105: Why Habits Are More Important Than We Can Imagine

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Why Are Habits Important?

Humans are, by our nature, creatures of habit. ~45% of our reported activities in a given day are habitual, performed automatically without much thought.

Let this number sink in for a moment.

Don’t get me wrong, adding a new habit or subtracting a bad one is great. But let’s think bigger. How about taking back control over half of what we will do for the rest of our lives?

Because habits occur outside the spectrum of thought, we are inherently incapable of knowing how prevalent and influential they really are. My own suspicion is that habits are not only more important than we imagine, but more important than we can imagine.

A tower can only grow as tall as its foundation allows.

Habits are the essential foundation for any productivity practice. The appearance of superhuman levels of self-discipline is simply a collection of strong habits, carefully cultivated over time. Overnight success is a myth perpetuated by biographies that spare you the boring details of gym time.

“The difference between an amateur and a professional is in their habits. An amateur has amateur habits. A professional has professional habits.”
Steven Pressfield

With habits, free will is an illusion. Half of our daily actions are actually predetermined by context, performed unconsciously. Our perception of conscious control is a backwards-facing rationalization, designed to protect our ego and retrofit a messy reality into a cleaner narrative.

Mediocrity is nothing more than accumulated behavioral debt, a kludge of inherited habits left unexamined. A zombie does not think of himself as a zombie. He just has come to the inevitable conclusion that brains are an excellent source of protein after a long day’s shuffle.

“You are not the king of your brain. You are the creepy guy standing next to the king going ‘a most judicious choice, sire’.”

Steven Kaas

Now that I have your attention, let’s back up for a minute. What is a habit?

I will define a habit as an “automatic behavior that is triggered by context from the situation.” Let’s break this definition into [automatic behaviors] + [triggered by context from the situation] and approach them one at a time.

Why Are Habits Automatic?

In an evolutionary sense, the automaticity of habits is essential to our survival. Thoughtlessness is generally a feature, not a bug. Habits are what allows us to function in the world.

If we had to be consciously aware of all the millions of micro-decisions we make every day, we would never get anywhere. Imagine we had to explicitly weigh the pros and cons of behaviors like whether or not to wash our hands everytime we used the bathroom.

Your brain makes up only 2% of your total mass, but it consumes 20% of all the oxygen you inhale. By necessity, brains are the most efficient processors on the planet, constantly making necessary tradeoffs between decision quality and decision speed.

Every marginal decision made comes at the expense of decision quality for all our other decisions. Any decision that can be eliminated frees up cognitive resources which can be redirected towards decisions of higher importance. Habits effectively allow our brains to outsource some of the grunt work of decision making to our environments.

As habits become more automatic, neural activity transfers from the prefrontal cortex to the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia, one of the oldest structures in our brain, is completely exempt from the process of thinking. From the brain’s perspective, this is managerial alchemy on a grand scale.

Triggered by Context

Habits emerge through associative learning, most famously demonstrated in Pavlov’s experiments with dogs. A context trigger can be anything in our internal or external environment which we associate with the habit. Every time a habit action is repeated in a stable context, our brains strengthen the association between the habit and the trigger.

I will give examples of triggers and ways to create them in the next post.

The Habit Loop

This brings us to the Habit Loop, a helpful framework originating in The Power of Habit, which deconstructs a habit into its three component parts:

  1. Triggers are contextual details which your brain has previously associated with a habit. Triggers set the habit loop in motion by sending our brain into auto-pilot.
  2. Behaviors are the actual habit response exhibited. Behaviors can be either actions performed externally or reactive patterns of thought.
  3. Rewards reinforce a habit, causing our brain to strengthen the associated link between the Trigger and the Behavior.

Triggers, Behaviors, and Rewards are our three potential points of leverage when we create and strengthen our habits. By focusing on our current habit bottleneck, the “weakest link” of the three, we can greatly accelerate the habit building process.

In the next three posts, I will show you how to determine which part of the Habit Loop is your bottleneck and lay out proven strategies for attacking that weak link.

I will conclude today’s introduction to habits with a metaphor to help you clearly visualize our general strategy for changing a habit.

Upstream Effects

Close your eyes for a moment. Imagine you are water flowing down a river.

When a river is formed, water hollows out a channel for itself in the earth. Every day the water flows, the channel grows wider and deeper. The direction the water flows downstream is completely determined by the shape of a channel formed over many years. The river can flow in a different direction if the channel is redirected.

Given enough repeated effort and time, all rivers can be redirected.

Habits work in the same way. Every time a habit is repeated, our river channel becomes deeper, as every action makes that action more likely in the future. Our behavior is completely predicted by our current environmental context and the habits we have previously linked to that context.

We can reshape our future behavior by redirecting our river to a new channel [changing our context] or reshaping our channel over time [linking new habits to that context].

Actions taken to change our habits precede the actual habit change. To redirect the river, we must go upstream from the intended destination. Thus, I call the actions we take to change our habits upstream effects.

The longer a habit has existed, the deeper the river channel will become. Thus it will require proportionally more effort to change. However, once the flow is redirected, all downstream (future) behaviors will be positively affected.

Default Thinking

Think of our habits as our defaults.

Every situation we find ourselves in will have a default association and reaction. As our attention becomes increasingly scarce, it seems safe to assume that we will increasingly default to our defaults.

With a concentrated effort, our defaults can be occasionally be overcome in real-time. This effort is admirable but completely unsustainable. Only salmon have the biological programming to swim against the current for so long.

If your daily habits require discipline to execute, you’re doing it wrong. With a habit-centric approach, we don’t “do things” as much as “make the things we want to do easier to do in the future”. Redirect that discipline towards building systems which can redirect the flow of our future behavior by making your habits easier to perform.

Thus, habit building is not a one-time effort but an ongoing process of observation and correction of our defaults. It is a learnable meta-skill that we practice (or neglect) throughout our lives.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Will Durant

Every action taken is feedback we use to reshape our default response for similar situations in the future. As we approach habit mastery, we regain influence over our own behavior, becoming authors of our own lives rather than just characters.

Nothing we ever do happens in a vacuum. A cookie eaten today strengthens the habit of eating cookies, increasing the chances of another cookie being eaten tomorrow. The choices we make today determine the choices that will be made for us tomorrow.

“What we do today, echoes throughout eternity.”

Marcus Aurelius

In the next chapter on habit triggers, you will learn how to make the best use of your environment in order to create strong habits.

Next: Triggers — The Key to Building and Breaking Habits

I’m Chris Sparks, founder of The Forcing Function, helping entrepreneurs multiply their productivity by designing the habits and systems which maximize personal effectiveness.

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