Everything You Need to Know About Developing New Habits
Marketing and the science of economics, approach habits in terms of consumer behavior and product behavior. Management focuses on them in terms of decisiveness, quality and performance capacity. Psychology defines the habit as a more or less predetermined kind of thinking, behavior and feeling, which became a pattern at a previous point in time, due to a repeated reaction.
Habits are behavior patterns, which repeat themselves regularly and often involve unconscious and involuntary actions. They are conditioned behavior patterns, which have established themselves so strongly, that we are often totally unaware of them taking their course. Our habits are omnipresent. Many of them are the good kind, or practical in everyday life, but on the other hand others impair our motivation, our well-being and even our health. Habits are the most rational way of carrying out routines, without having to think about it further. One example of this is driving, which actually requires a high level of concentration, but consists of many actions we take habitually.
In order to change your habits, it takes more than just common sense, motivation and a strong will. It takes a lot of brain work just to understand habits.
A habit evolves when a new behavior pattern establishes itself. If you reach for a cigarette as soon as you wake up in the morning, yes, that is then a habit. If you get the urge to put on your running shoes and get out on the street, as soon as you get home to keep yourself fit, then you have also developed a habit. Old habits are hard to break, while developing new habits takes a great deal of effort. This is because our most common behavior patterns, are literally burnt into our nervous system. The good news is: New habits can be developed and eventually be retained by way of repetition.
How do habits evolve?
Knowledge and understanding of how habits develop has improved in recent years, in the world of neuroscience and psychology.
Habits evolve because the brain constantly looks for ways of saving energy. In this respect, the brain tries to turn every repeated procedure into a habit, because this results in a knowingly reduced action: this helps on the one hand to save energy, in view of the fact that the brain is the most energy-intensive organ in the human body. On the other hand, it helps to save mental work, which in turn benefits capacity for action in more important, i.e. new, unusual or unknown situations. The development of habits, can only really be understood in view of this fact.
We live in an uncertain world, which is hard to handle – this was even truer for our ancestors, than it is for us today. It is a huge task to maintain an overview of everything which goes on around us – including giving priority to our human needs. This meant, people had to develop strategies to train their brain and make full use of its capacities. One of these strategies is the development of habits. To wash your hands after certain activities, to look in the mirror before you leave the house, to look both ways before you cross the street: we demonstrate hundreds of behavior patterns on a daily basis, which actually make our life easier. In this sense, a habit is not negative by nature – as long as it doesn’t become a compulsive act. Checking immediately to see if we locked the door (by turning the door knob or repeatedly pushing the door handle down, for example), is a familiar habit that we don’t necessarily want to change. It becomes a compulsion to control or an obsessive-compulsive disorder, when we check again and again whether the door really is locked.
The Three-Stage Process
To deal with new situations, the brain makes a big effort to locate a signal for a habit that can be connected with a certain pattern of behavior. In the first decisive stage a trigger develops, which causes our brain to react and provide the right answer, i.e. a habitual course of action. After the initial and learning phases, this reaction, which comprises several component actions, for which we expect a reward, becomes a routine course of action. You understood quite correctly: there has to be a reward afterwards. Without this reward, your brain would probably not register this behavior pattern for future occasions.
This means, we can see it as a three-stage process: the initial signal (stage 1), which triggers the reaction (stage 2), and the resulting reward (stage 3), which makes repetition of the routine action seem worthwhile. This process takes on an automatic nature, by way of frequent repetition and finally produces a habit.
Habits determine your options: you turn off the alarm clock and get out of bed or you keep pressing the snooze button; you go to the gym or you give up your membership; you pay your bills on time or you lose track of your expenses; you follow a healthy diet or you regularly go for a hamburger. However, there are also those insidious, self-destructive and unwanted behavior patterns. Just take timidity, pessimism, shopping frenzy, biting your nails and smoking, for example. The sooner you recognize pointless or bad habits for what they are, the easier it is to break them.
Those of you who feel motivated to change your habits and to develop new ones, please remember: the brain makes no distinction between good and bad habits. Habits evolve when we repeat an action under certain circumstances. And habits don’t stop, they are simply replaced. It can be an advantage when habitual behavior often occurs unnoticed. Someone acting according to habit, doesn’t have to give any further thought to how they do things.
Let’s sum it all up: old habits are hard to break, while it requires a lot of effort to develop new habits, as our patterns of behavior are burnt into our nervous system, so to speak. And: new habits can only be formed by means of repetition. If behavior is repeated under the same circumstances, the connection between the given circumstances and the behavior pattern, is continually strengthened. This in turn, strengthens the automatic nature of behavior under the same circumstances. A habit takes shape. Automatic behavior is characteristically: effective, unconscious, involuntary and uncontrollable.
How can you change your habits or develop new ones?
The latest advances in neuroscience and psychology, have shown how habits can be formed and they have provided us with tools, such as digital tools and online and mobile apps.
To summarize, habits are routine behavior patterns, which consist of three stages: signal, action and reward. If we understand this process, we can develop the required motivation and interrupt it, then we can break the power of the habit – and clear the way for a new, voluntary habit, which is beneficial for us.
In his book, “Smart Change,©” Art Markman, Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas, presents five tools for developing new and lasting habits.