Habitual badness

Many of my posts concern themselves with people management and leadership, topics I think about a lot. This one is a bit more personal, and I’m not quite sure where it will end up. It has to do with the nature of habit, the difficulty of maintaining good habits, and how easily we slip into negative patterns.

We often think of habits as falling into “good” or “bad” buckets – but what are they, really? Habits are patterns of behaviour that we engage in unconsciously or semi-automatically. Our brains are incredibly good at conserving energy, which is a good thing for an organ that represents less than 2% of our overall body mass but consumes 20% of the energy we take in. By deploying habits and other energy-conserving mechanisms like System 1 thinking (see Danny Kahneman’s work), our brains allow us to navigate through the world without constant decision-making. If you’re a database administrator, you could think of habits as human versions of stored procedures.

Habits operate based on a cue or a trigger. First, we encounter the trigger, an established routine executes and we get a reward. Charles Duhigg’s book “The Power of Habit” describes this in more detail, but there’s a short form of the structure of habits with examples on how to change them here.

A simple example might be that I walk into the kitchen, pass the “treat drawer”, grab a biscuit/cookie and eat it – cue, routine, reward. The clear downside of this habit is that if I execute it regularly, I will a) get fat and b) end up with blood sugar issues.

Another example, this one work-related, might be that I present an idea during a meeting, someone dismisses it, and I become defensive. This time the reward is a little harder to judge but it could be that I feel like I didn’t allow someone to walk all over me. This habit can be just as damaging, but this time to my career. I shut down dialogue by behaving this way and don’t learn anything new.

Neuroscience tells us that it is very challenging to dislodge habits once they are established. When our brain encodes a habit into our neural pathways, those connections are pretty “sticky”. It takes a difficult-to-quantify number of pattern executions before the brain says to itself – “this one’s a keeper!” Once embedded, it is a lot easier to form a new habit than to “remove” an old one. Intensely pleasurable habits become embedded more quickly, and simple habits are easier to form than complex ones. For example, coming in from a long day at work, it is far easier to fall onto the sofa and immediately turn on the TV than get into your gym gear and drive straight to the gym to exercise.

In thinking about my habitual behaviours, I have realised that it isn’t inevitable that when I encounter the cue I have to execute the pattern. Duhigg writes about replacing the routines we execute when we meet the cue. For example, instead of taking a cookie when I go into the kitchen, I can take an apple. I still get the sugar hit, but with the added benefit of feeling virtuous for not eating the cookie. This approach doesn’t mean that I can’t ever eat treats – just that I can be more intentional than habitual about it.

Over time, by executing the replacement routine, we weaken the original programming. Simply knowing this can be beneficial in a range of negative behaviours, but can also lead to deliberate decisions to build new, more positive habits. While I am a collection of habits, I don’t need to give in to my negative ones – habitual badness isn’t inevitable!

The next time you notice a habitual behaviour, ask yourself – “how does this serve me?”. If the answer is that it doesn’t, take a look at Charles Duhigg’s work and think about what you might want to adjust to get a better outcome. And persist with the new routine – over time, it will stick and help you become a better version of yourself.

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