so you don’t over-stress your willpower.

For example, if you want to form the habit of going to the gym, you might find that the most difficult part of that habit is just physically getting yourself out of the house and into the gym. Actually using the machines and becoming tired is also hard, but not as hard as just getting your butt there. So you could break it into two habits. First just get into the habit of physically turning up at the gym. When you get there do whatever you like, don’t force yourself to max-out your willpower any more. Only once you’ve got into the habit of physically turning up (i.e. it no longer feels like a will-power-sapping effort just to go) THEN you can think about forming the habit of doing the hard exercises.

A= Accountable

You will probably find it easier to make or break a habit if you make yourself accountable. This can either be to other people or to yourself. If it’s to others, you might want to find an ‘accountability buddy’. This is someone that will check up on you regularly (ideally daily) to make sure you are doing the good habit or avoiding the bad one. You can even consider paying them a forfeit reward if they catch you out (adding some pain to motivate you!). Alternatively you can be accountable to yourself by simply tracking yourself daily. There are loads of smartphone apps these days for tracking all kinds of things, so you might like to explore getting one of those. If not, just marking off each day on a calendar or diary will do.

S= Sensory

What sensory elements – tastes, sounds, feelings, smells etc – act as rewards for the habit? For example, if it’s the bad habit of drinking highly sugared soda drinks that you are trying to avoid, think about what sensory elements make up that habit. For example, maybe you like the cold chill of the drink, the fizziness of the liquid, and the sweetness. Now if you are trying to wean yourself off the soda drink, can you replace those same sensory elements in a healthier form? For example, what about instead drinking very cold fizzy water (that will replace two of the key sensory feelings). Or if it’s a good habit you are trying to create, think about the most appealing sensory feelings that will result from it.

T= Time

Many people find that a new habit becomes formed in around a month or less. However, there’s no solid evidence for this, as we are all different and different habits can be harder or easier than this. Indeed, avoiding a bad habit can be a lifetime effort, although it can get easier over time. Nevertheless, thinking of a month of time is a good guideline and doesn’t feel too overwhelming. This is why many companies run 30-day free trials of their products/services, as it’s usually enough time to get people into the habit of using them. Can you at least keep up your new habit for 30 days? If you fail to form the habit, try again. Remember, it’s only a matter of time. Keep doing the habit for enough days and it will get easier.


Let me know how you get on with forming new habits or letting go of old ones: Contact me