Working in the educational sector (that’s me!) has its perks. The best one being that you are in touch every single day with various topics that triggers your curiosity and give you an opportunity to learn a whole more about them. A few month ago, I had to take this course on « the science of learning », or how neuroscience studied the way we human beings learn new behaviors, like learning… And I’ve been quite fascinated by this topic ever since! So I thought I would write something about it here and share a bit of my discoveries because making it through the millenium is about learning and adapting! And doing just that is a habit. So let’s catch up!
Do you remember the very first time you had to make yourself a cup of tea or some coffee?! Okay let’s look at something a bit more complex: when you’ve learnt how to ride a bike or how to swim… Do you remember how overwhelming this whole process was?! How you had to make each decision and memorize every moment or every action at the same time?! That really sounds like a nightmare, does it?! And that’s only how you felt. Imagine the resources that your brain has to mobilize in these situations…
The great things about habits is that, once they have been established, they are automatic. Neuroscientists have identified the prefrontal cortex as the part of the brain that gets mobilized in decision making process. On the other end, the basal ganglia has been identified as responsible for forming habits but it also handles emotions, memories and pattern of recognition. So, if decisions are automated, there are no decisions at all anymore… only memorized patterns. Habits, in other words. Then, once the potential that gets usually engaged in decision making has been freed, it can be reassigned to more meaningful tasks… Then you can do more things, learn more. Create more.
Through one of her studies, psychologist Wendy Wood from University of Southern California has demonstrated that 40 to 45% of our daily activities are habits. Think about walking and all the things that you can do while walking: texting… have a business discussion over the phone, review your schedule for the day or listen to a podcast… These would not be possible if you had to focus and make a decision about how to do every step you make. Although we all went through that! But indeed, take these routines that we’ve learnt in the early days of our lives and have been automated since then. And how much tasks we are able to operate with all that mental capacity left! Neurologically, that is made possible by the basal ganglia that takes a behavior and turns it into a habit for us. And we don’t even have to decide about that.
“Habits are malleable throughout your entire life. But we also know that the best way to change a habit is to understand its structure.“Charles Duhigg, « The Power of Habits »
The habit loop
It order to understand how habits, good and bad, shape our lives and play a key role in helping us to achieve our goals (or preventing us to do so), it is important to know about the chemistry of it. How habits are triggered, formed and performed into our brains. That is called the habit loop in neuroscience.
Each habit is composed of three elements: the cue (or trigger), the routine (the act of performing the habit itself) and the reward.
The cue is what triggers the habit, neurologically. On formed habits, the cue is the switch of activity on witch the brain goes from decision making (through the Prefrontal Cortex) to routine (through the basal ganglia). Now, here is the tricky part: what is a cue ? Well, cues can be a variety of things such a certain environment, a time of the day, a certain emotional state… even another habit you are performing or other people’s behavior! In itself, a cue is a part of a pattern that the brain recognize in a recurrent context. That coffee that you get every morning around 10:30, that awkward feeling when you find yourself taking the road to work on an early Sunday morning while you were supposed to get on a simple milk run to the convenient store… Are these unforeseen events and spontaneous decisions, or are they simple routines that we perform on automatic mode? Admittedly, recognizing the cues in our neurological habit pathways is the hardest part but that’s a fundamental part of the process of developing valuable habits, or ending up bad ones.
It this video, Wendy Moore explains how our behaviors tends to be driven by context and environment.
The routine is the performance of the habit itself. Going on a bike, grab your helmet, your bike gloves and fill up a water bottle… etc. Preparing breakfast: put the kettle on, toast some bread… etc.
The reward is what we aim to enjoy after we have performed a habit. Chatting with some colleagues while making our morning coffee at the office, smelling a nice fresh odour after some cleaning at home, feeling invigorated after some exercice… Smartphones would be a good example here. Why do we check our emails, social media threads so often?! Are we craving so much about information and updates ?! No, it’s rather about our brain being quite selfish there and looking for its dose of dopamine: every time that you see a funny video on social media, or every invitation for an interview that you receive in your emails, your brain is reacting positively by producing this neurotransmitter which convey the feeling of happiness. Find a way to allow your brain to produce dopamine in another way, and you will find yourself checking your phone less frequently! Obviously, humans didn’t wait smartphones to feel happy, so there are certainly alternatives existing out there, like painting, photography, sports, gardening, music…
You need a goal in order to form and perform a habit in a sustainable way. In other words, you need to see the point of performing the habit… Say you are thinking about getting more exercise. If you want to turn that into a habit that you perform steadily, you need to set a goal for it. For this particular example it would be loosing weight, get back in shape, get on a healthier lifestyle. The goal gives you a purpose into performing your habit.
Seeing the goal is usually easy as the goal usually comes first: you need to achieve a goal and then the habit gets set as a method. Say you want to increase your net worth: you have to save money. Increase your net worth is the goal. Saving money is the method (or the habit) to reach that goal.
