Before we go any further, a HUGE thanks to Razwana, Yvonne, Joy, Ross, Adrienne, Jeevan and Annie for sharing their experiences in the previous post. Here we have some pretty good examples and I’m confident that the content in this article will answer any questions concerning why things may have happened the way they did in these specific cases (whether these habits were formed for good or not).
If you haven’t read the first article, then go ahead and do so now: How To Learn Anything (Part 1 of 2) (don’t worry, it’s fairly brief).
In this article then, we’re going to get a little more into the process and psychology of habit formation and look particularly at why 30 days (or 66 days or any number of days) of doing the same thing is sometimes not enough, i.e.:
Why do we sometimes slip back into our old habits?
Our Own Unique Reality
I often mention in various articles on this site (for example when talking about how we can communicate more effectively but in others too) that we all have our own unique view of the world, that what we think shapes our reality and therefore we can change our reality by changing what we think.
If you’re on our email list you will know I write a little more about this there too.
I mention this because it’s very much related to habit-forming – just as we can change or re-program our thoughts, associations and beliefs, so we can also re-program our habits. In order to do this we need to understand a little more what actually happens when habits form rather than just doing something new for 30 days (though that will work sometimes and we’ll look at why that is too).
Why Habits Are Important For Us Humans
If we didn’t have habits we’d never get anywhere.
Imagine if you had to make a conscious decision about everything you did.
Most of the choices we make each day may feel like the products of well-considered decision-making but they’re not – they are habits…
… and though on their own, each habit may mean very little, the effect of all of these ‘automated’ routines which we perform with little to no conscious effort at all is a major factor in our productivity and also in our health, financial security and happiness.
Imagine if every time you tried to drive a car you had to work out every detail as if you were learning it for the first time – how to change gears, where to put the key, what each and every button, lever and indicator meant.
These are all things you have learned (if you drive a car) and which have been done through repetition and through habit-forming.
That’s what habits are: choices we have deliberately made at some point, and then stopped thinking about because they became automatic.
The good news is that by understanding how this works, you can re-wire your habits in any way you choose.
A Word On Motivation (From The Billionaire Legend With The Ferrari)
This is a slight aside but perhaps worthwhile at this point…
I’ve been asked a few times whether I believe anything is possible – usually in relation to a conversation about the law of attraction or the secret (google them if you want more info, I’m not putting links here). I find the topic a fascinating one. Extremely powerful if understood but quite dangerous if mis-understood. So I always answer that question very carefully and I have some pretty strong views about it.
You may be thinking if this is also so easy (by the way I never said it was easy) then who is this guy? Is he a super-fit billionaire, where is the picture of him standing by the Ferarri?
In fact I’m not super-fit, no six-pack (though I don’t have a keg either), I’m not quite a billionaire and I don’t drive a Ferrari (in fact the car I do drive is pretty much at the other end of the scale).
Would you assign me more ‘habit-forming’ credibility if I had all of those things?
I hope not… keep reading…
Why is this worthwhile mentioning? Because it occurred to me as I was writing this that I do have the things I really care about right in front of me: family, freedom, health and wealth.
I am motivated towards these things, I crave them and I have developed habits to get them and to maintain them.
Motivation is the key part to habit-forming. So we need to understand motivation, and understand that it is dynamic, it changes as our reality changes. Our motivation in one moment can be very different in the next.
In fact, for a habit to really stick, it needs to be more than just motivation, it needs to be obsessive motivation (craving or yearning).
How Habits Form – The Habit Loop
In his book, ‘The Power of Habit & Why we do the things we do’, Charles Duhigg describes the process of habit-forming as having three distinct parts: the cue, the routine and the reward. He calls this process The Habit Loop.
The principle is simple and, as mentioned above, is similar to NLP theory:
- we are programmed or ‘wired’ with a series of associations
- once we understand what these associations are and how they work, we can actually choose to re-program or re-wire them to have different behaviors take place.
The picture Duhigg uses in his book to show a simple graphical representation throughout the book looks like this:
A Basic Example: Monkey Experiment Stage 1
In the 1980s a professor of neuroscience at Cambridge University by the name of Wolfram Schultz conducted a series of experiments to look at how rewards work on a neurochemical level.
Schultz positioned a little monkey on a chair in front of a computer monitor. The monkey’s job was to touch a lever whenever colored shapes appeared on the screen. If he touched the lever he would be rewarded with a drop of his favorite blackberry juice.
