5 Little-Known Facts About Habits That Will Change The Way You Look At Them Forever
You know you have bad ones and good ones.
You are perfectly aware of the fact that you “should really stop smoking” or “finally start working out again”.
But how can you change something, if you don’t know how it works?
When you have no clue that your car needs oil to run, how can you know it’s oil you need to put in when it suddenly stops dead in the middle of the road?
The solution is to educate yourself.
Once you know how habits work, changing them becomes much easier.
That’s why I’ve picked out 5 facts about habits hardly anyone is aware of to share with you today.
That way, the next time you find yourself munching on a Twinkie, you’ll know what’s happening — and changing your behavior will be easier.
Full disclosure: I found all of these facts in this brilliant book called ‘The Power of Habit’ by Charles Duhigg.
1. Half of the time you are awake is spent with automatic behaviors
Long gone are the times when experimenting with habits such as meditation or yoga was only for Zen monks and gurus.
Nowadays everyone and their brother is doing yoga and over 2 million people use HeadSpace, an app for guided meditations.
Because more and more the findings from research start seeping into our brains: habits matter.
This study from Duke University in 2006 found that up to 45% of all our daily behaviors are automatic.
Let me say that again: You spend 1 out of every 2 minutes doing something that you’re not even aware of.
If you just went “Holy Shit!” then all I can say is: Good. It’s about time.
But why does our brain automate so freaking much of what we do?
2. Habits are a way for your brain to save energy
One word: energy.
Your brain is the most efficient processor on the planet.
Forget Moore’s law and doubling the cores of your CPU, if we understand the brain in it’s entirety, we win.
Your brain makes up only 2% of your total mass, but it consumes 25% of all the oxygen you inhale.
Boy, this thing better be efficient. And it is. That’s why it’s constantly looking for new ways to save energy.
Automating behaviors in the form of habits is one of the best ways to do so.
Your brain divides a complex pattern into small chunks. Each chunk is then automated, requiring less and less brain activity the more often it is repeated.
Researchers recreated this behavior with rats running through mazes. After a clicking noise which opened the door into the maze, the rats had to find their way through 2 sections for a piece of chocolate.
Check out their brain activity on their first try and after one week of repeating the same parcours:
Once they knew: “As soon as the door clicks I can just run straight, turn left and get some chocolate”, their brain put their bodies on an automated sequence, minimizing the energy required to take action or process information along the way.
The exact same thing happens when you reach for the cookie jar for the millionth time — your brain just doesn’t consider it a task anymore — and you go on autopilot.
Which is why…
3. Habits are even tougher to break than you thought — way tougher
Sometimes I look at people who smoke and think: “What the fudge? Does he have no clue how short life is? How can I take him even seriously, if he’s smoking?”
That’s a mistake (I’m human too).
It’s so easy to judge others based on actions and ourselves based on intentions.
But that guy, standing at the corner, puffing on his cigarette, isn’t trying to.
He probably has all the intention to stop — it’s just freaking hard to do.
I’m sorry, random dude.
The reason habits are so tough to break lies in the structure of your brain.
Evolutionary speaking, the farther outside you go, the newer the parts of the brain. Your prefrontal cortex, where all complex thinking is done, is right behind your forehead.
Here’s where the basal ganglia is, the part of the brain where habits are formed:
This little lump of tissue with the size of a golfball has been around for a few thousand years.
It already made sure the caveman ancestor of your great-grandfather kept breathing, swallowing and running away from a saber tooth tiger.
If that’s the kind of stuff that’s anchored in your basal ganglia, then you can imagine it would be fairly hard to get it out of there again.
As researchers’ work with a man named Eugene Pauly, 71-years old, suffering from severe memory loss after illness, showed, habits rooted in the basal ganglia are so strong, they can survive severe brain damage.
It’s no wonder you can’t just quit smoking from one day to the next.
4. Habits are a spiritual thing — you better believe it
The reason why AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) is so efficient and has boasted about 2 million members each year, for the past 25 years, is surely not it’s 12-step program.
The steps help, but they’re not magic.
Alcohol addiction is a serious medical condition, people institutionalize themselves to get rid it.
What fuels the success of AA is belief.
Some time during that first meeting, every newcomer looks around and starts thinking: “If it worked for that guy over there, why not for me?”
Getting together, sharing feelings and rallying together creates a common belief among the group, that things can change.
And to top it all off: belief works on top of belief.
Studies have shown that while no particular religion helped AA individuals reach sobriety faster, having any sort of faith at all made a huge difference over atheists and agnostics.
5. One keystone habit can change everything
Once we go further down the “habit hole”, we usually find dozens of things we want to change.
Quit biting nails, stop drinking, don’t eat out so much, start running AND swimming, oh yeah and let me write that book.
This is neither efficient, nor even necessary.
It’s enough for you to change one habit, it just has to be the right one.
Duhigg describes these as keystone habits, which cause a positive ripple effect and automatically infer changes in other areas.
When Paul O’Neill became CEO of Alcoa (a huge aluminium manufacturer) in 1987 he started his first speech with the words: “I want to talk to you about worker safety.”
This inevitably led to investors calling their clients and telling them that ‘The board put a crazy hippie in charge and he’s going to kill the company’.
Paul would be the one to laugh last. When he retired in 2000, the company’s net income had quintupled — a 5x on profits, just from making sure no one staples their foot to the ground.
As it turns out, optimizing safety at work was the keystone habit that streamlined the entire production process.
O’Neill’s legacy still lives on today. In 2010, over 80% of Alcoa’s locations worldwide did not lose one single employee day due to injuries.
You don’t have to start big, but you have to start with the right habit.
Just like Indy had to choose the right cup in ‘The Last Crusade’.
Your habit MBA is now complete — what next?
Kudos! Consider yourself educated.
You just learned 5 things about habits that will probably change the way you look at them forever.
Want more? Here are 3 more lessons from The Power of Habit.