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  • Writer's pictureHeather Davis

Only Habits Will Determine Success, Despite Our Best Intentions

Updated: Sep 13, 2021

Your habits will determine your future. – Jack Canfield

Habits are routine ways of thinking or behaving, often reinforced by a reward of some sort.

They are mental short-cuts that reduce the brainpower required to do the things we do every day. Unlike the attention required for learning new things, habits look to familiar triggers and become more subconscious and automatic over time.

Our brain on habits

The brain is an amazing, complex and evolving organ.

Neuroplasticity refers to the its ability to form connections and change its structure based on our thoughts, behaviors and actions. When learning, we activate the brain’s prefrontal cortex. This is the area of conscious thinking, decision-making and intention.

Over time however, as a behavior becomes hardwired, it no longer engages this part of the brain. With enough repetition, habitual behaviors shift and are governed instead by another part: the basal ganglia, primarily responsible for motor control.

Once on autopilot, our habits disconnect from being goal or intention-directed and shift to more subconscious, stimuli-directed.

When this happens, the mental energy necessary for habitual behavior is significantly reduced. This shift can be viewed as an advantage as our brain can be devoted to other things.

Our habits make up who we are

Habits are developed and strengthened the more behaviors are repeated.

A 2012 study showed that, on average, it took 66 days of repetition for the brain to form a new habit. But once established, habits guide a substantial portion of our lives.

Depending on the study, these automatic patterns of how we act or how we think, have been estimated to account for somewhere between 40 to 95% of what we do each day.

With that much influence, for good or for bad, our habits are essentially who we are. Whether we’re talking about our health, career success or happiness, we are what we repeatedly do.

If we select a conservative 50 percent, we are on automatic pilot half the time. – Stuart Walesh

Science of habits

For decades, researchers have sought to understand not only the impact habits have, but also the underlying elements of habit-formation that can help people create and break these powerful drivers of peoples’ lives.

One of those people is: Charles Duhigg

Business writer and habit-expert Duhigg (The Power of Habit, 2014) examined the science behind our habits. It turns out there’s a consistent formula for how habits form. Regardless of the type, each habit follows the same neurological sequence – and it all starts with a loop.

The habit loop

In the 1990’s, researchers at M.I.T. uncovered a consistent pattern at the center of every habit and called it the habit loop. This pattern contained three distinct parts: a cue, a routine and then a reward.

It starts with a cue or trigger that tells the brain to launch a now-automatic action based on previous learning. The next part of the habit loop is the behavior itself, called the routine. It’s the habit performed once triggered by the context cue.

Finally, enough repetition has programmed the brain to understand that some type of reward lies at the end of the process.

Often the triggers are things like the time of day or a specific location, referred to as the context. Examples include: brushing our teeth (routine) every morning in our familiar bathroom (cues) or snacking (routine) at our desk in the afternoons (cues).

According to Duhigg, research has found that a familiar environment or situation provides the context cues that trigger routine behaviors.

The context cue of location has been shown to not only initiate a habitual behavior but to also lock it in. The more we routinely do something in the same location, the stronger our habits become.

The reward locks the habit in

To complete the loop and for a habit to actually be created, the brain must experience a reward.

It’s a fresh mouth and clean teeth. It’s the satisfying taste of a cookie or coffee. It’s the feeling after running two miles or seeing weight-loss progress.

It’s being able to set money aside and achieve financial goals that make a habit out of tracking spending or budgeting. It’s also the positive attention or feedback we get from others as a result of our habits.

The reward is what the brain remembers. For the habit loop to kick in again when triggered, the reward must outweigh the physical or mental effort required of the behavior.

The role of motivation

Author James Clear (Atomic Habits, 2018) adds a fourth component to the habit loop: craving – including the role motivation plays in habit-formation.

The context cues that spark a habit loop in one person will have zero bearing on someone else. The rewards that motivate one person may be meaningless to the next. Clear adds that we must also have a reason to act.

Cravings are individual. Our individual feelings, thoughts and differences turn general cues into personal cravings and motivations to take action or behave in certain ways.

Keystone or super-habits

According to Charles Duhigg, not all habits are considered equal. It turns out that some are like super-habits. Called keystone habits, some have shown to set off a domino effect of other healthy changes.

If we can get just a few of the keystone habits in place, it seems we can take advantage of a powerful game plan that leads to widespread positive effect.

Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything.
Success doesn't depend on getting every single thing right, but instead relies on identifying a few key priorities and fashioning them into powerful levers.
- Charles Duhigg

For example, establishing and sticking to a regular exercise routine happens to be one of those powerful keystone habits that seems to bring about extensive benefits.

Studies have shown that people that exercise regularly tend to also begin to eat better, smoke less and experience less stress in their lives. A regular exercise habit has also shown to increase work productivity and enhance levels of patience with co-workers and family.

Regular exercise even leads to less credit card use.

Other keystone habits include tracking what you spend or eat, waking up early and planning your day in advance. Charles Duhigg say keystone habits are empowering because they can change the way we see ourselves.

While the dynamics of exactly what powers these effects of keystone habits may not be completely understood, it could be enhanced self-confidence or the development of willpower at work.

Keystone habits & willpower

Researchers Oaten & Cheng (2006) found that a routine of gym workouts 3x/week over a two-month period, not only created a new fitness habit, but paid off in boosting the willpower required for other habits that improve overall well-being.

They found similar results for other habits like spending restraint and good study habits, all of which showed to improve willpower overall.

The greatest gap in life is the one between knowing and doing. – Richard Biggs

Intention, behavior disconnect

But before we can get to a habit, first we have to start. Easier said than done.

No matter how good the intention, without the discipline to take the regular, recurring action – whether you want to or not – results will not magically appear.

The gap between knowing and doing is a wide one.

Psychologist Dr. Wendy Wood of the Habit Lab at USC has long explored habits and the role they play in keeping us stuck.

With her research teams at both Texas A&M (1998) and at Duke University (2006), Wood advanced an understanding of the powerful role habit plays in driving our continued behavior.

The reason why people can believe, feel or say one thing and yet their behavior shows something different is because of habit. Our habits in effect, can neutralize our intentions and our opinions.

It’s the reason a 2018 survey found that 63% of American gym memberships go completely unused.

Habit & behavior-change

First important thing to know: you can always break a bad habit. Confirmed.

The answer is not to surrender to a bad habit. The same underlying ingredients that worked to hardwire a habit in the first place can be tweaked to conquer unhealthy routines too.

Establishing new habits need more than merely wanting to. To take advantage of the same parts of the habit loop that got us here in the first place, it takes some rewiring.

Modify the cue and the habit can follow

According to Duhigg, when familiar context and cues change, so too do the patterned behavior that follows.

That’s why vacations are the perfect place to change a habit. Everything’s different. Maybe you can be too. Maybe you can bring the new you back to your regular life and leave the bad habit at some airport somewhere.

Auto-pilot vs. goal-directed behavior

Breaking long-patterned behaviors means stopping the unconscious action.

We have to get intentional in our choices again. Time to wake up that pre-frontal cortex – at least long enough to wire a new habit.

It won’t be easy. It won’t be without set-backs. And changing habits will not be comfortable – at least not to start. That uncomfortable part can even be a habit-changing tool.

Habits and human nature

New habits are difficult to implement. Especially those that we just don’t like to do. Human nature seems to lean away from effort.

From Atomic Habits (2018), James Clear’s Four Laws of Behavior Change outlines a few rules that can help in making new habits more appetizing and easier to start and continue.

The cue should be obvious. Creating a clear-cut time and location for a new habit gives it the foundation it needs to get started. Clear’s second law is making it attractive. How can you make it something you want to do? Maybe you only listen to a certain podcast or album you like while working out, for example.

The third rule is to make it easy. You have to be able to do the new habit, and doing a little is better than doing nothing at all. Make it convenient to reduce excuses.

The last rule is that the habit-in-training has to feel good. There’s got to be a payoff.

Working out feels good – when you’re finished. That brief feeling is the payoff. No guilt is the payoff. The healthy and toned body is the payoff. The reward completes the habit loop so it will repeat.

Turn up the friction

Clear’s Four Laws can be inverted to help with bad habits that are hard to break. Especially those most pleasurable.

By modifying the cues: the time of day or location that triggers a bad habit, we can break unhealthy patterns. Changing schedules and moving things and places around can make previous cues invisible and less apt to prompt unwanted behavior.

Clear next suggests deterring the craving or want of the habit by trying to make it unattractive. Breaking habits is helped by making fulfilling a habit difficult and painful.

He also advises disassociating the reward we seek from a habit we are trying to break. By identifying the reward in the bad habit, we can look to fulfill it in other ways.

The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken. - Samuel Johnson


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