As the monkey learned that the shapes on the screen were a cue for a routine (that he should touch the lever) which would result in a reward (blackberry juice) he became increasingly focused on the monitor. He focused on the screen with a laser-like intensity and when the juice arrived, he would lick his lips with glee.
As Schultz monitored the activity he saw a pattern emerge – whenever the monkey received the juice, there would be a spike in brain activity – suggesting he was experiencing happiness.
Schultz monitored the same monkey through repeated experiments always observing the same pattern with the spike in brain activity signalling the reward and associated happiness.
From a neurological perspective, the monkey’s behaviour became a habit.
The Interesting Part: Monkey Experiment Stage 2
The interesting part which you don’t get from a cursory look at the habit loop process above, is how things changed as the experiment proceeded.
As the monkey became more and more practiced at the behavior – as the habit became stronger and more ingrained, the monkey’s brain began anticipating the reward before it arrived.
The spike in brain activity indicating happiness or excitement started showing the instant that the monkey saw the shapes on the computer screen.
Therefore the shapes on the computer screen became a cue not just for the routine but also for the pleasure response associated with the expected reward.
Schultz went on to adjust the experiment, alternating the timing of the reward and sometimes providing no reward at all. He started to see more complex neurological patterns associated with desire, frustration and craving.
Comparing monkeys who reached this level of craving (i.e. a strong habit) with those who had a less developed habit Schultz and his colleagues found that the latter examples could be distracted relatively easily with food, leaving the door open, play with other monkeys etc. But for monkeys who had developed a very strong habit, the monkeys stayed glued to the screens regardless of the distractions.
More on the Efficiency of Habits
As described above, habits are our brains way of being efficient. Left to its own devices, our brain will try to make any routine into a habit. This effort-saving instinct is a huge advantage. It allows our brain to stop actively taking part in decision-making. This can also be dangerous – if our brain were to go MIA at the wrong moment, for example when we are presented with new danger and really need to react, then we’d be in serious trouble.
This is where habits are really interesting.
Our brains actually know when to give up control to the habit and which habit to use. It is for this purpose that the cue and reward become important – i.e. the brain is active in the cue and reward stages – the cue tells the brain that a routine can be used, and this instruction becomes stronger and stronger through time and repetition i.e. the brain can trust it’s reliance on the habit-routine. The brain spends a lot of effort at the beginning of the habit-loop looking for the cue which offers the hint as to which pattern to use. When the monkey sees the shapes on the computer screen, he knows to pull the lever. If on the other hand he heard the cry of a predator behind him, that would trigger a different response – one presumably where the brain is much more active.
At the end of the activity the brain gets involved again, it revisits the scene at the reward stage and makes sure that everything went exactly as expected. This also tells the brain if this is a routine worth remembering for the future – thus potentially increasing the motivation or craving for this habit and reinforcing the behavior.
Now that we understand how the process of habit-forming works, how do we go about programming or re-programming them so that we develop the habits we want and get rid of the habits we don’t want?
There are plenty of things to consider which will help when trying to form new habits well.
One of these which makes things much easier to ‘stick’ is consistency. Humans love consistency. Humans generally have a need to be consistent within their own system of beliefs. We will assure ourselves that our choices and behaviors are right and strive to remain consistent with these decisions and behaviors.
We can therefore use this fact when designing (programming or re-programming) our habits.
Let’s say you are trying to develop the habit of going to the gym every day.
Set it up for success. Design the habit in the best possible way to give you the best chance of this habit forming and sticking in the long run.
- Prepare your gym bag in advance and leave it by the front door so you can’t miss it the minute you walk through the door.
- Every day you come home see your gym bag pick it up and go right to the gym – this is your cue
- Put the same things in your gym bag every day – and make sure you don’t miss anything
- Go to the gym even if you don’t feel like it (going and having a poor workout is better than skipping as during the habit-forming stage it is the consistency that is most important, not how well you do) – this is your routine, make it the same routine every time
- Give yourself a reward (e.g. if you like the sauna, have a sauna after every session) – this is your reward
Plan for achieving the maximum level of consistency possible when you think of when, where and how you will carry out your new routine.
The reward is very important, make sure that this is compelling enough to drive the behaviour you’re looking for.
