How to Build Better Habits

We all brush our teeth. I mean, I hope we do. At some point in our childhood, someone told us that it was really important for us to brush our teeth. And we believed them. We were convinced. Society from then on has largely embraced the act of brushing teeth in the morning, if not twice a day. No matter how tired we are, whether we’re about to go to work or we’re on holiday, somehow, we almost always follow through with this particular habit. It doesn’t require that much willpower and once we have made our way to the basin, brushing our teeth requires almost no conscious thought. Imagine if that is how effortless exercise was. Imagine if we were able to get up and work out even if we didn’t feel like it. Why are some habits so effortless while others are so hard to keep up? Then, of course, there is the other end of the spectrum that includes habits that are easy to keep up with but are precisely ones we don’t want to have. 

But we seem not to think about our habits all that much. I mean that is the selling point anyways – to not have to think about it. But a vast majority of our actions day-to-day are actually automated. So, imagine the influence a better understanding of the habit-forming process can have on our goals and just the overall quality of life. But first, have you ever wondered why we have habits in the first place? I mean, they are clearly useful to us; life would suck a lot if we had to think through every step of going to work, or making our espresso, but our ancestors did not have such tasks. So why would they need habits in the first place? Well, it has to do with the neurochemical significance of a habit. A habit is a very streamlined set of actions, and it is optimized for our mental resources. Research in mice has shown that once habituated to the act of getting food from a particular place, the mice-brain spends remarkably little energy compared to mice that actually have to discover it. Similarly, our human brains do not have all the resources in the world. Repetitive actions must be streamlined so that we have reserves for when we need them. Simply put, we have finite energy and routines consume less energy. Therefore, we gravitate towards routines and habitual actions. 

Now that we know why habits exist, let us try and understand their inner workings a little bit. We have to start by paying attention to one of the hallmarks of habit formation, and that is context. In fact, as far as psychology is concerned, habits are defined not just for being repetitive, but being repetitive in response to contextual cues. More technically speaking, habits are simply “actions that are triggered automatically in response to contextual cues that have been associated with their performance.” This context is key, as I just mentioned with the act of brushing teeth. Brushing teeth “co-occurs” with the act of waking up from bed, and since we all sleep every day, the contextual cue for brushing teeth is also ever present, which makes it such a good habit. Other habits, such as eating healthy, require just as much contextual support. However, if that decision is made for the wrong reasons, such as looking good for prom, as opposed to a higher quality of life, then the habit will be noticeably harder to maintain. Unlike brushing teeth, where the cue was constant, eating healthier to look better in the photos will only have temporary contextual co-occurrence. Once those photos have been taken, the motivation to maintain good health evaporates, and with it the habit. 

Another interesting thing about contextual cues is that they are not as dependent on time as one might think. This means that the habit of brushing teeth is not so dependent on time of day per se, as it is on the act of waking up. Now, exposure to sunlight and those time specific things do play a part, but what I am trying to get at is that doing the same thing at the same time each day is not necessarily what creates the longest lasting habits. This is great news, of course, as it means that we don’t have to rely on the time of day to stick to our habits. Rather, we need a consistent string of actions to help us form habits. There is more to this. This string of actions is so powerful in helping us form habits that simply visualizing the set of actions can make it more likely for us to follow through with them. Neuroscientist and Professor of Neurobiology Andrew Huberman talks about this in his podcast referring to “Hebbian learning.” He uses the example of someone trying to make a habit of making espresso in the morning. Andrew says simply visualizing the steps of making the espresso makes you more likely to actually get up and make that espresso. “The procedural stepping through of the steps of the recipe sets in motion the neurons that are going to be required.” “It’s as though the dominos fall more easily,” all of which makes neurons which are unlikely to fire more likely to fire. 

