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Scott Byars | July 31, 2016


If you stop to consider all the stuff we do each and every day, it’s pretty astounding. Most of us are a blur of motion. The more ambitious among us wake up, don running clothes, jog, shower, shave, brush our teeth, and check email before breakfast. We can pull this off because we don’t think about doing it. If we had to harangue ourselves over every tooth-flossing and dish-washing we wouldn’t get much done. We must automate in order to efficiently navigate our hectic lives, meet all of our needs, and thrive. Fortunately, evolution was kind enough to endow us with a neat little trick for just this purpose – habits.

While it’s necessary to use willpower to get moving down the road to well-being, we don’t have enough willpower to grit our way through each task on our daily to-do list. To successfully achieve well-being we must ultimately put effective strategies on cruise control by cultivating habits. Caution is warranted, however, because if we don’t mindfully choose our habits we may find ourselves with a bad habit we carry around for the rest of our lives like that crappy piece of hand me down luggage gifted to us in college from our well-meaning grandparents. By taking the time to understand how we form habits, and how habits are related to our needs, we can learn to create habits that lead to well-being and learn to change habits that don’t.

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg is an excellent primer on how habits work and how they can be cultivated. Duhigg explains the process of habit formation through what he calls the “habit loop” which consists of three parts. The cue which is a signal to begin the routine which in turn culminates in the reward. For example, when we pick up our car keys this action cues us to begin the routine of backing out of the driveway which culminates in the reward of a sense of accomplishment from completing the first leg of our journey without pulverizing our neighbor’s mailbox. To form a habit we must cue ourselves to begin a routine which we associate with a reward. The habit takes hold when we begin to anticipate the reward and in turn begin to crave the routine.    

I appreciate the simplicity of Duhigg’s approach, yet it’s missing a critical component. He doesn’t relate our habits to our needs. His discussion stops at the short-term rewards we receive from our habits and neglects the longer term rewards to our well-being that we achieve by meeting our needs. This is a critical oversight because the very reason that we would consider a habit to be “good” or “bad” depends on both of the rewards. With an effective habit we get both short and long-term rewards. With an ineffective habit we get the short-term reward at the expense of a longer term reward.      

Let’s suppose we want to start a new habit of exercising every morning. We begin by placing our running shoes next to the bed to cue ourselves of our routine when we wake. Upon waking, we begin our routine: a short run. After the run we get our reward of a natural, neurochemical, exercise-induced happiness and a sense of accomplishment. Simple enough! Over time a habit will form as we begin to anticipate the reward and crave the strategy.

running shoes

@Colin Haris Flickr Creative Commons

However, that’s not the end of the story. In this example, we were on the ball and thoughtfully considered our needs so we will also begin to experience positive gains toward our longer term well-being because we chose an effective strategy to meet our need for health. Our sense of vitality and energy will increase in the long-term.

This is a perfect world scenario – happiness in the moment and long-term well-being. Optimally all of our habits are a means to well-being and don’t simply end at short-term reward.

Unfortunately, that is not the case, however. Our ineffective habits don’t lead to our long-term well-being. Let’s take a look at a common bad habit like nail biting. Many people bite their nails as a strategy to alleviate anxiety. The habit loop looks like this: Anxiety is the cue, nail biting is the routine, and pacification is the reward. We all have a need for some form of anxiety relief on occasion and nail biting in moderation probably wouldn’t be seen as too problematic. However, it becomes an issue when we continually bite our nails down to the quick because our daily anxiety level is pegged at eleven. In this case we receive short-term relief from our anxiety, but we have done nothing to alleviate the cause of the anxiety. We are trading short-term relief for the long-term well-being that could be achieved by addressing the underlying issue.

We usually don’t consciously choose our ineffective habits like nail biting to meet a specific need. Unfortunately, these habits seem to choose us. And since we didn’t choose them it’s difficult to unchoose them. Simply knowing there is a cue, a routine and a reward isn’t enough to change these habits we must also consider our needs.

Our need for relaxation has become disproportionately intense due to other needs not being met. Maybe it’s anxiety caused by fear that we fail to be perfect. Our need for esteem hinges on our perfection so every threat is staved off by grazing on our fingers. We have roughly a zero percent chance of changing this habit without addressing our esteem need. To resolve this, we must find an effective strategy for meeting our esteem need, which will decrease our desire to chomp on our nails, while we find a more effective strategy to reduce our anxiety.     

Often we get frustrated when we are unable to rid ourselves of ineffective habits. We see it as a personal failure, a shortcoming. Yet, old habits die hard because they are directed at meeting a need. In the case of nail biting it was our need for relaxation. All of our needs demand strategies, so we can’t get rid of habits which are directed towards meeting them. We can only change habits to be more effective. This insight allows us to tackle some of the greater challenges in our lives that have arisen due to unmet needs. We can begin to look at alcoholism or overeating with new clarity and approach them with new strategies to help break their grip on us. We can begin to address the underlying cause and the habit simultaneously.

The key to changing ineffective habits is to find more effective strategies that balance all your needs.

To gain well-being we must use every tool at our disposal. Habits are a great tool that can lead to increased well-being if we choose them wisely. If our habits have chosen us, however, they can lead to immeasurable sorrow as our needs go unmet. The key to making habits work for us, instead of against us, is to understand their relationship to our needs. Habits are a means to an end and if we keep the end in mind; then, and only then, we are able to take advantage of a little cruise control on the road to well-being.

Superhero image copyright JD Hancock, Flickr Creative Commons