The Habit Paradox: Magic Pill or Stagnating Rut?
Are habits hindering or helping us — or both?
People waste hours each year because they drive the same old route to work which they happened to figure out the first few times they drove there. They don’t adapt to changes in the environment or optimize, instead they use the same preferred route over and over and over again.
Imagine you drive to work on an ordinary weekday morning. You’ve done this hundreds of times before. You know the route by heart. You don’t have to ponder at each junction whether to turn left or right. You get there mostly on autopilot, on your internal autopilot. Later you leave the car and step out into the parking lot, without remembering much of the trip, because you’ve done it so often before and it has become habitual.
We are creatures of habit. We form them to free up cognitive capacity when repeating behaviors.
Is that bad? Are habits automatic time sinks of our lives? Are they making us less productive and creative? Are they promoting less-than-ideal behavior?
Don’t get me wrong. I love habits. I love my morning routine. I love getting up on time to meditate, write, and exercise — before I start with the more usual morning activities like breakfasting or showering. This jump-starts my days and leaves me with a sense of accomplishment already before starting my regular workday.
Working on habits has helped me gain more control over my life, and to improve my productivity and health. I recommend it to everyone. Building positive habits and letting loose of negative ones — like smoking or watching TV — can change your life.
However, as habits grow more and more automatic, there is a risk that we might run into ruts so deep that we don’t realize we’re trapped in them, and of which we don’t easily get out again.
Are habits necessarily bad or doomed to turn bad over time?
I’d argue mostly no and partly yes. They can be both: time sinks and helpful tools. This seeming paradox dissolves when we differentiate between two types of habits: mindless and deliberate habits.
In the following I’ll explore their differences and give suggestions about how to improve our awareness, to help with identifying mindless habits. With the goal of lowering the amount time we waste by sticking to less-than-optimal habit patterns.
Deliberate Habit (magic pill): An advantageous habit you build consciously with effort and for which you have a goal in mind.
Examples: Daily exercise routine to get healthier. Teeth brushing after eating or before going to bed.
Mindless Habit (stagnating rut): A disadvantageous behavior that becomes habitual without us noticing it, or a deliberate habit of which the results turned less optimal than was planned or which became obsolete.
Examples: Taking the same route to work for years, even though there are faster options. Checking your phone for emails or messages first thing in the morning.
What made me reconsider the effects of habits?
Let’s see where this all comes from. How did I end up entangled in the question whether or not habits are actually as good as I thought they were?
While reading a book recently, I came across this:
“We’re generally creatures of habit. All too easily we can get stuck in a routine, doing the same thing the same way, year in, year out. Not only can this stifle curiosity and creativity, it can mean we stagnate and stop learning or growing” (Vanessa King, p. 160 in )
For years I’ve been working on my habits and thought them to be some sort of a magic pill to improve productivity and health. But there I had it, black on white, someone telling me that habits are bad.
“What?” — was my initial reaction. “Isn’t that the power of habits?” They’re becoming automatic so that we can do them easily and don’t need to spend much thought on them anymore. That’s what allows me to exercise every morning and write my morning pages effortlessly. “That’s not bad! Don’t make it sound bad!”
The idea wandered through my mind and kept creeping back every now and then. How could it be that I (and doubtlessly many others) think so highly of habits, while they can easily be viewed as negative, as something that hinders and blocks us from learning more, from growing?
It seemed like a paradox. How could habits be both at the same time?
The great strength of habits comes with the fact that, once established, we don’t have to pay much conscious thought on doing them anymore. We do them automatically, or we start them automatically at least. Nearly no willpower necessary. We already have cut out time for them in our daily schedules, we feel great once we complete them.
In my case, every morning run empowers me for the rest of the day, and every diary entry fills me with pride about having managed to preserve a little of my life in written form, for my future self to look back to.
This strength can turn into a problem, though. We don’t think about the activity itself anymore or why we chose to do it in the first place or whether it’s actually still helpful for us and leads to results we want. This might happen out of deliberate habits and of behaviors which just turned habitual unconsciously.
Everything we do regularly can become habitual. That’s great if you want to start a new habit, but it’s a problem when something we don’t necessarily want to continue doing becomes habitual, just because we do it regularly for a while and then stop thinking about it once it has done so.
The time-wasting commute
When I started pondering this topic, it reminded me of something I read years ago: Many people take the same course to work year for year for year. Even though in the meantime new streets were built (or a new bus/subway/train line) that would allow them to get to work and back quicker. People continue to take the same old route nonetheless. It wasn’t chosen deliberately either. It formed over the first few times they did this particular trip.
Unfortunately, I didn’t find the article or book in which I read about this first. But a little literature research showed that recent scientific publications find something similar when analyzing people’s driving habits.
A study by Lima and colleagues  analyzed GPS data of over 90'000 trips people drove. They found that many people don’t use optimized routes (shortest travel time or distance). Instead, people mostly stuck to a small set of preferred routes for trips they frequently made.
“In contrast to the cost minimization assumption, we also find that a significant fraction of drivers’ routes are not optimal.” (Lima et al. 2016, p. 1 )
In a much smaller sample, Zhu and Levinson  reported that in more than one third of the frequent trips (like commutes), the drivers wasted five or more minutes by using non-optimal routes.|² Given that the average commute in the investigated area took 24 minutes, that makes at least 20% of the whole commuting time.
While five minutes might not sound like much, it adds up. Over an average year with 250 workdays, these people would waste almost 21 hours because of their route choice. Another 21 hours if we account for the return trips.
More importantly, you could lose more than just the time you waste behind the wheel. Driving is not the safest activity (I wonder what that would be). Thus, your additional driving time adds to the risk of getting involved in an accident, which might leave you injured or even dead.
