29 March 2015

Features of Habit

habit /ˈhæb ɪt/ [noun] - 1. an acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary.

Welcome to the first article in my new Lifehacking series.  It's taken longer than I anticipated to publish this first article, but please bear in mind that I haven't yet written the one on how to stop procrastinating.

So... habits.  We all have them.  The word "habit" has taken on negative connotations, lately.  We think of habits as being something akin to addiction.  Often, one hears  phrases like "bad habit", but rarely, if ever, does one hear of a "good habit".  But habits are part of us.  We're wired to develop habits.  And there are very good reasons.

I won't go into it here... consult your local evolutionary psychologist... but simply put, habits are like computer macros.  When you develop a habit, your hindbrain can take over that function and free up your forebrain for more important tasks, like reading blogs.

Think about it... do you drive?  If so, you probably don't think much about HOW you go about starting and stopping.  Do you have to think each time about which pedal is the brake pedal?  If so, perhaps you should purchase extra insurance.  How about walking? We know we walk, but we don't think much about it.  When you drive, do you put on your seatbelt?  If so, do you keep a checklist handy that includes the seatbelt, or do you simply use the seatbelt because it's a habit?

Note: as habits go, wearing your seatbelt is a very good one.

Our lives are full of habits that help us get by.  You might get into the habit of looking both ways before crossing the street... feeding your children... locking your car doors when a brown person walks by.

I mention that last point to acknowledge that yes, there are bad habits, and they must be addressed.

The point of this lifehack is to take control of your habits.  There are two pieces to this...

  1. The adoption of positive, helpful habits
  2. The elimination of negative, or "bad" habits
To the first point, it would be nice if we could just develop helpful habits whenever we want, just by doing them, right?  Right?

Well, we can.  No, seriously.  Developing a good habit is as simple as doing the thing.

Well, maybe not quite that simple.  But that's most of it.  Pick a thing that you want to do habitually.  Do it each time it's relevant.  If you forget to do it, backtrack (where practical) and do the thing.  The point here is to build pathways in the brain.  We learn to do things by building neural paths.  Repetition reinforces those paths and makes them stronger.  The act of consciously taking the time to do the extra thing that you want to do actually builds the extra circuit in your brain that, over time, makes the thing happen without you thinking about it.

For example, if you've been driving without a seatbelt, and you want to get into the habit of wearing your seatbelt (good for you!), then the first step is to start bucking up every time you get into your vehicle.  I find it's best to do so before starting the vehicle.  Mostly because my vehicle makes a nasty noise if I don't.

Now, this part is important... if you find yourself starting your vehicle and realize that you haven't yet put on your seatbelt, stop the engine, and then buckle up and start the engine again.

I know that this can place extra wear and tear on your engine, but it's not much, really, and you know what else costs even more than vehicle maintenance?  Getting your face sewn back together after putting it through a windshield.

Sounds simple, right?  Well, it isn't.  Or it is, but not quite as much as I've made it out to be... there's one important detail... forgiveness.  This information actually came from a study about procrastination, which I will read, when I get a chance, but it's important in areas like this... apparently there's a quirk in the firmware of the human brain.  If you beat yourself up about something, that prevents you from actually overcoming it.  So if you forget to do the thing you intend to do, don't feel bad, and don't punish yourself.  Just back up (if you can) an do it.  Move on with your life.

Now... the second part... overcoming bad habits.  This is a bit trickier.  It's not about building new pathways in the brain.

Or is it?

It can be.  One popular method of breaking a bad habit is to replace it with a different, less-bad habit.  It's similar to the method used in 12-step programs such as AA/NA.  Have you ever been to one of those meetings?  They set out to replace your drug habit (and yes, alcohol is a drug, by definition) with something else.  Usually, that involves replacing the drug with a deity (although the term "higher power" is used by those groups that want to continue receiving government money and having people sent to them by the court system), although most of the attendees also take up smoking.  Have you ever been to one of those meetings?  I've fought oil fires (military training) that produced less smoke.

I want to point out here that the success rate of 12 step programs is exactly the same as the success rate of people who just decide to quit on their own (Dawson, et al.), and while the evidence regarding whether such programs work is as hazy as the meeting rooms, the fact that such programs teach you to give up one type of dependence and replace it with another doesn't sound like the most ideal outcome, to me.

But I digress.  The point is, yes, you can overcome bad habits by replacing them with other habits, but that's not the only option.

The brain is quite malleable.  Not just in the physical, silly putty sense, but functionally.  Studies into neuroplasticity (no, that's not in your spell-check dictionary, but yes, it's a real word) have shown that the brain can adapt to almost any situation.  People have lost as much as 80% of their functional brain matter and still managed to graduate at the top of their classes.  Stroke victims who lose the ability to walk and speak are often able to relearn those skills.  After some therapy and hard work, the functions previously filled by one part of the brain can be taken over by another part.

Is this relevant to overcoming a bad habit, or is it just some really cool information?  BOTH!  The fact is that, although old habits are a function of paths burned into the brain, those paths can be destroyed.  And not just by smoking and praying for help.

It's not just a matter of willpower, which is essentially your will fighting against your will.  There are many suggestions and methods for accomplishing this, but it breaks down fairly simply...

  1. You have to want it.  If you don't want to stop doing The Thing, you'll keep doing The Thing.  You have to earnestly want to stop doing The Thing.
  2. Be aware of your actions.  Often, we continue to do The Thing because we don't realize we're doing it.  A future lifehack will discuss self awareness, but essentially you need to become aware that you're doing it so that you can stop.
  3. If you normally do The Thing as a step in a particular process, doing the process multiple times, while intentionally skipping The Thing can help.  This builds and reinforces pathways in the brain that don't include The Thing.
  4. This one is important... forgive yourself.  Yes, this unexpected yet key component to learning a new habit is also key to losing an old habit.  If you slip up, if you forget yourself and accidentally do The Thing, don't punish yourself or lose sleep over it.  Forgive yourself and move on.

Again, you might ask.... can it be that simple?  Well, yes and no.  It looks easier than it is.  But over time, it works.  And less time than you would think.

A note about my examples above... I know that I used drugs and addiction as examples of bad habits.  Yes, there are physical components to some addiction, but essentially, many drug addictions are psychological, and involve brain pathways not unlike those of habits.  I don't pretend that overcoming addiction is a matter to be taken lightly, nor do I pretend that drugs are bad just because that's what Ronald Reagan, patron saint of the Republican Party, told me when I was a vulnerable young child.  I simply used that example because the information is compatible, and many people can relate.

Notable habits you can learn to your benefit:

  1. Seatbelts.  Did I mention seatbelts before?
  2. Taking your medication when you eat (especially for diabetics)
  3. Unsupervised physical therapy (for sports and similar injuries)
  4. Daily personal hygiene (I'm looking at you, Albert Blastin)
  5. Eating breakfast
  6. Allowing for extra travel time when attending a scheduled event
  7. Reading bedtime stories to your children
  8. Checking the gas gauge on your car (and also glancing at the tires before driving somewhere)
  9. Making sure you have your keys before locking your vehicle door
A special note about this last problem... Tired of locking my keys in my vehicle, I intentionally got into the habit of locking my car doors using my keys, rather than using the controls.  I've never locked the keys in since, although I've had friends (I'm looking at you, Giordi), who have locked the keys in multiple times when borrowing my car.

And for crying out loud... wear your seatbelt!

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