Why You Should Focus on Habits

Importance of Habits

“We are what we repeatedly do.” – Author, philosopher, and historian, Will Durant

The past few years have brought an increased focus surrounding habits and habit formation and for good reason: Habits define us. As habits are formed, so is our behavior. A Duke University study reported that around 40% of actions are habitual. Our habits determine who we are, what we do, and set the course for our life.

Habits Save Mental Energy

When learning to drive, we thought about everything; hands at ten and two, the brake pedal, the gas pedal, our speed. As we gained experience and confidence, we no longer needed to concentrate on the specifics of driving. Instead, we just drove. Our actions were automatic.

When we drive somewhere new, a GPS helps, but even with a GPS, we are still cognizant of our surroundings. We may even turn down the radio to limit distractions so we can concentrate.

After taking the same route several times, we no longer turn down the radio, use a GPS, or think about the route. We may find that we made the trip and don’t even remember some of it.

Actions take energy. When we perform new actions the brain exerts energy to form pathways between neurons. Each time we repeat an action, the neuropathway becomes stronger. When an action becomes ingrained or habitual, our brain doesn’t work as hard because the neuropathways have become well-formed.

Strong neuropathways allow us to perform actions without exerting as much energy thinking about them. Not remembering whether you locked the door, or brushed your teeth is a result of strong neuropathways saving energy for other, more taxing, actions.

All Behavior is Rewarded

Habits can be good or bad. Flossing teeth is good. Eating a quart of ice cream every evening while binge watching Netflix is bad.

In the book Change the Culture, Change the Game: The Breakthrough Strategy for Energizing Your Organization and Creating Accountability for Results, authors Roger Connors and Tom Smith point out that all behavior is rewarded. If you want to change a behavior, you must look at the reward and change it.

Fully understanding habitual actions require exploring short-term and long-term rewards. Flossing provides a long-term reward. Eating ice cream and binge-watching TV provides a short-term reward. Habits usually provide one or the other, at least when they are first formed.

Getting a “fix”

Dopamine, the reward hormone in our brain, brings feelings of pleasure and thus an immediate reward. Studies suggest that actions like binge-watching TV or checking email give a shot of dopamine.

Bad habits tend to release dopamine. We perform the behavior, get a nice little shot of dopamine, and want to do it again. Good habits, on the other hand, may not release dopamine, but instead bring pain, at least initially.

Bad habits can happen by accident. After binge-watching TV one night, I may do so the next. A behavior that releases dopamine, makes me want to do it again and again. Instead of being intentional, the behavior just happens.

Good habits take intention. Getting up at the crack of dawn to exercise, especially at first, doesn’t bring many rewards. Good habits take work and effort.

No Pain. No Gain

The weightlifter’s mantra “No pain. No Gain” reflects the difficulty of fostering healthy actions. Activities such as flossing, eating right, and exercising, may not give a dopamine fix, so we must look elsewhere for our reward.

In lieu of dopamine, good habits require intention. Good habits don’t happen by accident. In order to cultivate a good habit, we may have to structure our lives differently. Removing obstacles to the good habit helps. In order to cultivate a habit of exercise, some people sleep in their exercise clothes because waking up already dressed helps them get out of bed and head to the gym.

Looking Forward

Good habits do bring rewards, but the rewards are long-term. Living a healthy lifestyle may not bring a dopamine fix, but reflecting on our future self can be rewarding. Cultivating a long-term view nurtures healthy living.

The Apostle Paul, among others, have pointed out that we reap what we sow. If we sow bad actions, we reap the results of those actions. A lifetime of eating junk produces a future of health-related issues. A healthy lifestyle produces a future of reduced pain and increased activity.

Reading, reflecting, eating healthy, nurturing relationships, exercising, etc., may not bring an immediate reward of dopamine, or anything other kinds of short-term reward, but over time, however, such activities bring richness and depth to life.

If We Do Not Give Up

Bad habits happen by accident. Good habits take intention. Since good habits provide long-term rewards, we may become weary in doing good. However, if we do not give up, we will reap a harvest of life.

Action Plan

  1. Categorize your habits as good, bad, long-term reward, or short-term reward.
  2. Stephen Covey encourages us to “Begin with the end in mind.” What kind of life do you ultimately want to have? Begin writing down your vision and goals.
  3. Create a list of “good actions” you would like to become habitual.
  4. Choose one item from your list and begin doing it. You may have to limit obstacles.
  5. Determine not to sacrifice future goals, with short-term rewards.

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