Habit Forming

  
Is the great Greek wrong on this one… 

I stumbled across  an interesting article in Time – (it quoted an academic from my place of work) which suggests he might be:


So what are habits, really? According to Dr. Benjamin Gardner, a psychologist focusing on habit research at King’s College London, “habit works by generating an impulse to do a behaviour with little or no conscious thought.” Habits are simply how the brain learns to do things without deliberation. These impulses can be put to good use, but only certain behaviors can become habits.

Building a habit is relatively simple — just harness the impulse. For new habits to take hold, provide a clear trigger, make the behavior easy to do, and ensure it occurs frequently. For example, by completely removing unhealthy food from my home and eating the same thing every morning, my diet became a healthy habit. I extracted the decision making process out of what I eat at home.

However, if the behavior requires a high degree of intentionality, effort, or deliberation, it is not a habit. Although proponents of habits tout them as miracle cures for doing things we’d rather not do, I’m sorry to say that’s snake oil. All sorts of tasks aren’t habits and never will be. By definition, doing things that are effortful aren’t habits.

Unfortunately, this means behaviors that require hard work and deliberate practice aren’t good candidates for habit-formation. For example, although I make time for it every day, writing is not a habit. Writing is hard work. If I waited for an “impulse” to write, I’d never do it. To get better at writing requires concentration and directed effort to make sense of the words as they go from the research to my head and then to the screen. Similarly, lifting weights isn’t a habit because getting stronger requires working harder.

So if these type of behaviors aren’t habits, what are they? They’re routines. A routine is a series of behaviors regularly practiced. Routines don’t care if you feel an urge or not, they just need to get done. When I finally realized I would never succeed at making going to the gym a habit, I began looking for how to establish a routine instead.

This makes sense, when you think about it. I’ve read elsewhere that as much of 40% of the time we are doing things which have become habitual and have no conscious deliberation – we are on Autopilot.

This suggests three things – all of which I’m trying… Make boring but useful things a habit (taking my vitamin D for example); make things which take some effort but are good for me into a routine (write a blog every Saturday); and more counterintuitively – make sure things which are supposed to be enjoyable, don’t become a habit. 

Why? Because once you stop thinking about them, you’re no longer consciously enjoying them. Not having a drink on Monday or Tuesday has become a habit (good). So sometimes sharing a bottle of prosecco with my other half on a Wednesday, has become a treat (need to be careful it doesn’t become a habit though…)

It’s worth reflecting on what you want to do without thinking, what you can’t do without thinking and what you enjoy doing – and need to think about to consciously enjoy. 

Habits aren’t conscious. They may help to make us excellent; but our best and most enjoyable work and experiences require conscious effort. 

I’m sure Aristotle would buy that.

This entry was posted in Aristotle, Psychology, Science, Writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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