Love & Loathing of Habits


Written by Sherri Lojzer

Apr 14, 2016

We all seem to talk about habits with disdain, frustration and even hate in some cases. They are tough to break, seem counterproductive to things we want to accomplish and somehow are controlled by someone other than ourselves. We talk about habits plenty but it always seems that it’s the evil twin habit “Bad Habit” that we talk about and much less often the helpful twin “Good Habit”. Like the little shoulder angel and devil that is conjured up, lets challenge those to gain some insight about habits, good or bad.
Habit is actually this wonderful mechanism that our brains develop to memorize a pattern of behavior. It actually requires a lot of energy for our brains to process the millions of stimuli it is subjected to every moment and to manage the actions of our bodies, while regulating all of our internal workings. That’s a lot to deal with at once! So habits are kind of like a cross between DOS and Energy Saving Mode on your computer. For example, let’s say that your brain has saved a program we shall call Cookie Monster. Cookie Monster is a program that knows when you are stressing you should go get a cookie. It has saved this programming because it has recorded this behavior happening in the past and decided this is something that we can do without having to think about it, so let’s save it for future use. Now it scans for the trigger to this program and others on a constant basis. Once it identifies the trigger, it automatically launches Program Cookie Monster and up you get from your seat and walk to the cookie bag for your reward, all while continuing to process the millions of stimuli around you, manage your body’s actions and regulate your internal organs. Maybe your habit is that you always turn on the shower, then brush your teeth, then get in the shower. Your brain will save Program Bad Breath so that regardless of your state of wakefulness, you will automatically trigger the need to brush your teeth as soon as you turn on the shower. You can see where habits can have positives and negatives pretty quickly.
Habits also support continued learning. How many times have you driven home and on arriving realized that you don’t recall most of the drive because you were deep in thought? Habit has allowed you to learn how to operate your vehicle, navigate a path home all while thinking about something entirely different. Imagine if you had to re-learn how to operate your vehicle each day and re-learn the route to work each day. What if you needed to start each morning doing the tutorial on your software at work? We would be much less productive or progressive in what we as humans could accomplish. Habits allow us to memorize the pattern of behavior and then put it out of your conscious thoughts yet still allow for us to add to that habit by including new or additional steps. Have you ever watched children learning to play video games? They die repeatedly for hours on end but each time they have figured out a little bit more and a little bit more information before they die. Before long they can play the game with their eyes closed because their brain has programmed the pattern of behaviours so well that adults find maddening when they try to play against them.
Spend some time over the next couple of days and start noticing the things that you do which are those programs already saved in your memories. You might be surprised to realize how much of what you do, you do without even thinking about it!

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