Why Habits Exist and How to Control Them
Updated: Mar 13
By Michael Whaby
“Habit (noun): an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary” – Merriam-Webster
The presence of habits allows us to easily perform tasks that are consistent in our lives. These tasks—brushing our teeth in the morning, driving to work, or perhaps playing an instrument—take little active thought when we develop habits for them. This allows us to act fluently, without thinking about each step. Habits instill confidence and certainty into our actions; they are intuitive. But it requires work to develop a habit. We are not born with habits; they are not inherited. Habits are learned, which means there was a point in time where a current habit was a new action. Habits can be unlearned as well, which means that they are finite.
Some habits are better than others: Brushing your teeth, showering, and going to the gym are good habits; binge eating, biting fingernails, and smoking cigarettes, which can also lead to addiction, are bad habits. There is something unfortunate about this though: bad habits tend to be easier to form and harder to change than good habits. Before going to the gym is a habit, nobody wants to put in the time, effort, or discomfort that it takes to consistently go. Before eating healthy is a habit, nobody wants to take the time to seek for and cook healthy foods, especially since they don’t taste as good or are as convenient as unhealthier options. McDonald’s is probably closer and cheaper than a grocery store anyways—and they cook the food for you! See what I’m saying?
It turns out that some habits fuel other habits, usually in the same context: A good habit can influence other good ones and a bad habit can fuel other bad ones. If we recognize which habits are central to others, we can shape our habits to shape other habits, and even more habits. These central habits are known as keystone habits, and they play a key role in our behavior.
Most of us think of habits as being individuals, or islands. The habit of driving home a certain way from work every day is completely isolated from stopping at McDonalds every day, which is independent of the urge to frequently snack. But what if a habit of packing a gym bag and placing it in the car before work is formed? This could urge us to drive to the gym after work. Consistently going to the gym requires hard work, so excessive unhealthy eating would be counterproductive. This could encourage a healthier diet and lifestyle. Going to the gym takes time, so this will require you to manage your time more efficiently.
The effect of one habit—like packing a gym bag before work every day—has potential to shape other habits. These powerful habits are called keystone habits, and they allow habits to behave collaboratively. Fig. 1 shows the reality of these habits.
Keystone habits have a similar effect on our lives as keystone species have on their ecosystem. Take sea otters for example, they serve as prey and act as predators. But their impact extends far beyond the traditional linear food chain (dog eat cat eat mouse). Sea otters eat sea urchins, which eat kelp. Kelp forests serve as a home for a plethora of other species; thus, sea otters not only protect the kelp forests by reducing the number of sea urchins, but also indirectly protect all of the species that live in the kelp forests. Keystone species are key to the success of an ecosystem; keystone habits are key to the success—and health, and happiness—of our lives.
Habits are formed when you learn to anticipate a reward, or response, after a certain cue. The anticipation of satisfying a craving, if you may, is established from the knowledge of a certain reward in response to a certain situation, or stimulus. Let’s say, for example, that you had back pain, and you heard that doing certain stretches can help alleviate some pain. So, you started stretching in the mornings and had relief in your back after doing so—and that made you happy. Your cue would be back pain, your response would be stretching, and your reward would be relief—and a happy feeling from it. You’ve just formed what Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, calls this the habit loop. Cue, response, reward—the habit loop. Fig. 2 shows the habit loop using the example from above.
The habit loop can sneakily establish new habits, which is the bad part. We can develop bad habits through the habit loop as well. The nicotine in cigarettes leads to addiction, but a habit of cigarette smoking is formed before addiction is. Cigarettes are known to “take the edge off” and give you that little buzz to “calm your nerves.” That feeling is the reward of a response—smoking a cigarette—to a stimulus. And at some point, a craving was developed for that reward.
Imagine if you smoked a cigarette every day at lunch break: the stimulus would be the lunch break, the response would be smoking a cigarette, and the reward would be the buzz. Then you start to crave that feeling after work, too. Then before bed. Then when you wake up. And now an addiction creeps in, piggybacking on the habit.
The good news is that habits can be changed. If the cues and rewards are identified, then the responses can be changed, or replaced. In the movie Holes, starring the young Shia LaBeouf, the Camp Green Lake counselor, Mr. Sir, had replaced smoking with sunflower seeds. He was still pissed off all the time, but at least he wasn’t smoking.
Tracking cues to become more aware of them is an effective way to actively prevent yourself from carrying out the response. If lunch break is your cue to smoke a cigarette, do something else enjoyable that requires you to stay inside. Easier said than done, but that’s a start, at least.
It’s not easy to change a habit—they are routines in our lives, often occurring without proper acknowledgement. Therefore, we must be aware and conscious of a habit if we want to change it. And that usually isn’t enough: it takes a tremendous amount of willpower to break, or reform, a habit. We must believe that we can change it to have the willpower to see it through.
Having strong willpower and self-discipline not only reflects on the ability to change habits, but it also reflects on many other areas in life as well. For instance, research shows that self-discipline is a greater predictor of academic success than is intellectual intelligence (IQ). Fortunately, willpower is not set in stone; it can be strengthened, like a muscle. And the best way to strengthen willpower, Charles Duhigg suggests, is to make it a habit. Rewards that require willpower to achieve them take persistence, and nothing feels better than something finally paying off after persistent, hard work in pursuit of a goal.
Carol A. Gianessi. (2012). From Habits to Self-Regulation: How Do We Change? Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine. 85, pp.293-299.
Robins, T and Costa, M. (2017). Habits. Current Biology. 27(22):R1200-R1206. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2017.09.060.
Duhigg, C. (2014). The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. Random House Trade Paperbacks.