Habits – Are They Controlling You? (Part 1)

Part 1: Yes

When you woke up this morning, how long did you have to think about it before you decided that, this morning, you were going to brush your teeth?

That simple question, when you really think about it, tells you a lot about how behaviour works because the answer is you don’t think about it (I hope). There’s no weighing up of pros and cons, there’s no drawn-out analysis of options, you just get up and brush your teeth. This is, as a crude illustration, a habit.

Habits are actions that you undertake every day, in similar contexts. Indeed habits are likely to make up the vast majority of our day to day behaviours, but there’s far more to it than first appears; habits aren’t just things you do all of the time, they’re routines which are hard-wired into your brain. This is important to consider, for two good reasons:

  1. They become hard to break
  2. They WILL be acted upon if you aren’t paying attention

In this blog, I’m going to explain exactly what a habit IS, and in the next one we’ll look at what you can do to mould your habits into something that benefits you, rather than holds you back because make no mistake – they definitely CAN hold you back. These hard-wired series’ of actions you undertake are the things that will call for you to have a couple of biscuits with your evening meal, to grab a dessert after a savoury meal, to have a glass of wine after work, or to sit on the sofa rather than head out to Spin class.

Habits can make or break your healthy lifestyle, so let’s start to understand them.

A habit is a set of actions that are ‘chunked’ together into one routine, cued by a particular event, and resulting in a given reward. For example, let’s consider what happens when you make a morning coffee:

  1. Wake up
  2. Go to the toilet/brush your teeth
  3. Head downstairs
  4. Boil the kettle
  5. Prepare your coffee of choice
  6. Get the milk (or not – don’t judge!)
  7. Pour the water over
  8. Stir
  9. Add milk
  10. Drink

The first time you did that there was quite a lot of brainpower needed. You had to decide you wanted the coffee, you had to choose which kind you were going to have (instant, espresso, cafetiere, etc?), you had to decide if you were going to have milk, whether to have it before or after breakfast and so on and so forth. Easily 10-15 little decisions needed to be made, and you had to concentrate during the whole process. That’s pretty damn inefficient, but you probably thought that it was worth it because, if you’re anything like over 75% of the UK adult population, you will drink a morning coffee 5+ days per week.

The reason for this could be due to the taste and the smell, but more likely it’s down to the caffeine, which can improve mood, increase alertness, and generally make mornings a bit less rubbish. You are consciously aware of that, but moreover, your brain is very, very aware of it. As such, when you drank that coffee the ‘happy’ chemical, dopamine, was released into an area of your brain known as the striatum, and another known as the hippocampus. This is the reward response, and its role is to reinforce behaviour by creating anticipation, because it doesn’t just remember how good coffee is, it remembers the stuff that happened before the act of coffee drinking: The method of preparation, the presence (or lack) of milk, and even – critically – you waking up.

It remembers this thanks to plasticity, which is a property of your brain that enables it to adapt to different stimuli and, ultimately, learn. When you learn something or indeed create a habit, your brain PHYSICALLY changes. New connections are made between neurons, and some older connections are lost, and this makes these things very difficult to get rid of.

This means that the next time you experience the same initial cue, your brain, thanks to the hippocampus and striatum, start to create cravings for the reward, and present the idea of the routine to you (meaning simply that you’ll start thinking about it). In this instance the cue is waking up and the associated reward coffee, but it could also be finishing a meal (associated with dessert), making a cup of tea (and grabbing biscuits), finishing your work emails (and taking a chocolate bar break), finishing a week of work (and ordering pizza), and even the acts of preparing food for work the next day, setting an alarm, and hitting snooze. Habits are, in fact, likely responsible for almost all of your day to day eating and lifestyle choices so long as you’re in the same usual context of work and home life.

But wait, there’s more…

It’s ultimately the striatum that is able to chunk behaviours together into one routine, and that’s the key thing here. Because these actions are chunked your brain no longer treats them as separate things, and so you don’t need to think about anything between steps, your brain just runs the program. You’re able to stop yourself, of course, but there are three things to consider:

  • During times of stress, you are less able to exert executive decisional power over these habitual actions and are far more likely to just go with it. Your brain, simply, is distracted
  • Even if you don’t go through with it and resist the habit, you’ll crave the reward and that can be tough. Remember I said that dopamine will increase to make you feel good after experiencing your reward? Well, it can actually decrease if anticipation is instigated but the reward doesn’t come – cravings cause physical changes that can put you in a bad mood
  • You have to be paying attention in the first place because if you aren’t the striatum is able to send signals to the motor cortex and literally make you go through with the routine without consulting the frontal cortex – your conscious brain. This is why you sometimes find yourself in the fridge and aren’t sure why

This is a major problem because if you’re going to make a lifestyle change you’re going to have to change your behaviours, thus tackle your habits. There may be as many as 30 or 40 habits you have that are holding you back and so this really could represent the largest stumbling block between you and success.

So here’s where we are so far:

  • Most of your actions are habitual, including going to (or avoiding) the gym, your food choices, snack frequency, bedtime and, back to the initial question, your dental hygiene routine
  • Habits are routines you undergo after experiencing a cue because your brain wants a certain reward
  • These habits are hardwired into your brain thanks to physical changes
  • You’re likely to give in to habits if you aren’t paying attention or if you’re stressed
  • Even if you do manage to resist your habit, the resultant cravings can make your life miserable

It’s fairly clear, then, that habits are things we need to take seriously and work to control, but how do we do that?

Look out for part 2 next week and we’ll look at moulding habits around your goals, rather than letting them derail you…

Go to part two

"All in or all out" Rachael is a vibrant, no-bullshit-talking Scottish nutrition geek and coach helping women to lose weight without giving up their confidence OR their favourite foods.

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