The science of habits why they're running your life, and how to change them

Backing out of your driveway.
Biting your nails.
Afternoon trips to the vending machine.
Putting on your pants.
Checking Social Media
Daily trips to Starbucks.

What do all these things have in common? They are all habits. Some are super simple habits like putting on your pants, and others – like backing out of your driveway – are far more complex. But it doesn’t matter, because they’re all controlled by the same tiny little part of your brain.

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Quick quiz
Do you remember which leg you put into your pants first this morning?
How about which shoe you put on first?

You probably don’t remember because you were probably thinking about other things. And the fact that you have the ability to think about other things while you’re getting dressed, making dinner, driving your car is due to the power of habits.

Picture this – the first time you got to drive. How overwhelming was that? You get in the drivers seat and there’s this mirror and that mirror, and that lever and these buttons and how’s your seat? and what about the radio?

And then you had to back out of your driveway or pull out of the parking space and it took you 15 minutes to do because it was SO MUCH to think about. Now you can probably do those things while eating a sandwich, yelling at your kids and calculating how long it will take to get to your destination.

You see our brains are lazy. When they are in high power mode they use a ton of energy, primarily in the form of glucose. And in order to preserve that energy, our brains do every thing they can to power down. One of the methods to go low power mode is through habits.

Your brain is always looking for actions it can turn into a habit. If it notices a pattern happen enough times a habit will emerge.


What does it take to create a habit? What is your brain looking for exactly?

The first component of a habit is the trigger. A trigger can be anything from opening the garage door, to jumping on the highway you use to go to work, to the 3 o’clock hour rolling around while you’re at your desk.

The trigger is what tells your brain it’s time to start the actual action of the habit called the routine. No trigger, no habit.

This component is so important to the creation and maintenance of the habit, that a small change is enough to break an extremely long enduring habit.

Let’s take an example of a family who always gets McDonalds for dinner on Fridays. See the kids have gymnastics Friday night so Mom takes a different route home on that passes right by McDonalds. By Friday, Mom’s tired and doesn’t want to cook and the kids are screaming for fries in the back seat. A habit emerges.

But say that MickeyDs closes and they put a mattress store there instead. Now the trigger of the golden arches isn’t there any more. And that right there might be enough to break the habit all together.

And in a perfect world I could say
“friends go forth and remove all your triggers and you will no longer have bad habits!”
and we’d be done right here. But that’s just about impossible for most habits.

I bit my nails for most of my life. Half the time I didn’t even know I was doing it. I did it any time I was bored or nervous. And you see where we have a problem. Go ahead and try to take all the times you’re ever bored or nervous out of your life, and let me know how that goes.


The next part of the habit loop is the routine. This is the actual action of the habit –
the putting on of the pants
the biting of the nails
the driving of the car

This is the part people are always trying to get rid of.

Geez! I wish I could STOP biting my nails
Ugh why can’t I QUIT smoking???

But here’s the thing – you don’t just STOP the routine. Once the trigger has been engaged the routine is going to keep trying to happen whether you like it or not.

Maybe you’re at your desk every day around 3 pm. That’s about the time everyone’s energy naturally starts to dip. Your eyes droop. You’re restless, tired, can’t focus.
I know what would help – a snack from the vending machine!
You get up, roll to the machines, grab yourself a carby snack and head back to your desk to enjoy. Ahhhh sweet relief. Now you have the energy to make to 5.

Now what if you decide you want to save money and your waistline and just stop doing this? How long will that last? How much will power to just STOP the routine do you have?

If you can’t take away the trigger of being at your desk at 3, your brain is going to start nudging you over and over in the form of cravings that just get stronger and stronger. You can probably white knuckle it for a little while, but if this habit is strong, you probably won’t be able to just stop it.

So what’s the solution?

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The end of the habit loop comes in the form of a reward. No habit is created with just a trigger and a routine. There must always be a reward at the end. You may not even consider it a reward, but your brain does.

Backed out of the driveway and didn’t take off your side view mirror? Success!

Bored in class and biting your nails? Now you’re slightly less bored!

Brushed your teeth? Did they get all sudsy? Do you feel minty fresh? There’s your reward!

That’s right suds and that minty fresh feeling (and clean teeth, but that’s boring!) are the rewards for brushing your teeth.

In fact in the early 1900s modern day tooth paste was designed as a marketing scheme. Up until then cleaning your teeth involved using a powder and was effective but not popular. But through marketing, the population was “educated” on the trigger of feeling a dirty film on their teeth and the routine was to brush them using Pepsodent tooth paste. Which contained sudsing agents (literally soap back then) and a slight irritant to make your gums tingly. Neither items are at all required in an effective tooth paste, but these became the rewards for brushing your teeth. Most toothpastes still contain them today.

Now back to our vending machine dilemma – how do we stop the habit if we can’t stop the routine?

The answer is you don’t. Instead of trying to stop your bad habits you need to replace the routine. You need to figure out what your reward is and reverse engineer a routine that provides you with the same reward.

What I didn’t tell you about that trip earlier was that the machines are on the other side of the building. And that you usually run into a couple of co workers to chat with along the way.

Your afternoon snack attack is rewarding you with

  • Movement
  • Social time
  • Distraction at your desk via the chewing
  • Sugar

To reverse engineer that reward you can still get up and go for a walk, maybe instead of going to the machines, you walk around the block, with a coworker – so now there’s your social time. And then you eat a crunchy apple instead of fritos. Sugar cravings aside (which is another brain story), you have gotten all your rewards.

And now you have a new routine that ticks all the boxes to create the rewards you were looking for in the first place.

Habits are an amazing evolution of our brain. Without them we wouldn’t have had the brain capacity to create the amazing wonders of modern society. But they can also be destructive. Now that you are aware of how they work, pick apart some of your habits you want to rid yourself of, and re-engineer them. You have the capacity to change your whole life, but just replacing some routines.

Next week I will explain how I managed to stop the habit of my negative thoughts and give you some tips on figuring out how to break your own habits.

If you would like more help with trying to improve your negative habits, fill out this form and we can talk about how I can help you.

For a more in depth look at habits check out The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

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