I’m not so sure how popular this book is now, but I remember a book a while back titled, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. In it, it described seven various habits that all served the same purpose—helping readers formulate their goals to ultimately succeed in them with efficiency and character. The book is a good read for anyone who needs a little more boost in mentality and productivity—I was forced to read it in my freshman year of high school—and does a great job of helping people take action to better themselves. I would be dumb to say that Seven Habits doesn’t work, because in reality, those seven habits, among many others not listed, do help people. People can and have taken good steps forward because of habits.
I’m not here to talk to you about those seven habits though.
At the end of reading that book, or any other self-help-y guide about habits, at some point we all ask, “Why?” Why should we make these habits? What is the reason books like this even exist? What’s up with habits anyway?
The answer might be a lot more interesting than you think.
Generally, when we think about habits, we get this notion of mind numbing repetition. Someone doing something over and over and over again. It’s almost reflexive, whatever that action is. For example, when my dad gets really into a sports game and it’s intense, he has a habit of twiddling his thumbs. Or, for myself, when I bump into or want to apologize to someone, I have a habit of slightly bowing (thanks, Korea). Habits are a thing of beauty, really—we just do them without thinking about it, which shows kind of a mastery over whatever that thing is.
In an interview with business writer Charles Duhigg on NPR, habits—on a basic level—are laid out fairly simply. First, there’s a trigger that tells your brain to do that thing automatically. Second is the phase of actually doing it. And the third, as Duhigg believes, is the “reward” phase, or how he says, “Something that your brain likes that helps it remember the ‘habit loop’ in the future”.
Those three basic principles of what form habits are good to understand, because it helps us flesh out the science behind it. Without being too science-y, every time we do something, we have neurons in our brain that set off. And if we do something repetitively, our brain begins circuiting things together; just so those neurons get used to each other and set off more regularly. I always think back to this video I saw on the Discovery Channel as a kid, where two brain circuits tangle together and create a new circuit of sorts, all because a habit was formed. Think of it like dancing with the same partner for years—your brain circuits get used to it because they have been two stepping together for so long.
H3: Health, Habits and Happiness
Habits go even deeper though, in terms of psychology! In a December 2012 article titled “Making health habitual: the psychology of ‘habit-formation’ and general practice”, habits are defined as:
“…actions that are triggered automatically in response to contextual cues that have been associated with their performance: for example, automatically washing hands (action) after using the toilet (contextual cue), or putting on a seatbelt (action) after getting into the car (contextual cue).”
So what does that have to do with our health?
Later on in the same article, it also states a pretty awesome discovery of the power of habits in healthy living:
“ In one study, volunteers wanting to lose weight were randomised to a habit-based intervention, based on a brief leaflet listing 10 simple diet and activity behaviours and encouraging context-dependent repetition, or a no-treatment waiting list control. After 8 weeks, the intervention group had lost 2 kg compared with 0.4 kg in the control group.”
Look—those in the diet/exercise habit group lost 1.6 kgs more than those who did nothing. To note, 0.4 kg is around 0.88 lbs, and 2 kg is around 4.4 lbs. It might seem miniscule at first, but remember that that’s still quite the difference in weight loss when compounded over a long span of time. This study was only done for 8 weeks, and the diet and activity suggested were deemed “simple”. Imagine if they did that for a whole year or more, with more intense and rigorous workouts and more in-depth dietary guidelines—the difference, I think would be much more vast between the two groups.
Our health is directly affected by our habits, whether we like to admit it or not. Habitually, you want to eat that extra piece of cake because your brain, time and time again has said, “Tastes good; must be fine.” Habitually, you’re weary of going to the gym when you’re exhausted, because over time you have refused to do it and been more comfortable. Emotionally, you want to stir yourself to rage when someone disagrees, because throughout your life that’s just what you’ve done when it happens. All of those things are habits that we have created over time, but it’s pretty obvious that all of those things are also unhealthy.
In order to be happy—in order to perform in life to our highest—we need to keep habits in high regard. Our habits are what build our foundation of health! Sure, it’s hard to break a pre-formed, unhealthy habit; one that has been built over a long number of years. Still, it’s also necessary to do that if we want to get the best out of our lives, and the best out of our happiness. The good news is, once you break those habits (through a lot of trial, error, and conditioning of those contextual cues), it gets way easier! Once we build healthy habits, we can do them without thinking; just like brushing our teeth or driving our cars.
Even if the passion—the drive or urge to do a new healthy habit—dies out, that doesn’t deter us from executing said necessary, beneficial habit. Why? Because it’s a habit—we do it because it’s uncomfortable not to do it. And that’s the real reason habits are a key to our foundation for healthy living: once we get comfortable being healthy, we don’t want to be unhealthy.
Encourage yourself to begin conditioning your mind, body, or spirit to a new, healthier habit or two. It doesn’t have to be big—in fact, take baby steps to get there. But keep the goal large, and dream for something excellent for yourself.
We all have to start somewhere.
Written by: Michael “Bboy Roach1” Roach