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How Do We Establish Habits?

Do old habits die hard sound all too familiar? Let’s dive to the bottom of how such nuisances come to see the day of light!

There are two ways to establish habits.

The quick method that doesn’t require any effort on our conscious part works automatically. It was designed to entice us into doing otherwise undesirable tasks, such as climbing trees, risk being attacked, or keep on doing mind-numbingly boring stuff.

What’s with chemistry again?

As we have gone through in the previous articles of this series (How the Brain Works) our body is a collection of chemically bonded elements that during their quest, to transfer matter from one state to another, become a multicellular living organism.

Maybe, it’s worth to note that this could only be possible in a bipolar system where energy travels through a channel from one state to another, such as the case with our Sun radiating energy into the coldness of space with our Planet at the right spot in between, receiving energy and radiating away too.

Being multicellular though, requires not just different cell types for different functions, but it also requires the establishment of communication channels, so each organ knows what is expected of it. Using chemicals in a chemical system to signal change seemed like an obvious choice which stuck.

Of course, where speed was paramount, electricity with specialized nerve system took over, but that’s another matter.

Dopamine is one such a special chemical called hormone that gets released in our brain when something highly desirable happens to our body, such as refined carbs hitting our tongue. Since dopamine is produced locally, where it is needed, it does different things for different organs but why we like dopamine is because the release of dopamine in the brain gives us motivational salience or in more human terms, makes us happy.

Is happiness the key?

We like being happy.

We like being happy so much that we keep doing anything until it stops making us happy.

This is why, at least some of us, keep doing things like there is no tomorrow. Binge watching series, shopping, getting on drugs or shoveling down exorbitant amount of food are all the results of constant dopamine hunt.

Unfortunately, this type of happiness piling has its downsides when happiness is no more, and our conscious self needs to face the consequences of our unconscious ravage.

If this wouldn’t be enough of a pain, the limit to reach the same level of happiness keeps on growing too. This is why the same amount of coffee, chocolate or whatever happiness inducing thing only provides elation for a short period of time.

To reach the same level of satisfaction like we had the first time, we need to increase the dose regularly.

Curiously, things can go quite awry not just on an individual level but society wise too. Early dessert recipes required way less sugar than nowadays seems normal. Although hard to pinpoint the exact cause, the fact we eat sugar in every of our meals must have been played a role in increasing the amount of sugar in desserts so they actually feel different than normal meal.

Sweetening our meals artificially not just blunts our taste perception, builds false food library for our body but pushes the limits to reach happiness higher than its necessary.

Yet, adding anything sweet to any food will make it instantly likable and it’s a sure-fire way of us wanting of it more not just now but every time we have a chance.

Figuring out how those chances happen more frequently is what our body has grown a neocortex for. Our subconscious does the boring, yet crucially important habit building stuff of recording all the things leading us to highly desired actions.

How do habits look in action?

The psychological process of habits can be broken down to three (sometimes four) parts and it is called the habit loop.

Our brain records cues, it identifies as the leading cause of specific actions that will result in rewards. Such as driving home on a regular day and seeing a specific food chain’s logo.

If we have ever stopped there on our way home for a bite and it was good, it has been recorded as a rewarding experience for future use. So, now seeing that logo again, acts as a cue triggering the action of us, stopping and buying some stuff there again with each rewarding occasion, reinforcing the loop making the habit more persistent.

Cues can be more subtle than a huge neon light flashing us to eat there though. It could be as mundane as finishing a task at work. We take a short break and accidentally come across a chocolate bar. Our unconscious brain doesn’t need much convincing to store this little trip of ours as a habit then make us hunt around for chocolate bars every time we take a break.

Can we create habits at will?

The other way to establish habits, uses the same processes but requires more, sometimes huge effort on our conscious part because generally this doesn’t include anything that’s instantly gratifying.

We just have to keep doing the thing over and over again until our unconscious accepts it as a default response for specific cues. This is why, it’s more important to start something small, like working out only 5 minutes a day then slowly introduce increments to the process until it reaches the desired amount.

Due to habits stored in different parts of our brain, even people who can’t form new memories, due to head injuries or stroke, can form new habits hence learn new things if they do it enough times. They are not able to explain the why and how, but they can follow through the actions as long as nothing unexpected happens.

When building new habits, it’s crucial to follow up, previously established cues with actions. Get up in the morning, go to toilet, drink water, put on jogging gear, warm up, go for a run.

Adding something new, like checking the news or solving Wordle, which are certainly more entertaining than warming up or running, (or God forbid, we skip the training session altogether because we’ve just run out of time,) will send signals to our unconscious that can derail the whole habit building process.

What does it take to establish habits?

What could be disheartening when we try to introduce change in our life is that the average time for new behavior to become automatic is 66 days but it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days  for a new habit to form.

Yet, if we want lasting changes in our life, we have to start with its foundations. The good news is that introducing changes, breaking or building habits however impossible, they may seem at first, it only requires of us to start it.