So rats have certain behaviors and brain functions relating to habits. What about people? It turns out that the basal ganglia is involved here, too.
A habit has three parts:
- The cue. I notice that it’s Friday and nearing 5:00, when I am supposed to stop work on Fridays. Or perhaps it’s after 5:00 and I’m still working, adding a bit of irritation to the mix. That’s my cue to think about ordering pizza.
- The routine. Friday became pizza night years ago when we had a house full of kids, and then later Gideon got into the habit of coming over for pizza. It’s the one night I really try to stop work early, and to take the evening off. All these thoughts and feelings come up and I order a pizza online. When I stop working, I set the money on the shelf by the door, settle in with a book or a movie, and relax till the delivery guy arrives. I eat a few slices of pizza, sharing with whoever else is there, and do no more work of any kind for the evening.
- The reward. In this case, it’s pizza. And laziness.
Whenever the cue arises, our brains shut off all thought and let the basal ganglia take over. It goes through the routine without further reflection.
Sometimes we have more than one possible routine. My mornings are an example. I have a routine which I have worked to perfect: wake, brush teeth, exercise, breakfast, wash face, dress and make up, get to work. But I don’t do that every day. Some days I get up, brush teeth, and begin work.
So the thinking part of my brain stops at the cue (wake up) and decides whether to exercise or to work immediately. If I feel behind on my work, or there are people in the house, or any other distraction from the exercise routine, I head down the other path of the maze and start working.
And we can be diverted very easily. My lunch routine is to put salmon in the oven and exercise while it cooks, and then to eat salmon and salad. An invitation to lunch, the presence of other people, or the presence in the house of some more interesting food — all of these things can set me off on another path.
But this can also mean that we can be easily diverted from bad habits as well as from good ones. I have a 3:00 caffeine and sugar routine which isn’t always cued. If the cue comes up and I notice it, I can decide not to follow that routine, just as I decide not to follow my exercise routine or my fish and salad lunch routine.
The key is to catch it before the routine begins. Once that starts, your brain is no longer involved.
We can also establish good habits.
This is the idea behind the Rich Habits, listed here in the form I found on yet another website listing them:
- Maintain a to-do list
- Wake up 3 hours before work
- Listen to audio books during commute
- Network 5 hours or more each month
- Read 30 minutes or more each day for education or career reasons
- Love to read
- Exercise aerobically 4 days a week
- Eat less than 300 junk food calories per day
- Watch 1 hour or less of TV everyday
- Write down their goals
- Focused on accomplishing some single goal
- Believe in lifelong educational self-improvement
- Believe good habits create opportunity luck
- Believe bad habits create detrimental luck
Some 40% of the things we do each day are routines — habits. By becoming aware of the negative habits and replacing them with good habits, the thinking goes, we can improve our lives. The red ones above are the ones I need to work on to finish out the end of this year.
I’m not particularly interested in being rich, but I would like to be fit, to continue to be happy, and to reach my goals — my idea of success. I’m doing fairly well on the Rich Habits process, but I can do better.