For most of us, our habits such as coffee orders, scrolling through our phones, brushing our teeth can seem innocuous or even mundane. However, could forming habits, and consequently breaking them, be more of a challenge to our psyche than previously thought. We speak with Raul Aparici from the School of Life and Dr Heather McKee to explore how we are the sum of our habits and unconscious actions.
Bad Habits/ Part of Us
How They Work
All habits are part of the integral psychological behaviour that shapes our lives. Habits often begin as unconscious choices. However, a neural pathway is formed and strengthened through contextual repetition. “If you do something enough times ” explains Dr Heather McKee a behavioural psychologist specialising in habit formation, “in certain circumstances it becomes a habit’. It is estimated that 40 – 55% of our daily actions, although appearing as autonomous decisions, are actually the result of reinforced habitual behaviour.
When understanding how habits are formed, it is important to consider that all habits, including the bad ones, are created in a behavioural loop that reward certain behaviours with a payoff. A habits starts with an environmental trigger or ‘cue’, but is reinforced through routine and finally, the receipt of reward. Whether it’s the short term satisfaction of smoking a cigarette or the long term health gain of brushing your teeth, we are in it for the positive pay off.
The example that is used by Charles Duhigg in ‘The Power of Habit’ is toothpaste. Before toothpaste was created almost no Americans brushed their teeth. Hopkins, the man tasked with advertising toothpaste made over a million dollars himself from the Pepsodent deal, simply from ‘taking advantage of a quirk in the neurology of habits”. Hopkins created a “toothbrushing habit by identifying a simple and obvious cue, delivering a clear reward and —most important —by creating a neurological craving.” The teeth’s ‘film’ or coat was the trigger, the toothbrushing the routine and the clean, pretty teeth the reward. The neurological craving Hopkins created was the key to his success, the tingling menthol sensation that triggers our brain into thinking it has received the reward. The power of our habits is not just personal but one that can be leveraged.
Raul Aparici, School of Life
Evolution, not revolution.
The Habit Loop
Why it’s difficult to let go of a bad thing
Although some habits can reinforce positive behaviour and change, these often co-exist with bad ones. Habits, especially ones we consider ‘bad’, are the pieces of the puzzle that we believe if we could change, would have positive effects that ripple through other areas of our lives. However,when it comes to ‘breaking’ bad habits, the process always seems far more difficult in practice.
Our habits always serve a purpose. Whether it is the comfort of reward or gratification, habit loops are cycles of behaviour formed over consistent time and behavioural reinforcement. It follows, that when we seek to change them, we can be faced with a more complex change than we expect.
We are creatures of habits, and bad habits are just as much part of sense of selves as our good habits. As Aparici explains “We need to trust we have deep – seated reasons for our behaviours and that attempting to change those behaviours without understanding why we engage in them in the first place, gives us limited success”.
How to break a habit
When we consider breaking a habit, is important to consider the triggers that drive a habit. Instead of simply focussing on the final outcome, “think of it like untangling a knot” says Dr McKee. “You can’t pull either side, that just makes it tighter,” he explains, “you’ve got to look at untangling them one step at a time”. Instead of considering the larger issue as just one big habit, Dr Mckee recommends examining the network of micro-habits that form them. “Although the old saying of 21 days to break a habit, recent research shows it now looks more like 66 days” says Dr McKee the first step is self compassion, and identifying the choices and routines that create the habit loop.
3 Steps To Breaking A Habit, according to Raul Aparici
Curiosity – explore what triggers your habit, and why you started it. Seek to understand the behaviour behind the habit.
Compassion – treat yourself from a place of compassion, making a change is a challenge and be kind to yourself . Reward yourself for taking a positive step. Don’t set yourself unrealistic tasks and fail before you’ve begun.
Company – support is key to making a change. Seek allies that will encourage you. Making your intentions public turns your goals into actions.