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 » H
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.