As important as the cues are, repetition is probably the other key aspect of habits. In order for the brain to switch to automatic behavior, you need to set some pattern, and a pattern is a series of action that gets repeated. To be clearer, a habit doesn’t form on one instance, there has to be several instances of the same action or series of actions (routine) for a neural pathway to build. Neuroscientists agree to say that usually take 60 days to set a new habit, or get rid of one. To be a bit more precise, statistics say that it takes around 20 instances for that neural pathway (neurological term for habit) to start to build. Passed the 40 instances mark, the habit has been set and, good or bad, you will perform it without even having to think about it. In other words, at this stage, there is no decision making involved at all and you’re on cruise control for that particular routine. Finally over the 66 instances, the neural pathways gets reinforced and so does the habit itself.
The business of habits
One thing to be aware of is that, as with almost everything in life, habits can be a great marketing tool for companies to sell products to their consumers. By studying consumers behavior, they can figure out patterns and habits as to why we buy a certain product or a certain combinaison of products, or why we use them in a certain order.
Consumer habits can make a product or break it, commercially. And brands are aware of that. Tech companies will nowadays observe how we browse their websites or mobile app in order to improve our experience as users, retailers study how we browse shelves and aisles, what we buy and how we buy it (in which order, quantity, time of the purchase…). Brands themselves will gather consumers within test panels to confront them with their products in development to observe how consumers engage with the product, what they will do with it.
Proctor & Gamble has applied this and made great advantage of it updating their product Febreze. They would market it at first as a scent-free odor eliminator but then observations were made that the smelliest homes aren’t necessarily the one craving for fresher air. Therefore the product wouldn’t sell. Then the company reformulated its product and included a range of scents to it. That was a result of observing that people would be seeking for fresher when their interior looked newer! And then Febreze begun being included in people’s cleaning routines, although nobody would ask for it…
That is a great exemple of how brands usually excel at studying consumers habits and adapting their products to integrate them into them. Marketing is not about creating the need anymore, it seems, but enriching habits and experiences.
Break the routine
Remember, basal ganglia operates on patterns recognition. Change one key in the pattern and everything breaks. In his book The Power of Habits, New York Times business reporter Charles Duhigg points out studies that have established that we operate our habits like lacing our shoes or brushing our teeth the same way over and over again, as long as we perform them in the same environment. However we’ll notice that we tend to do things differently, sometimes struggle at doing so after some vacation away, for example. That’s because the environment has changed, so some cues have been changed, therefore the routine has been broken, somehow. And it needs to be reset! That’s partly why going on vacation feels so relaxing: patterns are broken but then once we’re back home again these get reset again. Therefore, vacations are a key moment to change habits. Cues and rewards are gone.
“ If you want to quit smoking, you should stop smoking while you’re on a vacation … because all your old cues and all your old rewards aren’t there anymore. So you have this ability to form a new pattern and hopefully be able to carry it over into your life. “Charles Duhigg, « The Power of Habits »
Knowing the anatomy of a habit (good or bad) is essential. Being able to identify what triggers it and figuring out why we’re performing it helps us to draw the battle plan to eradicate it and substitute another routine in place that is more beneficial for ourselves. Let’s take that candy or sweet beverage that we get everyday after lunch as an exemple. The cue here is that we’ve eaten our lunch and the reward that we’re looking is a sweet note to end up our meal and get back to work for the afternoon. With just that, we know the why and the when. We just have to find a substitute that is more healthy (what about some fruits?!), or maybe we could instaure another routine instead (what about some walking around the block?!)
To forge bigger or more complex and newer habits, we need to be able to set or recognize cues which could easily trigger the routine. Also, sometimes it’s necessary to set some goal or set a series of goals. Let’s say you want to save $5000. The goal alone can feel a bit overwhelming. Instead, it would feel more achievable to set a series of 10 goals of $500! Some call this baby steps, other will talk about the « 1% a day» rule… The important here is break a big goal into smaller gold or milestones or order to be able to measure success.
Great, it seems that we’re on the right path. We’ve set one goal and start working toward achieving it. But soon, after we performed that habit a couple of time, we starting to feel demotivated. In order to restore that motivation, we need some reward! We humans do things with a purpose, some value we can withdraw. We grow food to be able to eat any time and anything we want fewer hassle; we go to school to get a job. Without purpose, we loose focus! Our relationship to habits obeys to the same precepts. Let get back to our savings example and let’s say that for every 500 dollars, we authorize ourselves to spend $20 or $30 on some luxury item: like movie ticket or a meal at the restaurant. Now we have a tangible purpose to it: we have a long term goal (the $5000) and a short term goal (the $30 we will be able to spend right away)! And there is our reason to commit!
After a few weeks, it seems that we have some healthy habit here. Maybe we could build up on this. What about starting to invest a bit of these savings, say $50 for $500? Even if it means postponing a bit the deadline for that $5000 capital.
As Marco Badwal states in his TEDX talks (see above), « we human are creatures of habits ». They enable us to achieve what we aim for in life by automating certain aspects of it. And knowing how these work, form and continue can allow us to change and improve. In order to achieve that, it’s important to identify the cues that trigger these behaviors of ours and the reward we retrieve for them, in order to find alternatives and forge new habits to ditch the bad ones. Then, once we have a base of good and positive habits, it’s easier to build more successful habits upon them.
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