Note: A daily reward is obviously not the same as a long-term result which is also part of the reward and the reason you are doing something (e.g. to get fit, lose weight or any other longer term goal) – just make sure that you are motivated enough for a craving to exist – whether you need a daily reward to aid this or the long-term result you are striving for is sufficient.
To put it simply: we need to put together a cue, a routine and a reward – and then cultivate a craving that drives the loop.
If motivation wanes or that craving is not there or not strong enough, then it is entirely possible that the habit will fall away too, not being strong enough and we may fall back into old ‘bad’ habits that we thought we’d gotten rid of.
So, Why Do We Sometimes Slip Back Into Our Old Habits?
When we give the brain a cue, it has to choose what the most appropriate routine to go with that cue is.
Old behaviours (old habits) are not discarded entirely. They are simply replaced with new ones if the motivation for the new habit is more compelling.
Think about it for a second.
If you have had a habit which has taken some time to form and evolve such that it is strong enough (with the right dose of craving for whatever the particular reward is) then that habit is pretty well established.
Even if you then replace that habit with a new habit, the old habit never fully disappears, because it has already been ‘learned’ – the best you can hope for is that it is severely diminished, forgotten or replaced with preferred new behaviors, but I’m afraid it never disappears completely.
It is for this reason that old habits can often come back.
What is actually happening is that the cue is simply pointing back to the old habit instead of the new one.
To fix this, you need to drill the new habit and make the motivation (the reward) associated with the new habit more compelling – enough to drive out the old habit once more.
As described above, habits are a huge advantage for us – imagine if you had to re-learn how to drive every time we got into the car. It is for this reason that habits never fully disappear.
The problem is that your brain can’t distinguish between good and bad. Your ‘bad’ habits are always there, lurking in the background and waiting for the right cues and rewards. Again the trick is to offer the right cues and rewards to the good habits instead. 😉
It is for this reason that weight-loss, addiction, health and exercise habits can be so difficult – because the habits which describe the love of sugar, sitting on the couch watching TV and whatever the addiction was are still there.
The replacement habits if structured well can become just as automatic as these ‘bad’ habits but the bad habits don’t go away, they’ve just been forced into the background.
30 Days Worked Just Fine For Me, Why Is That?
Just doing something for 30 days without worrying too much about cues, rewards and craving might work just fine.
Remember, we naturally form habits all of the time.
We naturally form habits all of the time, our brains want to take short cuts, so doing the same thing for 30 days is already going to be very impactful compared to usual day-to-day life.
Just because we looked at the entire process here and what to change if the 30 day method doesn’t work & I’m not saying it doesn’t work.
Sometimes it does – and the reason it does is probably that you had a blast doing whatever it was you were doing for 30 days, you were surprised with what you got out of it (therefore the reward became really compelling) or the change wasn’t as hard as you thought it was going to be.
So if you didn’t need all of the information in this second article (but you read it anyway, thanks!) at least you now understand why your 30 day (or 21 day or 66 day or 10,000 times) method worked and it’s worth keeping what you learned here in your back pocket in case you want to be even more aware or want to try something that proves to be more of a challenge.
How to Learn ANYTHING
Let’s take the simple example of learning to play guitar.
What you actually learn is not the habit (you learn new and different information every day).
The process of learning is the habit (you show up at the same time every day to learn, with the same guitar, the same process and as much else about the situation and the environment the same as possible – you have the same burning desire driving you forwards every lesson and you have a great reward – the improvement in the music you’re producing – which creates an even greater craving for more).
If you don’t have a good process to learn something, then learning will be much more difficult. You may start off well and full of enthusiasm, you may even enjoy every moment of it, but with most things you will reach a plateau, maybe even a dip and if your learning up to that point has been very inconsistent (remember the point above about consistency?) then you will most likely struggle or even give up altogether.
However, if you create a good learning process, if you have a strong habit, with an obsessive motivation, a craving that drives the habit loop – then you can learn ANYTHING.
Over To You (again)…
This article could very easily have been 5 times as long and I’d still have more to write. I’ve tried to keep it palatable whilst still covering the main points but please do let me know what you think in the comments below. If you were one of the people kind enough to share your own example in the first article, I’d particularly like to hear from you if this relates well to your experience, if it answers any questions you may have had or if you have any outstanding questions on this subject at all. Thanks again for these examples which helped inform what I included in the article.