One of the most fascinating aspects of the human experience is the perception we are always in control. The idea we can react immediately to any given situation with rational and well thought out decisions. We are taught from birth that under any circumstance you have choices that you, as a someone with free will, can choose from and decide on a course of action. However, research now clearly demonstrates our actions have much deeper basis than that. OUr actions on a day to day level are deeply influenced by habits. We respond to inputs from the outside world in almost autonomous ways, often without forethought or any use of what we would perceive as free will. Have you ever made a decision or taken an action which in retrospect you have no idea why you did? It will more than likely be underpinned by a habit you have acquired throughout your life. Fear not though, all is not lost. These underlying drivers in our lives what can be changed. The first step on that journey is understanding how they work.
The habit loop
We all have habits we know about, maybe you smoke or drink or watch too much TV. These habits are relatively easy to recognise. There are also habits that are less so which are often on a deeper subconscious level. Perhaps you respond in a certain way to people who remind you of someone you didn’t get on with in the past? Or you play the victim when someone challenges you? These are all habitual behaviours, that at some point in your life you have learned. They can be changed. They way to do that is to understand the habit loop.
Step 1: The trigger
The thing that begins your habit is something called a trigger. That could be a time of day, a place, someone’s face or some kind of food. Whatever it is it tells your brain that it is now time to perform in a certain way. Once it sees the trigger it will access your previous learned behaviour and then act it out. So for example, when I finish work I tend to go home, cook and then sit in front of the TV. The end of the day and getting home from work triggers that routine. Most days I end up in front of the TV and wonder how I got there. It is triggered by getting home from work, I rarely do it on the weekend. It is a habitual behavioural pattern triggered by the end of a working day. Can you think of any triggers for yourself?
Step 2: The routine
Once you experience a trigger your brain will draw upon habits you have deeply embedded in your subconscious. In the US there was a gentleman who, due to illness, had lost his ability to create short term memories. This was something that researchers were keen to look into and learn from. He moved to a new home with his wife and they would regularly take walks together in the afternoon; he couldn’t go on his own as he had no knowledge of the area, due to his inability to make new memories. THen one day, much to his wife’s horror, he left the house on his own. Naturally this caused his partner untold panic, he would definitely get lost, how would she ever find him? Well sometime later he was back in the house in his favourite chair. Intrigued by this, the researchers wanted to understand how, given his lack of memory and knowledge of the area he made his way home. So they went for a walk with him. ALong the way the asked him, do you know where your are? Do you know where your house is? He said no, I have no idea at all. Yet each time they did this he managed to get back to the house without any problem at all. This demonstrated that through the walks with his wife he had created a habit that was totally subconscious, he had absolutely no conscious thought., This is the power of your routine. It can be totally unconscious. This is what makes it feel so natural, or like the way it has always been or part of who you are.
Step 3: Reward
So how do these routines come about. Well when you first started doing them you received a reward for doing them. Eating unhealthy snacks? You get the sugar rush. Playing the victim in a social situation? You get some attention. Watching TV? You can escape the real world. It is the reward that allows your brain to reinforce that behaviour. Through repetition over time the habit becomes complete subconscious.
If you can identify your triggers, it will help you see your routines and examine the rewards you receive. If you can break your habits down like this, you have become conscious of how it works. Once you get to this stage you can replace the routine with something more helpful. This loop is how all habits work. Don’t take my word for it, starting looking for yourself.