Generally, given that our time is finite, shouldn’t it be our goal to waste as little as possible?
Nowadays, we don’t really have an excuse anymore to simply continuing to take the route we’re used to. (Granted, we might come up with excuses — we’re rather good at this.)
It wouldn’t take us much effort to find an optimal or better route. “It would take way too long to figure out the optimal route, and I don’t want to get lost when I take an unfamiliar route” becomes ridiculous in the era of constantly available GPS.
We have our navigation system in the car or on our phones. We could just turn any of these little helpers on, enter our destination and follow its suggestion. We’re well experienced at this and do so each time we drive somewhere new.
But if we don’t start to question our behavior, we won’t see this obvious solution because we don’t even see the problem.
It doesn’t stop once we arrive in the office, though. At work, we can just as easily waste additional time by trotting along automated paths we got stuck to.
Ten minutes to stop an unnecessary habit
I recently noticed a mindless habit linked to writing my morning pages and changed it.
To write my morning pages, I use the text editor Vim. After writing, I often transfer the text to a website, which means I have to mark the whole text and copy-paste it.
The thing is that I can’t do that in Vim. Thus, after finishing my text, I would open the document in another text editor, where I can use the common keyboard shortcuts to mark the whole text, copy, and paste.
[CTRL]+[A], [CTRL]+[C], [CTRL]+[V]
That’s obviously an unnecessary additional step. I certainly realized that when I first started doing it. But it became habitual and I didn’t pay much attention to it anymore. I kept repeating this additional step, every day.
The reason why I began with it in the first place, was that I didn’t know how to copy text to the standard clipboard using Vim. I didn’t know it and didn’t look it up. I just turned to the described temporary solution via another editor.
This temporary solution became my rut, the mindless habit. Over time I had repeated it often enough that I stopped thinking about it. I simply followed the ridiculously unnecessary procedure, because it worked. Mindlessly.
Lately, however —I had just finished writing my diary entry and was about to open the other text editor — I noticed this stupidity and stopped.
Instead of opening the other text editor, I switched to my browser and googled how to copy to the standard clipboard in Vim.
That took me ten minutes.
In ten minutes I changed this mindless habit. The next two or three days I needed some cognitive capacity to remind me not to open the second text editor, but by now the correct procedure to copy and paste my texts out of Vim has become habitual.
How to build awareness to and avoid mindless habits
What does this tell us? I think we’re all prone to running into mindless habits, which we often don’t recognize as such and keep stuck to. However, once we notice them, we can do something about them and work on solutions. Thus, we need to train our awareness.
Coming back to the example of the morning commute. If you worry that you might lose time each day on your commute, I suggest you reevaluate your course for a while before you start it the next time. Maybe you take ten minutes out of your day to check for a better route before driving off, or simply use your navigation system to guide you without the unnecessary detour you might be taking otherwise.
More generally, we might come up with ideas to train our awareness to time sinks and other habits. I’ve collected suggestions and questions below, which I’ll try to use for me in the future.
How to identify mindless habits?
Every once in a while, take some time out of your day to go hunting for habits or habitual activities. Maybe you want to replay your whole day in your mind with a specific focus on automated activities. Go through your day from the moment you woke up. Think of tasks you do at work often or activities you have to do repeatedly at home.
You can ask yourself questions like:
- What activities do I do habitually/automatically?
- What has unconsciously become habitual in my life that I never wanted to do so?
- What activities run automatically without me putting much or any thought to it?
- When do I run on autopilot and what do I do then?
- What are activities that I can later not recall how I did them exactly?
Then, for each activity you identified, ask yourself whether it’s helpful that you do it habitually the way you do it.
Also sort through your deliberate habits and routines every now and then (I guess once or twice a year should do) to identify those which might have turned bad or obsolete.
For example, maybe you wanted to lose weight for a while and started logging your weight daily. After a year you managed to keep your target weight and daily weighing is no longer necessary, but you still keep doing it.
How to change or give up mindless habits?
Once you’ve identified a mindless habit, you probably want to change it into something better or get rid of it. Oftentimes, as in my examples (copy-paste and commuting route), there’s a simple solution to the mindless habit.
If a solution is not so readily available, here are some questions to ponder:
- How could I turn the behavior into something more helpful
- How can I optimize how I am doing this? (e.g. by looking up a better route to work)
- Who could help me or where could I find help to do that?
- Why did I start doing this activity in this particular way in the first place?
- Was it a deliberate choice or did I just start out somehow and ended up repeating it that way?
In conclusion, habits can both help us or be useless time-wasting activities we simply got used to doing because we started them some when. It’s crucial to separate between the two. With this in mind, we can identify and weed out mindless habits that grow between our carefully planted deliberate habits.
|¹ I’m not calling these habits mindful for a reason, however nicely it would contrast to mindless. A mindfulness habit is something rather specific in my mind and linked to practicing mindfulness.
|² There might be good reasons why one makes a detour during one’s commute (e.g. to drop someone off or pick someone up, to account for traffic) and route choice behavior and it’s modeling is interesting and intricate. (Have a look at the references I mentioned.) Still, I assume that often people don’t have such a reason.
 King, V. (2016). 10 Keys to Happier Living. Headline Publishing Group
 Lima A, Stanojevic R, Papagiannaki D, Rodriguez P, González MC. Understanding individual routing behaviour. Journal of the Royal Society Interface. 2016;13(116):20160021. doi:10.1098/rsif.2016.0021.
 Zhu S, Levinson D. Do People Use the Shortest Path? An Empirical Test of Wardrop’s First Principle. Ropert-Coudert Y, ed. PLoS ONE. 2015;10(8):e0134322. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0134322.