What’s the Deal with Habit? How Habits Work and How to Apply this Knowledge for Lasting Change in Your Life
By: Erika Fehrenbach Prell
Did you know that habits are actually an important evolution of brain function? The brain likes to make any routine into a habit to save effort. This allows the brain to take a break and not have to think about these basic behaviors. This ability is one of the differences between human brains and animal brains. The brain connects a sequence of actions into an automatic routine; these routines become our habits. By understanding how habits develop, you can develop strategies to work with your brain, instead of against it, which will increase your success in changing your habits and behaviors.
There is a 3 step cycle to habit formation. There is a cue, which tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Next comes the routine, which are the actions triggered by the cue. These actions can be physical, mental, or emotional. Not all habits are doing something; they can be a feeling that is triggered instead. The final piece is the reward, which is what we get after the routine is carried out. This helps your brain decide if this cycle is worth remembering; so, a better reward might increase the chance a habit forms. With repetition and time this behavior cycle becomes automatic, resulting in a habit. Because it is automatic, the brain stops actively thinking or decision making. Unless you do something to actively interrupt the habit cycle, the pattern happens automatically. Since habits are set brain pathways, they cannot be erased. Try as you might, once a habit is formed, it is there for good. Do not let this discourage you! It is possible to modify the habit. Two ways to do this would be to attach a new behavior to an established habit, or you can keep the same cue and reward but modify the routine or action.
Habits are a key piece when it comes to change. In the book “Atomic Habits” by James Clear, he describes there are 3 levels of change. Here’s an analogy to help describe this. Imagine an onion with three layers; these three layers represent these 3 levels of change. The outermost layer and most superficial level is the outcomes level; this focuses on results and what you get from an action. The middle layer is the processes level; this focuses on what you do and the systems you have in place. This is where many habits are formed. And, the innermost layer is the identity level; this is what you believe, both about yourself and your situation. The deeper the layer, the stronger commitment to changing the behavior.
The level of change analogy combined with the stages of change model give amazing insight on how to use your mindset to your advantage when trying to change a behavior. Let’s look at an example. Say you want to eat healthier. During the contemplation stage, or thinking about change stage, you brainstorm all the reasons why this is a good idea like losing weight, decreasing heart disease, decreasing blood pressure, reducing your risk of diabetes, and consuming less preservatives and additives.You start to prepare for the change by goal setting, meal planning, researching new recipes, and finding an accountability group online. You move into the action phase and put your plans into motion. Everything is going well for a few weeks. You have lost weight, you feel better, and you realize that this is not as hard as you thought. But, something strange happens! Old habits start creeping in. Things like getting fast food one night or having ice cream at night with the justification that it is “just this time”; before you have gotten close to the maintenance stage, where a new behavior has stuck and is just what you do, you have slid backwards into relapse and your old behaviors.
Sound familiar? What went wrong?
This is where the levels of change gives great insight into your mindset. During this example, most of the change in behavior was focused around outcomes and results, with hitting goals in mind. Once those goals were hit in the form of seeing results from losing weight and feeling better, your resolve to continue the change starts to weaken because this is not a deep commitment to the change; your brain is thinking “success! I did it”. A few of the changes might have touched on changing processes, and, ultimately, revising a habit. However, the slide back to old behaviors happened before a modified, or new, habit pattern could be established. The issue? The change did not hit the inner level, which is the most important, of identity and belief. For a change to really happen, you have to shift your belief. In this case, if you have not identified yourself as a healthy person, the foundation you are building your change strategy on is shaky at best! This is the key; change your belief, change your results.
Changing your mindset will not happen overnight. Fortunately, unlike habits, your mindset is not fixed. You can, and should, continually work on shifting your mindset and belief to support the new behavior change. As you start having success with your behavior change, your confidence will increase along with your belief. Strategies to help your mindset could include the following:
I am sure you have heard the quote from Sir Francis Bacon, “Knowledge is Power”. It is simple but very true. Understanding how habits are formed, then using this knowledge, you can more successfully create the change you want to see in your life. Above all, enjoy the journey! Habits and the motivations behind them are unique to the individual, therefore, the exact strategy will be as well. This journey to change is sure to bring you insight and a deeper understanding of self. Shine on!
Jackie White has been writing about life and its ups and downs for many years. With a degree in Industrial Psychology and a life-long student of personal development she is intrigued by how each individual chooses to live their life. Jackie feels strongly that truly living your best life is imperative to attaining peace and fulfillment. SoulShine was borne of her desire to inspire and teach others to live their best life. This is her mission and her dream.