In my last blog I talked about what habits are. Habits are behaviors that occur automatically without awareness. They are cued or triggered by specific events in our environment – it could be a location, time, people, feeling, or an immediately preceding action.
Habits serve a very important purpose. They free up the brain to do other more important things – like problem-solving and decision making. Imagine we were learning a new skill like how to play the guitar. We feel awkward and clumsy. Playing a new chord or moving between chords takes all our attention. With practice we become more fluid, more efficient in our movements. This is the first quality of a habit – efficiency. Habitual behaviors can be performed easily, quickly, and effortlessly. Habits free up our minds so that we can do other things at the same time. Have you ever driven to the store lost in thought? When you get to the store, you wonder how you got there. Your driving was on autopilot. You did not think about how to drive the car and you were lost in thought, perhaps thinking about a meeting coming up later in the day. That is the second characteristic of a habit – it occurs with minimal awareness. With minimal awareness we can carry out an action without paying much attention to what we are doing. The third quality of a habit is lack of conscious intention. We do things without actually intending or desiring to do them. It is actually difficult to stop ourselves from doing them or doing them differently. Yu might have the habit of every morning after you brush yurt eth, then flossing them. Or let’s say every day at three o’clock you stop what you are doing and go into the kitchen or breakroom and have a snack. Maybe you eat a bowl of ice cream every evening before going to bed. Once these behaviors become habitual, they seem almost impossible to stop. Both our good habits and bad follow the same basic laws They are done effortlessly, with minimal attention and lack of conscious intention or planning.
With habits we are able to conserve our self-control. In a future blog I will discuss further the strengths and limitations of willpower – control, but for now suffice it to say that willpower or self-control is like a muscle – it uses up energy and tires out. To develop a new habit takes self-control, but once the habit is established, we no longer need to use our willpower or self-control to do it. Our minds are freed up to do other things, our lives our smoother and more fluid.
Teddy Roosevelt: “Habits and routines free up the mind for more constructive work”.
William James: “Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state”.