I used to think my brain was the most wonderful organ in my body, until I realized who was telling me that.
I personally used the principles of habit formation that I’m going to cover in this article: to quit smoking, start taking cold showers, start exercising, increase my work sessions, reduce anxiety about difficult tasks, get out of depression, start reading and listening to books daily, etc.
Delving deeper into this topic, I discovered many surprising details regarding how clever and, at the same time, simple is the work of the brain. Many of the things that led me to believe that I was weak-willed turned out to be automatic programs, formed by pure chance.
Why doesn’t anyone give us a guide to using our brains? We are clearly breaking the rules.
We don’t deliberately plan the vast majority of our actions. And if we did, our lives would be unbearable. We would stop every time in front of the door to think about how to open it. We would think about raising and placing our foot with each step while getting to the door. We would need to think and perform who the fuck knows how many micro-actions to achieve such a grand goal as getting out of bed.
Active thinking is&bsp;an energy‑consuming process. Even at rest, just to survive, the brain consumes 20% of the body’s oxygen. When you’re actively thinking, the costs become much more significant. For instance, chess champions may lose 7 to 10 pounds of fluid by sweating during an intense chess match.
One of the brain’s primary tasks is to store as much energy as possible to survive as long as possible. This is due to a few million years of evolution. Since thinking requires a considerable amount of energy, the brain will make sure that you think as little as possible. The brain uses a variety of tools to execute this strategy. Habits are one of those.
Habit is a pattern that lets you not think.
Habits are routine actions that are performed automatically when certain conditions occur. They do not require conscious intervention and, therefore, costly energy for thought.
When you perform repetitive actions, over and over again, you reinforce connections between the corresponding neurons in the brain. The more there are repetitions, the stronger the bond. The stronger the bond, the less effort is required to perform the action.
Simply put, the algorithm for any habit may be summarized as follows:
if THE CONDITION happens,
then complete THE PROCESS
and get THE REWARD.
For example, if you are worried about a difficult task at work (CONDITION), then you go out to smoke (PROCESS) and calm down for a while (REWARD).
A certain number of repetitions slightly changes the algorithm. Now the brain starts craving THE REWARD right after THE CONDITION takes place. And the sequence now looks like this:
The example with smoking now looks like this:
a difficult task (CONDITION) >>>
obsessive thoughts about a cigarette (CRAVING) >>>
smoking a cigarette (PROCESS) >>>
temporary calmness (REWARD).
It is THE CRAVING element that makes a habit so tough to break. As soon as THE CONDITION occurs, THE CRAVING kicks in. Now you can no longer think about anything but THE REWARD. CRAVING captures your attention. Figuratively speaking, at THE CRAVING stage, the train rushes at maximum speed to its destination. I dare you to stop it.
Deliberate creation of a new habit
Keeping in mind how scrupulous the brain is about saving energy, one can foresee that using will-power will not be welcomed. Here comes the strategy of tiny steps.
It is essential to start with a simple action that is impossible for you not to accomplish.
The realization that I could infinitely divide any step was a revelation for me. I understood that I could divide them into subatomic particles if needed.
Let me explain with the example of a cold shower. I have been taking a cold shower almost every morning for about 2 years now. For me, this is a standard morning routine. But I used to be scared to get under cold water. I started with one second for every part of the body: chest, head, back, arms, legs. During the week, I have maintained this level. And the next week, I raised the bar up to 2 seconds. This way, week after week, I got to 15 seconds per body part. I just don’t want to spend more than this in the cold shower.
As I said earlier, any action may be divided infinitely. Starting from 1 second was comfortable enough for me. But if it weren’t, then I would start with an even simpler action. For example, I would just stick my hand under cold water and immediately pull it out. Let’s make it even easier: just turn on the cold water, then turn it off and go do other stuff.
This action is so simple that it is impossible not to accomplish. And, as silly as it may seem, you state a clear intention to the brain to acquire a new habit.
Since you exert no effort and hence don’t spend energy on this action, you effectively bypass your brain’s defense system. Now it wants to see what’s next.
This way, I solved the question of the second component of the sequence — THE PROCESS. As for THE REWARD, I make sure progress is evident.
The sense of progress is one of the universal sources of pleasure for people.
In the cold shower case, the increase in shower time is evident progress in itself.
It also matters how fast THE REWARD is following THE PROCESS. The less time elapses between THE PROCESS and THE REWARD, the more likely the brain will connect these components to each other.
Therefore, it is highly beneficial to reward yourself mentally. Both simple statements, like “Good,” and more emotional ones, like “Fuck, yeah!” work for me quite well.
As for THE CONDITION, I cling to existing routines like brushing teeth in the morning so that the new habit doesn’t entail many changes in my usual schedule.
Deliberate breaking of a habit
Breaking a habit is the same as creating a new one, just in the opposite direction. Consider an example with smoking.
I smoked about a pack a day and set myself a starting point – 18 cigarettes a day. Which didn’t bother me in any way. It didn’t require any will-power from me. Starting was easy.
During the week, I smoked 18 cigarettes a day without any remorse. Since the beginning of the second week, I have reduced my daily dose of cigarettes by 1 and got to 17 cigarettes a day. Again, this did not bother me in any way. It felt quite normal. This way, within 3 months, I reached 6 cigarettes a day, realized that it got pointless to continue reducing the dose by 1 cigarette a week, and quit smoking altogether.
Unlike all the 500 times I quit smoking at once, this method required the least will-power, and my confidence grew naturally, not being forced. At the time of this writing, I have not smoked for 18 months (my best result when quitting smoking AT ONCE is 8 months). And I feel more confident than ever that I will never need cigarettes again. (Although this does not mean that there will never be temptations.)
A significant role for me in quitting smoking played a habit tracking app. The bottom line is straightforward — for every habit, mark successful and unsuccessful days in the calendar.
It is a great pleasure for the brain to see the number of successful days increasing. And it really hurts to break this chain. Every time I was tempted to smoke an extra cigarette, I immediately imagined how painful it would be to interrupt the chain of successful days! And I inevitably found a way to calm myself down without a cigarette.
There were people who, if not laughed at me, definitely showed doubts about my method. All I said to them was: “I just like it this way. It feels good.”
Knowing how the brain works and how habits are formed has helped me make my life easier in many ways. In no case should you fight this system, but it is vital to leverage the way it works.
We pick up habits as we grow up, unconsciously, by chance. And I would not bet on a lucky coincidence. If a person isn’t mentally ill, then his brain performs an excellent job. And it’s in his full power to create good habits or break unwanted ones.
- Active thinking is an energy-consuming process. One of the brain’s primary tasks is to store as much energy as possible to survive as long as possible. Therefore, it makes sure you think as little as possible.
- Habits are routine actions that are performed automatically when certain conditions occur. They do not require conscious intervention and, therefore, costly energy for thought.
- A simplified algorithm of a formed habit looks like this:
- It is THE CRAVING element that makes a habit so tough to break.
- When creating a new habit, you must start from such a simple action that it is impossible not to accomplish it. Since you exert no effort and hence don’t spend energy on this action, you effectively bypass your brain’s defense system.
- Any action may be divided infinitely. To subatomic particles, if needed.
- It matters how fast THE REWARD is following THE PROCESS. The less time elapses between THE PROCESS and THE REWARD, the more likely the brain will connect these components to each other.
- The sense of progress is one of the universal sources of pleasure for people. Making progress evident is an excellent strategy for building new habits.
- It is a great pleasure for the brain to see the number of successful days increasing. And it really hurts to break this chain.