Pioneer wagon wheels cut eternal ruts in plains and rocks across the American west.
Likewise, our habits forge irreversible patterns in our brain as we migrate toward our eternal destiny.
Free will comes with the shackles of consequence.
Choose our actions we may, but consequences are unavoidable and non-negotiable.
And no consequential shackles are as unyielding and unforgiving as the power of habit.
Charles Duhigg’s recent life-changing book, The Power of Habit, details the science behind how habits form and how to change them, including the following six inescapable laws:
Law #1: Habits Can Never Be Eradicated
Close to the center of our skull lies a golf ball-sized lump of tissue called the basal ganglia.
Our basal ganglia is the western plains under our wagon wheels of habit. Its job is to store habits even while the rest of our brain goes to sleep.
Science has proven that repeated habits become ingrained into our basal ganglia forever.
Our brain is programmed to constantly find new ways to save effort. Writes Duhigg,
“Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often…
“This process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.
“Over time, this loop–cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward–becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges. Eventually…a habit is born.”
Once born, no habit will ever die. As MIT scientist Ann Graybiel says,
“Habits never really disappear. They’re encoded into the structures of our brain, and that’s a huge advantage for us, because it would be awful if we had to relearn how to drive after every vacation. The problem is that your brain can’t tell the difference between bad and good habits, and so if you have a bad one, it’s always lurking there, waiting for the right cues and rewards.”
Law #2: Habits Erode Free Will
If this paragraph doesn’t arrest your attention like a slap to the face, you’re not listening:
“When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit–unless you find new routines–the pattern will unfold automatically.”
Understand that this can work to our salvation, or our damnation.
There are some choices we only want to make once. Good habits form a life of automatic, programmed goodness and protect us from poor choices in compromising situations.
The longer bad habits operate, the harder they are to break — in fact, the less we even think about breaking them.
Law #3: Habits Can Only Change Form; To Change Your Habits, Shift Your Routine
Try as we may, for any given habit, the cues and rewards will never change. They are forever hard-wired into our brain.
What we can do, however, is change the routine in response to the cue, which leads to the reward.
The trick is to leverage our brain’s power of habit in our favor, like Jujitsu, rather than fighting against it with sheer willpower.
We can learn to give our brain the same rewards it perceives from bad habits through new, positive routines.
To work, a positive routine shift must actually provide the same level of satisfaction as a bad habit.
Law #4: Habits are Easier to Change with a Support Group
“We know that a habit cannot be eradicated — it must, instead, be replaced. And we know that habits are most malleable when the Golden Rule of habit change is applied: If we keep the same due and the same reward, a new routine can be inserted.
“But that’s not enough. For a habit to stay changed, people must believe change is possible. And most often, that belief only emerges with the help of a group…
“The evidence is clear: If you want to change a habit, you must find an alternative routine, and your odds of success go up dramatically when you commit to changing as part of a group.”
Law #5: Focus on Keystone Habits for Widespread Change
“Keystone habits,” says Duhigg, are seemingly small and simple habits, but which can catalyze a ripple effect and have a major impact on every aspect of your life.
One such keystone habit is exercise. As Duhigg explains,
“When people start habitually exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, they start changing other, unrelated patterns in their lives, often unknowingly. Typically, people who exercise start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. It’s not completely clear why. But for many people, exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change.”
James Prochaska, a researcher at the University of Rhode Island, adds,
“Exercise spills over. There’s something about it that makes other good habits easier.”
Law #6: Write Down Your Plans for Dealing with Temptation & Obstacles
Studies have routinely shown that people who anticipate and write down how they will react to temptations and obstacles when striving to overcome a habit are much more successful than those who do not.
Writing our plan down makes us more conscious of our cues, and helps us focus on our rewards. It also strengthens our willpower.
American pioneers, drawn irresistibly by Manifest Destiny, left their mark upon the plains.
Our habits will manifest our destiny, and determine the mark we leave.
As William James wrote,
“All our life…is but a mass of habits — practical, emotional, and intellectual — systematically organized for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny…”