How Habits Work

Habits can be changed, if we understand how they work.

In the brain, we have a nub of neurological tissue known as the basal ganglia. This golf-ball-sized part of the brain is responsible for storing our habits. It recalls and acts on them. This mechanism works independently of the rest of the brain, so that we are able to execute our routines without thinking.

Habits emerge because the brain wants to save effort. The brain, instead of analyzing the situation and thinking about behavior, can simply execute a routine. This gives the logical part of the brain more space for other important things.

The habit loop has three steps, and the first one is a cue. It’s a trigger that tells your brain to start executing a habit. Then there is a routine. It can be physical, mental, or emotional. And the last step is a reward. This gives the brain information about whether the routine is worth remembering in the future.

The most important thing to remember about habits is that our brains can’t tell the difference between good and bad habits. As long as there is a reward, the habit will remain. The brain cannot recognize that sitting on the couch and watching TV is a bad habit, and physical exercise is a good habit. Once we establish a habit, it stays strong, and it’s very difficult to break. But by using the same rule, we can learn to establish new neurological connections and create good habits such as refusing donuts or going jogging.

Studies show that a lot of decisions in our lives happen without the involvement of our logical minds. They are automatic. This means that the habits in our brains influence how we act, often without our realization.

Sometimes we can establish habits consciously, but many of them emerge without our permission. For example, families don’t intend to eat fast food on a regular basis. What happens is that a once-a-month pattern slowly becomes once a week and then twice a week.