Our lives might be very different if we took advantage of the emerging science on how, when, and why habits work. For something so integral to the human condition, our habits are paradoxically counterintuitive.
Unknowability is actually a defining feature of habits that helps make them successful at what they do: persist despite our conscious intentions to do otherwise. I go in-depth in this topic in my new book, Good Habit, Bad Habits.
Our conscious, aware self is the part of us we experience moment by moment when we make decisions, express emotions, and exert willpower. We encounter it every day. We have the ability to introspect, but hey, we can only know the knowable parts of our experience--and that's not our habits.
Habits work so smoothly that we hardly ever think about them. The world of habit is so self-contained, it makes sense to think of it as a kind of second self--a side of you that lives in the shadow cast by the thinking mind you know so well.
Though you are not aware of it, your habitual mind is diligently at work. It's not picky about what it learns. Just give it repetition, rewards, and contexts. These are key to change unwanted habits and form good ones that are consistent with our goals.
When we repeat an action in the same way, our decisions are streamlined. Ever sat in your car, intending to clean it and instead found yourself putting your foot on the break as if you were going to start it up? That's the result of habit. Something you've repeated so often, it's become automatic.
Repetition is not some kind of magical primer for habits, but rather a way to induce this streamlined mental action. The second time you do something takes less mental time and effort than the first. The third takes less than the second. And so on. By the tenth time (or the sixty-sixth), you're barely thinking about it at all, and presto: a habit has been created.
Goals and rewards are also critical for starting to do something repeatedly. They are what lead us to form many beneficial habits in the first place. We are built to repeat what we like. Maybe you like to listen to music in the morning? You probably have done it often enough to form a habit. Now, you just turn it on without thinking. Or maybe you like to eat your lunch outside on a park bench? Again, you've probably done this often enough to form a habit. But what if you don't like something? Then it's not worth the struggle--you probably won't form a habit unless you figure out a way to make it more fun, so that you repeat it more often.
There's something really interesting about habits and rewards. Habits are built on past rewards. In daily life, this is a handy feature. The basic logic of habits is that when we keep doing what we're doing, we'll keep getting what we're getting. Habits are a mental shortcut to obtaining that reward again: just repeat what we did in the past to get the reward we got in the past. It's sort of like rewards can reach through time and continue to operate in our habits.
This means that we don't have to keep getting those rewards for ourselves, and it means that even if our values and interests change, we don't need to find new rewards to keep habits working. It's enough that once upon a time, you were rewarded for an action that became a habit.
And then there's contexts. Context refers to everything around you, everything that is not you. Samuel Beckett said that our habits are a compromise between us and our contexts. It's that important. If the context remains stable--you keep living in the same place, you keep driving the same route to work, you keep sitting on your couch every evening-- then you repeat past actions automatically. If our contexts change, then we have to make decisions and start to build habits all over again.
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