The Anatomy of a Habit (part 1)

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Before we can get into some strategies and tricks to change our habits, we need to first understand what a habit is.


By design, habits are a good thing. We have two parts of the brain, the conscious and subconscious, working independently toward the same goal… to serve the host.  We all like to believe that our conscious mind runs the show. If we do something, then it’s because we chose to… right?  Not really, about 45% of our daily actions are a result of habit.


All Habits are Good!

First, it’s important to know that ALL habits are good. “What? You are an idiot. So you’re saying that habits like smoking are good?” Yep


A habit is usually born out of a conscious decision to take action. Maybe our smoker thought it would make him look cool in high school.


Over time, that action is handed over to the subconscious to handle in a more automated fashion, freeing up the conscious mind to do what it does best… think. Isn’t it great that we can get ready for bed without hardly a thought? I don’t know about you, but I don’t have to put any thought into remembering to brush my teeth or how to do it.


All habits are good, because all habits are associated with some type of reward the mind wants. One of the rewards cigarettes offer our smoker is a stimulant in the form of nicotine. While smoking is devastating in terms of our longevity and our goal of being ‘healthy’, the action of smoking can offer a big reward to the brain in that moment.


Dopamine = Motivation

There is a chemical force behind this called dopamine. While many people think that Dopamine is associated with getting the reward, it’s actually released in anticipation of the reward. Think of Dopamine as chemical motivation. Now if you think about it, this is really important since every action is work to some degree, whether we enjoy it or not, so we need the motivation in the work phase, not the reward phase.


What if our smoker thought that smoking took up too much of his day and decided to outsource the workload and risk… what would it cost. He smokes 20 cigarettes per day at an average of 5 minutes per cigarettes.


I guess the job offer would look something like this: Busy professional looking for a part-time assistant to be responsible for one repetitive daily task. You will be expected to complete this task 20 times per day at or near designated times, starting from the time you wake-up until you go to bed. Task completion takes approximately 5 minutes. You are free to work on this task in your car and home, but you must work on this task outside while at work or other public places. You will need to complete this task 600 times per month for an estimated time commitment of 50 hours per month. You will be reimbursed for the cost of materials (about $240/ month). If you go more than 30 minutes beyond a designated time, I will throw a fit. Long term employment in this job reduces your life expectancy by an average of 10 years.


That’s a lot of work and a real inconvenience. Not only is 50 hours a ton of time, you have to divide that into 600 five minute chunks that will interrupt your entire day. Add on the risk and what’s this job worth? How much money would they have to offer for you to apply $1,000/month? $3,000/month? $10,000/month? $100,000/month?


Now before you feel too bad for the smoker working his tail off for bits of Dopamine, understand that you and I are doing the exact same thing. Every habit we have, whether we consider it a bad habit or a good habit, is chasing Dopamine.


The Habit Loop

Science has identified what Charles Duhigg refers to as the ‘habit loop’ in his book titled ‘The Power Of Habit’. Each habit is composed of 3 elements: cue, routine, and reward.


The cue prompts the craving (Dopamine) to start the routine.  Smoking is complex and might have many cues. My dad will light up the minute he closes a car door… ugh. Cues generally fall into 1 of 5 categories: a specific time, a certain location, the presence of certain people, an emotion, or a preceding action.


The routine is of course the action or what we think of as the habit.


You might think it would be easy to figure out the reward of a habit, but it can be tricky. What’s the reward for brushing your teeth? The thought of no cavities? Fresh minty breath? The feeling of clean teeth? That tingle that’s left in your mouth? It’s even scarier to think it might be the thought of your mother getting upset with you if you didn’t 30 years ago.


Back to how an action or routine actually becomes a habit.  Remember our smoker started because he thought it would make him look cool? At this point, smoking isn’t a habit. It’s merely an action to achieve a goal… to look cool. You can picture this guy fantasizing about his friends admiring him, looking up to him, or including him. All those positive thoughts and emotions supplied the Dopamine hits at first, and then that Dopamine provided the motivation he needs to do the work… smoke.  Over time, those thoughts would likely decrease, and at some point he would quit doing the work if it didn’t offer a different reward.


While nicotine isn’t the only reward, it’s a big one, and one that provides it’s own chemical cue… sort of like a timer. As soon as a cigarette is finished and the stimulant is delivered, the timer starts to countdown until that lack of stimulant cues up another blast of motivation. When this become automatic or second nature, then we have a habit.


No Dark Magic

It’s incredibly powerful and liberating to understand that habits are not the result of some dark mystical force trying to control us or sabotage our conscious efforts. Habits are simply automated programs of actions designed to benefit us by moving the workload from our thinking mind to our subconscious.


Learn how to change a habit or create a new one in part 2.


photo by Daniela Vladimirova (flickr creative commons)


Co-Founder of NutritionGeeks, retired USAPL drug-free powerlifter, volunteer youth wrestling coach, father of 3 amazing boys and interested in all things health

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