Monday Mornings with Madison

The Amazing Power of Habits – Part 2

Breaking Bad Habits

At the end of each year, many people prepare a list of “Resolutions.”  Exercise more.  Eat healthier.  Put more into savings.  Quit smoking.  Get organized.  Lose weight.  Get regular medical and dental care.  Gyms sign up tons of new members.  Enrollment in weight loss programs swells.  Office and organizational supply stores sell more tools and supplies.  Intentions are good.  Willpower is focused.  And yet, despite the best of intentions, most people are unable to keep their ‘resolutions’ for more than a week or two.

Practically speaking, the average list of ‘Resolutions’ is little more than a list of bad habits people want to break and a list of good habits people want to start.  Yet, most bad habits persist while good ones languish.  Resolutions get recycled year after year.  That is because most people don’t understand how habits work so they aren’t able to intentionally stop bad habits or start good ones, even though new habits are continually being formed and old ones discarded unintentionally.  Why is it people can’t break or start habits at will, but somehow manage to break and start habits without trying all the time?  Is it even possible to control habits?  The answer is yes.  It starts by understanding why habits are necessary and how habits work.

Why Habits?

Habits are an absolute necessity.  Habits free up our brain to be able to do or think about other things.  An average day is full of tasks that – thanks to the basal ganglia (a walnut shaped piece of the brain) – can be performed while requiring little or no thought at all.  According to research done at Duke University, about 40 to 45 percent of the decisions we make and actions we take each day are actually habits, not real decisions.  That’s right.  Nearly half of our behavior is automatic and done on auto-pilot involving practically no thought.  This is necessary because otherwise our brains would be overwhelmed to the point of paralysis.

Brushing teeth.  Setting the table.  Checking the mail.  Making the bed.  Greeting a neighbor.  Driving a car.  All of these tasks require a series of thoughts and decisions.  Imagine, if every time we drove a car, we had to think carefully about every decision and action (much the way a new driver has to while they are learning to drive).  It would be exhausting.  The basal ganglia makes it possible for cues learned while driving to trigger routines.   The magic of habits is that it allows our brains to stop focusing on routine behaviors, freeing up mental activity for other things.

The Makeup of Habits

This fundamental need for habits may make it seem that once a habit is formed, it is intractable… as ingrained in our being as the color of our eyes.  In fact, habits appear so ingrained that the human mind seems to cling to them to the exclusion of all else, including common sense.  But, in reality, habits are quite malleable.  In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg outlines the latest breakthroughs in the neurology of habit formation.  Recent research shows that a habit is essentially a three-part process or equation that is engrained in the brain’s basal ganglia.  The process – called the Habit Loop — has three simple steps.  First there is a cue. Then there is a routine. Then there is a reward.  The reward might simply be that the mind is freed up to do other things.  Or the reward might be something pleasurable.  Because we crave the reward, the routine is triggered each time the cue occurs.  Cue + Routine = Reward.  People who figure out how to create or modify the cue or reward can reshape the routine.

Why Its Hard To Break Bad Habits

But, if habits are so malleable, why is it that some people are able to break bad habits while others try but fall short? How is it that some companies can redirect or change ingrained business practices after doing things the same way for decades but other companies cannot?  While it seems arbitrary, it isn’t.  In almost any scenario, bad habits can be broken, provided the cue and rewards that support the routine are understood and altered.

How so?  It was first discovered by Dr. Ann Graybiel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that routines are triggered by cues and that the brain goes on auto-pilot during those routines.  In her experiment, Graybiel placed a bunch of sensors in the craniums of rats (while they were still alive) and watched what happened inside their brains while they ran through mazes looking for chocolate.  What she found was that as the maze became more and more automatic — the rat running to the chocolate faster and faster – the rat’s brain would work less and less.  The cue triggered an automatic behavior or routine which ultimately led to a reward.  The reward is how the brain learned to remember the pattern for the future.  Graybiel’s experiment showed that it’s really the cues and the rewards that shape how the pattern (habit or automatic behavior) emerges.   Trying to break the automatic behavior is futile which is why so many people fail to break bad habits.  To break a habit, it is necessary to change the cue or reward or both.

Just removing the cue or reward isn’t enough, though, because habits become engrained and then live on even without the reward.  How so?  Initially, a cue triggers a behavior which then delivers a reward.  The brain then starts to learn an association between that cue, that behavior and the reward. Over time, certain neural pathways become thicker and thicker as that behavior is repeated over and over again.  It becomes easier for electrical currents to run down those pathways and trigger the behavior. Eventually, at some point, the reward becomes less important than the behavior itself. This is seen with eating habits.  People will initially eat because they’re hungry and need that satisfaction. Eventually, though, people will eat automatically, even though not hungry and even if the food is not particularly appealing.  Once the brain starts to associate a certain behavior with a reward, whether that reward exists or not, the enjoyment of the reward is experienced anyway.

That explains why pleasure-based habits are much harder to break. Enjoyable behaviors prompt the brain to release a chemical called dopamine.  Dopamine strengthens the habit even more. When a person tries to stop a habit that released dopamine, there is a craving for it.  Routines then become hardwired into the brain.  Then the brain’s reward center keeps craving the thing the person is trying so hard to resist.

Breaking Bad Habits

There is no single solution to breaking bad habits.  But there is some evidence that certain things work.

1.  Exercise Self-Control

Dr. Roy Baumeister, a psychologist at Florida State University has done studies on decision-making and willpower.  He concluded that self-control is like a muscle than can get tired once exerted, but can also be strengthened if used regularly… much like weight training.  Baumeister found that after successfully resisting temptation, willpower is temporarily drained, making it harder to stand firm when tempted again.  However, regularly practicing different types of self-control — such as sitting up straight or keeping a food diary — can strengthen resolve and increase self-control over time.  Regular acts of self-control gradually exercise the self-control ‘muscle’ and makes a person less likely to falter.

2.  Avoid Cues

It is important to understand the cues triggering the behavior.  For example, a person who is trying to cut back on excessive shopping should examine what triggers the desire for ‘retail therapy.’  If, after a stressful day at work, the person goes to the mall to ‘de-stress’, then just making a point to go to the gym or go for a walk instead of to the mall should short circuit the desire to release stress by seeing and buying pretty things.

The goal is to become very aware of unhealthy habits. Determine what is triggering the behavior.  Then develop strategies to avoid or counteract it.  Habits that are linked to certain places and activities can be eliminated by avoiding the place or the activity.  Dieters can avoid walking down hallways where there are vending machines.  Smokers can avoid places where smokers gather.

3.  Override Bad Habits with Good Ones

Actively replace unhealthy routines with new, healthy ones. This doesn’t work for everyone, but it does for some.  Certain groups who have a history of health-damaging habits can engage in certain behaviors that are ritualistic and in a way compulsive—such as marathon running—and it helps them stay away from bad behaviors. The alternative behaviors counteract the urge to repeat a bad behavior.

4.  Get Support

Having a support network of people who are working together to overcome the same bad habit helps.  That is why organizations like Weight Watchers is effective.  The support — coupled with other strategies like avoiding cues, overriding bad habits with good ones, and exercising self-control – adds an additional tool to help provide rewards for breaking the bad habit.

Habits are important and even necessary for survival.  But bad habits can be changed, weakened and even eliminated.  Whether at home or work, with the right understanding, it is possible to break even the worst of habits.

Quote of the Week

“Habits are at first cobwebs, then cables.” Spanish Proverb

© 2013, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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