But perhaps one of the most recognizable works on habits in general lately has been James Clears book “Atomic Habits.” In it, he writes, “your habits are modern day solutions to ancient desires. New versions of old vices. The underlying motives behind human behavior remain the same.” Here, James is shining a light on the tremendous power of habits to influence our actions and long term life trajectory because they stem from such deeply ingrained traits. He likes to make use of the compound interest analogy in this regard. Just 1% improvement over a year, which may seem miniscule in the moment, can compound to massive growth over a long enough period of time, 37.78 times if you wanna do the math. A 1% decline, on the other hand, will reduce us to nothing over the same period. James is essentially arguing about the need for smaller, more consistent changes to our lives which will improve it in the long run. Instead of radically changing everything about our lives overnight and holding onto unrealistic goals that will surely rid us of all enthusiasm, James recommends that we pursue smaller, more manageable changes consistently. This, of course, is no surprise if you’ve watched the video on why facts don’t change our minds. We humans do not like change. We have never liked change. But, we do tend to budge if the change is small enough. Facts that are radically different to the beliefs we already hold are simply discarded. Actions, similarly, that are simply too different from what we are used to just don’t stick to our routines very well. Relatively smaller changes respect the finitude of our willpower and allow us to sustain some semblance of enthusiasm over the transition. Expecting to suddenly write a book from having written nothing for months is not only not possible, but it will also leave you feeling miserable and tragically take away from the joy of the activity itself. Instead, it is much better to have small, clear and actionable goals such as “today I will write 200 words.” 

Now if habits are indeed so important, they should especially draw our attention to the bad ones. We’ve all got them. You know, the late-night snacking, the fast food, the TV binging, the phone overuse. We learn these habits just as quickly as the good ones if not quicker, but they end up staying on for much longer. This is, again, down to the contextual cues and how easily they occur for bad habits. For example, let’s say you end up snacking in periods of high stress. The cue here is high stress, and that is not something you have to put in effort to reproduce. It’s just there when it’s there. Unlike working out, for example, where you need to discipline yourself and come up with a routine, stress is always going to be there whether you like it or not. And when it’s there, so is your urge to snack. Over time, your body optimizes this process so that once the craving arises, things like getting to the fridge, opening the door take no conscious effort whatsoever. The neurochemical efficiency of habits and the ease with which some of them can be learned means that bad habits are really really hard to remove from our lives. 

People have tried different methods to remedy this, of course. For example, setting notifications on their phones seems like an intuitive thing to do. At this point, we are all more or less aware of the effects of social media overuse and just general cell phone overuse. So, some of us set timers to limit how often we can use or access the corresponding apps. But we all know what ends up happening, right? We simply override the timer when we want to. And soon enough, the act of overriding becomes second nature. I, for one, have overridden so many timers by now that it doesn’t even register in my mind as a conscious decision. It just seems like an additional click I need to do to get my fix. I have done this with my alarm as well, so well, in fact, that I can turn my alarm off in my sleep because I know exactly where the off button is on my phone. This is the perfect demonstration of what a habit is capable of. Used correctly, a habit can easily adapt and continue to optimize things to make them reflexive. Used incorrectly, however, they are ruthless, consuming any sort of effort to change. Anecdotal evidence aside, research has also shown that notifications do not seem to show any noticeable long-term impact on habit execution after an initial short-term spike. Harsher penalties, however, do show some impact. For example, cash penalties. But beyond an experimental setting, implementing a cash penalty is not a sustainable strategy for most people to improve themselves. A lot like screen timers on cell-phones, these penalties too can be overridden in the correct environment. 

Andrew Huberman suggests that the key to getting rid of bad habits is not to punish ourselves so much, but rather pair each execution of the bad habit with a good one. So, to add on the snaking example, this might mean that every time you snack late at night, you want to pair it up with an easy-to-execute good habit, such as forcing yourself to meditation. This sounds a bit unintuitive because it makes it seem like you are essentially incentivizing yourself to do the bad thing more often, since there is a reward at the end of it - the good habit. However, Andrew says that in reality, what ends up happening is that you consciously rewire your brain to respond to the contextual cues differently. So now, when you get really stressed, your response is two-fold: first to snack and then meditate. Pairing the good habit with the bad one supposedly establishes enough of a level playing field that the wiring for the bad habit is no longer as dominant as it used to be. Besides, as a bonus, you end up with a good habit. 

The key to controlling our habits is down to a philosophical distinction - what is the reason for the habits we are trying to form. Do we want to become better versions of ourselves each day, or do we simply want to simply check something off of a bucket list. Neither is less moral, mind you. But the latter is not all that different from the impulsive gratification that good habits are supposed to help us avoid. If you enjoy the process, meanwhile, it all becomes a bit easier. What may seem monotonous and repetitive to some, can actually be a slow, but meticulous stride towards a better you!

“I do not fear the a man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” - Bruce Lee 

- MA, MM