To minimize the amount of brain power we consume doing everyday tasks – and thus create brain space to solve new problems – our brains have a whole section devoted to storing learned behaviours. It has been scientifically proven that if we repeat a certain set of tasks, our brains work less and less each time we perform the tasks. For example, I travel often and I enjoy a cup of coffee in my hotel room in the morning. When I get to a new hotel, it is often a struggle to figure out the machine in the room the first morning. But if I stay in the same place for a few days, the process becomes very automatic, very quickly. After a short time, making the cup of coffee requires no thought at all.
This ability gives our brains room to keep figuring out new things. Imagine if we had to re-think through everything every day. How to drive to work, how to change a diaper, how to start the lawn mower. We would be unable to progress without this mental capacity to store things we have already learned and to call up that learned process whenever we need it. We would spend all of our mental energy re-learning how to do everything!
But this powerful and important human ability has a dark side. Our brains are continuously seeking rewards. We seek to repeat pleasurable experiences and escape bad ones. Part of these habits we store is what the reward is at the end. It is obvious how important this was in our evolution. Our brains store the way to peel a certain fruit, for instance, and the fact that once you remove the terrible tasting skin, there is a wonderful sweet snack inside.
This is how we come to open the fridge to get the milk and end up grabbing the piece of chocolate cake almost without thought. Our brain sees the cake, recognizes the sweet reward, and almost without thought, we take the cake out, get the knife, and slice off a piece when all we intended to do was get some milk for our coffee. Same goes for smoking, gambling, or going to the vending machine for chips in the afternoon. It goes something like this:
Cue: Feeling bored, fidgety, and unproductive after working for an hour at my desk
Routine: Get up and go outside for a smoke
Reward: Talk and laugh with co-worker and craving goes away
Habits, like smoking, that come with an element of physical addiction, are extra hard to beat.
The key to changing a habit, according to Duhigg, is to follow this process:
Step one: identify the routine you want to change
In my case, the routine I am trying to beat is snacking before I go to bed. This habit has held me back for 20 years from losing my love handles, and it leads to less refreshing sleep and a bloated (and guilty) feeling in the morning.
Step two: experiment with rewards
The reward that drives my late-night snacking behaviour is the satisfaction of the hunger that sneaks in late at night, as well as relief of the boredom that comes before bed. Boredom that naturally comes as I watch TV and try to clear my brain and relax.
Step three: isolate the cue
The cue that starts all this is a little tiny hunger pang. With nothing else to do, I grab a box of cereal and contentedly munch away. This happens so quickly and automatically I have sometimes eaten a few handfuls before I even consider what I am doing.
Step four: have a plan
The reward I most need to satisfy is the boredom; the hunger is secondary. I have read that most hunger, if we have already consumed enough calories for the day, is actually dehydration. My solution so far is, when that pre-bedtime hunger cue hits, I get up, drink a large glass of water, and then take the dog for a walk. The water works on the hunger pang and the dog walk works on the boredom. This is a reward when the weather is nice and is working so far. I think I will need a new “reward” when Winnipeg winter comes back!
Since I have read Duhigg’s book, I have developed a lot more tolerance and understanding of my own counter-productive behaviours, and I have discovered a new empathy for those people around me battling their own bad habits. I can also see that changing habits is not something that we can simply will ourselves to do. Instead, if we take the time to understand how our brains work, we can come up with plans to change our behaviours in ways that have a much higher chance of success.