Conscious decision-making is actually a rare condition of the human brain. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any repeated behavior into a habit because habits allow the brain to conserve effort. By conserving all that energy, the brain has become oblivious to the wretched havoc it dispenses onto our poor bodies.
This oblivious, unconscious behavior called a habit can be defined simply as a ‘chunk’ of behavior.
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, mental or emotional. Finally, a reward, which helps your brain understand 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. It’s hard-wired into our brains, and consciousness is the smallest part of the operation.
Studies have proven the reward sensory will appear on cue – before the routine is performed. The mere anticipation of the reward sends us into a happy dance. Craving, as it turns out, powers the habit.
It would serve to reason then if you wanted to change a habit, something within the three-step process much change. An afternoon break from work may change from having a soda to a cup of tea (the routine changes), or you may silence the chime of your phone to avoid checking email a gazillion billion times a day (change the trigger). But, what if the goal is to create a new habit? This calls for a brain-teaser of a different variety altogether.
There are three things that must happen at the same moment to cause a new behavior: the motivation to do it, the ability to do it, and a trigger to remind you to do it.
The trigger can be any existing habit or behavior; so long as you establish the new habit that will follow the trigger. This process is used to essentially “stack” habits.
Inspired by BJ Fogg and a TEDxTalk, Benjamin Spall wrote about his own experience of stacking habits to add flossing, stretching, push-ups and meditation to his morning routine:
“I immediately got started, first stretching like I’d never stretched before (which isn’t too far from the truth), before jumping on the ground to do 10 push-ups. I could have done more, but I knew the only way I was going to have a fair shot at sticking to this habit was to allow myself to get a taste for it, a taste which would then lead me to wanting to continue with the task. After each flossing, stretching, and push-ups session, I drank a glass of water and sat down for five minutes of silent meditation. Five minutes slowly became ten, which soon morphed into fifteen.”
This was also the approach used by coach Bob Bowman to get Michael Phelps to an Olympic Gold starting block. “There’s a series of things we do before every race that are designed to give Michael a sense of building victory,” says Bowman.
Two hours before the race he began with stretching, warm-up laps, squeezing into his LZR Racer, a bodysuit so tight it required twenty minutes of tugging to put it on, and finally those headphones playing the hip-hop mix he always played before a race. When the announcer said his name, Phelps stepped onto the block, then stepped down, as he always did. He swung his arms three times, as he had before every race since he was twelve years old. He stepped up on the blocks again, got into his stance, and, when the gun sounded, he leapt.
The actual race was just another step in a pattern that started earlier in the day, and winning was a natural extension of the pattern.
If you’re five weeks into the creation of a New Year’s habit – like a billion other folks around the planet – don’t get discouraged if that habit is proving difficult to form. The brain is powerful, but lazy… unyielding, but not hopeless.
“Habits – even once they are rooted in our minds – aren’t destiny. We can choose our habits, once we know how.”
– The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg