blog header 9.22.jpg
  • Heather Davis

Only Habits Will Determine Success, Despite Our Best Intentions

Updated: Sep 13

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