We think of building healthy behaviors or increasing productivity as a matter of willpower. We seek knowledge and goal setting skills to make the desired change. With determination and discipline, we may succeed, at least for days or even months—but more than often, we fall off course. The common assumption is that our day-to-day decisions are conscious choices. But our ability to make informed decisions that control our behavior is fundamentally limited. Psychology and neuroscience suggest that most of our actions are borne out of habit—they are reflexive, instinctive, and occur outside the awareness of our conscious mind. And if we pit one against the other, our thinking minds are no match for our automatic habits.
Our brains are continually shifting between two processing systems. One is our thinking brain, which makes rational, goal-oriented decisions based on our beliefs and values. This type of thinking is slow and energy draining, demanding our full attention. The other system is reflexive and automatic. While fast and efficient, it makes decisions that escape our awareness and disregard long-term consequences.
Habits begin in our thinking brain but gradually shift from deliberate control to being outsourced to our automatic brain, through repetition in the same context until the context alone can trigger the action. Without habit, we simply wouldn’t have the internal resources to think through the infinite activities we do every day, such as brushing our teeth, getting dressed, or driving to work. Habits, however, are not merely repeated behaviors. The essence of what makes a behavior a habit is that it is automatic, cued by a situation, mood, or context rather than conscious decision making.
The striking thing is that we define ourselves by our conscious choices. As a result, we view an inability to change behavior, be it a new diet or exercise routine, as a failure or lack of willpower. Yet our unconscious choices, or habits, are just as much, if not a greater part of us. By tapping into our automatic brain, understanding how habit works, and using it to our advantage, we can access an underutilized way of achieving long-lasting results.
Principle #1: Pave the path of least resistance
Using our thinking brain is cumbersome and exhausting. We prefer not to think through decisions unless they demand our attention. When possible, we opt for mental shortcuts by defaulting to our automatic brain. Even when we strive to be mindful, most of our day-to-day choices are mindless. As a result, cues in our environment shape our decisions. Studies have shown that by using smaller plates, we reduce our portion size; we will choose foods that are in proximity to us at a salad bar more often than ones we have to reach for, and even tiny deterrents like slowing the speed elevator doors close make us opt for stairs. By actively shaping our microenvironment, we can make the healthy choice the easy choice. Think about this when you want to get the desired response. Want to snack healthier at work? Have cut up vegetables or nuts readily available in your office. Want to be more physically active? Buy a home in a walkable community.
Principle #2: Eliminate barriers to making rational decisions
We spend a lot of effort on trying to develop desirable habits but far less on how we can overcome the obstacles that stand in our way. When we are sleep deprived, mentally exhausted, or stressed, our instinctive brain hijacks our thinking brain. Stressful thoughts and emotions can tie up your conscious brain while your automatic brain is choosing chocolate cake, satisfying momentary pleasure without regard for long-term health. Lack of sleep impairs higher-order thinking from your pre-frontal cortex, the CEO of our brain, similarly impairing judgment. By getting a minimum of seven hours of sleep and doing relaxing, soul-nurturing activities, you can give your rational, slow-thinking brain what it needs to make more intentional decisions.
Principle #3: Create desirable habits
Let’s say you want to increase your productivity. Remember that choice is the enemy of automaticity. Rather than waking up and each morning deciding what you are going to do first or what you want to eat for breakfast, create a set routine. For example, start with a good stretch or workout, make a hot soothing drink, and sit down to write or plan your daily agenda. Lather, rinse, repeat in the same context until your sequence becomes automatic and effortless. That way, instead of spending the start of your day drifting without focus, you can hit the ground running and stay on task the rest of the day. That is the power of habit. Up to 45% of everyday activities are estimated to be behaviors that we tend to repeat in the same physical location every day. That leaves a lot of opportunities to leverage automaticity to complement our conscious choices.
Principle #4: Identify bad habits—and then disrupt
It is harder to break a bad habit than to add a good habit. If you have repeatedly reinforced a bad habit, you may not even realize you are doing it. For example, we check our email an average of 6.3 hours a day, and Facebook gets an additional 40 minutes. Each time you get distracted, it takes an average of 25 minutes to regain your focus back to your original task. How can you resist the temptation? Disrupt the context that prompts you. Don’t stay logged into your email. Work off-line or close out unnecessary applications. Doing so will force you to consciously choose when to check in. And batching your work lets you gain back control over your time. Similarly, if you have gotten in the habit of stopping at your favorite fast food restaurant on your way home from the gym, take a different route. Then, you will have to think about what you want for dinner.
Yes, we are that simple. We are creatures of habit. There is a primitive, animalistic part in all of us. But what sets us apart is that we are also thinking beings that can structure our surroundings to use habit to our advantage.