How Habits Help You Make Decisions

In the early 1990s, MIT researchers conducted an experiment where they placed pieces of chocolate at the end of a maze and released mice to find them. The scientists put devices into the brains of the mice to measure their activity. They made two important discoveries.

The first discovery was one they expected–that the mice completed the maze more rapidly after each successive run. They got better each time they ran through the maze and reached their chocolate more quickly.

The second pattern was that as the mice got better at the maze, their brain activity decreased. They began developing a habit so that their brains needed less energy to engage in what they were doing.

Habits have that effect: running on autopilot for numerous acts that you participate in while freeing up brain power to take part in making other important decisions. If you are looking for a decision-making framework, or a model to make better decisions, the easiest way to do this, is to develop a habit.

  1. Habits take away the need to rely on your will.

Making decisions reflect on our willpower. When we make decisions over and over again, it can often exhaust our will to continue making more decisions. This withering away at our capacity is called ego-depletion.

For those of us who have to make many impactful decisions regularly, ego-depletion can be a serious barrier to making decisions that help us achieve our ends. We can become so exhausted from making decisions that have minimal impact on our lives, or from those that do not help us with the big things we want to accomplish, that we have little analysis when it comes to making decisions that actually count. Then, we do not have the room or space enough to do what we should do.

For example, making decisions from the moment we wake up, about the kids’ lunch, our wardrobe, and breakfast, wear us down in ways that we do not automatically recognize. They lessen our capacity to make more and better decisions and may be the reason why we find ourselves spending more time thinking about the color of a bedspread and curtains than we need to.

In those moments where we find ourselves asking, “why is this such a hard decision to make,” we should take note that ego-depletion is probably occurring, and we should build habits around those series of decisions. Without a system to make certain decisions effortless, we essentially wear ourselves down and create more work for our brains.

Habits reflect patterns that we do not have to think of, but that come automatically. By making individual decisions automatic, we free our mental capacities from engaging in busy-work. By giving ourselves more mental space, we can use that brain power for reasoning.

Thinking about the factors that will bring about the results we desire are necessary for improved decision-making. We must reflect on how to engage those elements efficiently, create situations that make them manifest regularly and use our skills to replicate them.

2. Identifying and improving habit loops coordinately enhances the ability to make decisions.

In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg refers to the three step process that makes up a habit loop, as identified by the MIT researchers–(1) Cue (2) Routine (3) Reward.

The cue acts as a trigger to tell us to engage in a particular behavior, the behavior we engage in is the routine, and the feeling we receive as a result is the reward. The reward is solidified in our memory, so that when we receive the cue (signal or trigger), we are automatically thinking of the result while we engage in the behavior.

To improve our habits, we must identify the routines that we participate in and replace them, pay attention to and experiment with the rewards, isolate the cues, and create a plan going forward after figuring out our particular habit loop.

For example, if you want to eat more healthily, you can identify the routines you engage in–eating snacks at a given time each day, overloading on carbs at dinner, skipping breakfast, etcetera. Then you would look at the rewards and experiment.

Duhigg says that rewards often satisfy cravings. In this case, your body feeling full (and the chemical release it gives you to tell you to thank you for feeding it), might be one reward, spending time with your family or friends could be another (perhaps because you only get to do so while eating a meal).

You would adjust your routine, to bring about the same feelings. In this vein, you could endeavor to spend time with your family walking before eating, or drinking a couple of glasses of water before a meal, so that you are still sated, but not overloaded.

Next, you would look to the cue. Maybe every day at 2 pm you walk from your work building to the bakery across the street to eat a slice of coffee cake. You might realize that it is the time of day or the fact that you have a meeting that ends at 2 pm each day.

Carefully examining this signal might mean taking account of when and where you are when you are eating poorly, the time of day, how you feel emotionally, who you are with, and anything that happens before you eat (a series of acts or a particular situation).

Once you can look at patterns from your signals, you can lay the foundation for making a plan. In this case, you might say, at 2 pm after this work meeting; I will drink a glass of water and take a 10-minute walk for a couple of blocks, instead of indulging in the delicious but not nutritious coffee cake.

Making a plan to improve this habit loop will help you create automatic behaviors. You can use these automatic responses to combat the ego-depletion that arises when making choice after choice.

Once you have identified areas where you can create habits, it might be useful to, after looking at patterns of your past decisions, figure out systems by which you can save yourself time and energy. This may include a menu for yourself or for your family, which you write out each Friday, purchase ingredients on Saturday, and prepare the several meals on Sunday.

This advance preparation takes away the need for you to engage yourself in acts that exhaust your willpower and leave you less able to make decisions when you need to.

Habits are powerful because they can give you back much of the energy required to make decisions, and because a store of healthy practices, can generate a store of good results. Being able to execute without having to expend energy also saves us brain matter for unexpected, difficult decisions we may have to make.