Habits…Are they really that powerful?



Let’s start with an understanding of what a habit is. A habit is a stable, repeatable pattern of predictive behavior that one can execute without thinking too much about it, which with a little repetition becomes an unconscious behavior.

Habit formation is the process by which new behaviors are repeated a few times and then they become automatic. Old habits are hard to break and new habits are hard to form. A reason for this is that habit formation creates neural pathways that strengthen over time as much as a habit is repeated. If a habit starts to result in negative consequences and one feels he has lost control over it, unfortunately the habit has been converted into addiction.


Each habit can actually be seen as a set of two intertwined habits. There is a habit of thought and a habit of action to go with it:

  • A habit of thought is a set of coupled patterns of thought and a practiced ability to switch among them appropriately and effectively.
  • A habit of action is a learned pattern of physical behavior involving sensory processing and physical movements.

Both are context-dependent. The habit of thought is dependent on one’s immediate state of mind, and the latter is dependent on one’s immediate environment.


Habits can be shaped, changed, molded, learnt and unlearnt if one understands the mechanism behind habit formation, and the power these habits hold. Charles Duhigg in his book ‘power of habit’ explains how habits are formed and how they influence our lifestyle. The following is the concept of the habit cycle, which helps one to gain an understanding of why they do certain things and how.

Every habit — good or bad — follows the same 3–step pattern, also known as the 3 R’s of Habit Formation.

  • Reminder/Cue (the trigger that initiates the behavior)
  • Routine (the behavior itself; the action you take)
  • Reward (the benefit you gain from doing the behavior)

This framework as explained by Charles Duhigg is popularly known as the “Habit Loop” and this pattern has been proven over and over again by behavioral psychology researchers. The important thing to note about this is what pleasure or reward is one seeking because of which he repeatedly follows the same routine. Correct understanding of the reward helps in shaping a new routine resulting in the same reward.


How habits are formed?

Let’s take a habit of answering a phone call as an example to understand the mechanism behind habit formation:

  • Your phone rings (Cue/Reminder). This is the reminder that initiates the behavior. The ring acts as a trigger or cue to tell you to answer the phone. It is the prompt that starts the behavior, and is the first step of habit formation.
  • You answer your phone (Routine).This is the actual behavior. When your phone rings, you answer the phone.
  • You find out who is calling (Reward).This is the reward (or punishment, depending on who is calling). The reward is the benefit gained from doing the behavior. You were curious to find out why the person on the other end was calling you and discovering that piece of information is the reward for completing the habit.

If the reward is positive, then you’ll want to repeat the routine again the next time the reminder happens. Repeat the same action enough times and it becomes a habit. Every habit follows this basic 3–step structure.

So how can this structure be used to create new habits and actually stick to them?

Think about something it took you a really long time to learn, like how to drive a car. At first, driving was difficult and you had to devote a lot of mental energy to it. But after you grew comfortable with driving, it became much easier — almost habitual, you could say. Now you do not have to be conscious of when to press the break, or when to press the accelerator or how much to press it. You automatically do that while driving.

Driving, gambling, exercising, brushing your teeth and every other habit-forming activity all follow the same behavioral and neurological patterns, The new York times business writer Charles Duhigg explores the science behind why we do what we do — and how companies are now working to use our habit formations to sell and market products to us.

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 and the habit is then controlled by the robotic brain.

“In fact, the brain starts working less and less,” says Duhigg. “The brain can almost completely shut down. … And this is a real advantage because it means you have all of this mental activity you can devote to something else. It actually helps one to exert the brain energy onto the more complex and sophisticated actions.

“You can do these complex behaviors without being mentally aware of it at all,” he says. “And that’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 pulling out of a driveway or brushing teeth — the same way every single time, if they’re in the same environment. But if they take a vacation, it’s likely that the behavior will change.

“You’ll put your shoes on in a different order without paying any attention to it,” he says, “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.

Going on a vacation is also a great way to break and change habits and is one of the proven most-successful ways to do it,” he says. “If you want to quit smoking, you should stop smoking while you’re on a vacation — because all your old cues and all your old rewards aren’t there anymore. So you have this ability to form a new pattern and hopefully be able to carry it over into your life.”

Abeer Naseem.



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