Ocean of Habits

A few days ago, I was asked what motivates me. In a polished answer that was only semi-truthful, I said that I’m motivated by the idea of legacy. People will remember no more of me than the memories and legacies I leave behind. Leaving a lasting legacy is what motivates my long-term decisions. Although this does largely reflect my ideology, it wasn’t an entirely candid response to the question. In the big picture, thinking about my legacy can serve to pick me up when I’m down. On a day-to-day basis, however, motivation takes the back seat. That’s where habit takes over.

In the purest sense, habits are what make us do what we do. Few people, if any, are fueled by their long-term motivations when faced with everyday obstacles. When I’m halfway through an essay and get the urge to check Facebook for “just a few minutes”, it isn’t the idea of my legacy that refocuses my wandering mind and pushes me to churn out my concluding paragraphs. When I groggily struggle out of bed at 7 in the morning to start my day off with a run, I don’t think about the long-term advantages of that decision. Maybe the first few times I did. At this point, however, such behaviors have simply become habits.

Nearly everything we do throughout each day is a result of a habit. Some habits are obvious, like how each morning we roll out of bed, head to the bathroom, brush our teeth, and maybe grab a coffee. Others we don’t realize until we actually take a step back and think about it. Maybe you put on your left shoe before your right. If you’re a student, maybe you tend towards the back of the class or the front. For lunch, you might always get food from the same place on the same day of each week. We are surrounded by innumerable habits that we often can’t see until we look at our lives from an external perspective.

In a renowned commencement speech titled This Is Water, David Foster Wallace talks about two little fish swimming in the ocean. They meet another fish swimming in the opposite direction who says to them, “Morning boys, how’s the water?” The two young fish swim on for a bit until one looks over at the other and asks,

“What the hell is water?”

Just like the fish oblivious to their surroundings, we too are fish swimming in an ocean of our habits. These habits quietly form currents and whirlpools, guiding us in seemingly random directions or keeping us going in the same endless, possibly frustrating circles. This all can happen without us realizing a thing. A habitual gambler gone bankrupt can look back on his gambling history, not being able to pinpoint the moment when it all went wrong. A prominent businessman can ponder his rise to success without being able to attribute it to a specific event or action. In both of these cases, the currents formed by their habits slowly but surely propelled them to where they have reached.

If our paths are so notably controlled by our habits, what does that say about the control we have over our own lives? To answer this question, it’s important to understand what habits are and how they work a little more systematically.

According to the ideas collected in The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, most habits consist of a predictable set of components: cue, routine, reward. In the case of a habit of constantly being distracted by cell phone notifications, for example, the habit is triggered by the notification — the cue.

Once you hear the notification sound or feel the vibration against your leg, you go through the routine of checking your phone. You’re then rewarded with a temporary distraction from the (possibly tedious) task you were focused on. Once this happens enough times, the cycle becomes a habit. Eventually, the notification sound or vibration begins to cause a craving for the reward, further driving the habit loop. Through association, even the task you were working on can eventually become a cue.

At that point, the currents of the habit ocean have formed into a whirlpool, keeping you constantly craving a distraction. If you’re like the two little fish in the story above, you’re oblivious to it. Every time you try working on a similarly tedious task, you feel agitated and unable to focus but you can’t tell why. Your phone may not even be within reach or sight, but your mind is quietly craving the distraction it can provide. Once a habit has formed, it occurs with little to no thought or intervention.

This can be a good thing in many situations. For example, it wouldn’t be effective for our brains to process and think through each and every detail when faced with a perceived threat. In a fight or flight response, it simply acts in an instinctive, habitual way that ensures survival. Other processes, like breathing or pumping blood, occur automatically so as to reduce the workload of the brain. Since things like respiration and blood circulation are systematic, pattern-based, and predictable, the brain relegates the task of handling those actions to a more primitive region that acts more or less automatically.

The mechanism of an ingrained habit is similar. Once we do something enough times, our brains find patterns in the process and slowly start to relegate that process to more primitive parts of the brain, leaving the higher-order regions to focus on other things. If you’ve ever zoned out while brushing your teeth or driving and managed to not spill toothpaste all over yourself or crash your car, you have this phenomenon to thank.

Obviously, habits define a large part of what we do day in and day out. What’s less obvious though is that habits also define who we are and how we identify ourselves.

Almost my entire life, I’ve thought of myself as a shy, introverted person. Starting conversations, making new friends, and going out of my way to network has never been my forte. As soon as I realized this — some time in early elementary school — I internally labeled myself as such.

I am shy. I am introverted.

When opportunities to meet new people came up, I thought, “This isn’t for me, I’m too shy.” When I meekly watched others be more social than me, I reasoned, “They’re extroverts; I’m an introvert.” When I was made fun of for my height, I resolved to try to blend into the crowd and stay silent. Experiences like these inadvertently took the words I used to describe myself and added a stamp of affirmation to the way I already identified myself.

And thus a habit was born. By believing I was intrinsically shy, I kept myself away from experiences and people that would have made me more outgoing and social. The more I thought of myself as shy, the more I avoided social interaction; the more I avoided social interaction, the more I thought of myself as shy. I was an oblivious fish trapped in a habit whirlpool.

It wasn’t just my own behaviors that reinforced the habit though. Online personality tests, report cards with notes on my shy nature, friends, and family all essentially told me the same thing. “You are an introvert.” When the world around you tells you you’re one thing, it gets pretty damn hard to make yourself believe you’re another.

The only way to escape a habit whirlpool is to first realize you’re in one. Once I realized that I was going in frustrating, endless circles with my introversive habits, it was a lot easier to engender change. What I previously viewed as an immutable staple of my personality suddenly became a malleable trait I could develop however I wanted.

My introversion habit started with a cue; I was faced with a situation in which I could either socialize or stay silent. In the past I chose silence time and time again, and was rewarded with a sense of safety. Nothing gained, nothing lost.

Today, I choose the first option. I start conversations with as many people as I can. Sometimes it feels awkward, sometimes it doesn’t. No matter how the interaction goes, however, one thing from the old reward stays absolutely constant. Nothing lost. But with this new routine, something is usually gained. A new perspective, a sense of community, a new friend, or pride in having transformed what I believed was a part of who I am.

Society makes a very big deal out of embracing who we are. Although that idea has its merits, I believe it is much more important to take the steps to become who you want to be. In my view, this is the fundamental reason why we exist: to better ourselves and transitively the world we live in.

So today, I invite you to take a look at your life from above the surface of the ocean. Be a fish out of water. It may be uncomfortable but discomfort reveals truths we could not otherwise see. Look at the things you do and determine whether you’re doing those things because you truly want to or because your actions are being controlled by a habit current. Look at the way you describe yourself and realize that ostensibly permanent facets of your identity may just be habit whirlpools waiting to be noticed and escaped.