The informing book, The Power of Habitoutlines how mammalian brains quite like our own are changed through reward and expectation that circulate habits.
With humans, it is not a case of wanting to take drugs, or drink or repeat compulsive behaviours. Alcoholics for one mask the taste of actual alcohol because it’s not what they are seeking: they seek relief. Nor do animals want to be electrocuted or poisoned over food, monkeys to become upset over simple grape juice, or rats to press-for-pleasure until they are gone. (The ethics, or lack is a constant controversy).
When mice are rewarded with food and then the food is poisoned or the route to the food made hurtful by electrical shocks, what do the mice do? Mice that are accustomed to a certain food from a certain place carry on regardless and hurt themselves, out of habit. Monkeys become habituated to getting pleasurable grape juice, so when it’s taken away they become, mopey or enraged. And as Louanna Benzedrine details in Meet Your Happy Chemicals: rats that are given a lever to press to activate their pleasure centre—the nucleus accumbens—shockingly press that lever until they die.
That pleasure electrode is drugs par excellence; it gives pleasure infinitely. And the rats die in the process to get that pleasure, as human addicts tragically also do with heroin or cocaine. Similarly, the chemically low addictive-dose of food and grape juice become obsessions to the mice and monkeys; obsessions they will hurt and upset themselves over. This proves that what drives these animals is not pleasure or satisfaction, but insatiable craving.
As Duhigg details:
“One paper published by a Duke University researcher in 2006 found that more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day wasn’t actual decision, but habits”
Yes, about 45% of your day isn’t even thought about, but you running on autopilot. Which makes sense: you wouldn’t want to stress over each decision, it’s economical not to think everything through – even a little mad. But that’s what successes do. Duhigg tells us.
They form good habits so that when conscious attention is offline they are still operating in their best interests.
In the case of habits, we don’t seem to have much free will. ‘Neurons that fire together, wire together’ is a neuroscientific law. That is, brain cells accustom to certain behaviours, or metaphorical paths, and take them in order to avoid excess effort – an evolutionary disadvantage in the scarce environment of our long evolutionary history. We become what we repeatedly do, and as Marcus Aurelius—full-time emperor part-time Stoic philosopher—said: “we are what we give our attention to”.
But as neuroscientist Alexander Korb has written, we can inhibit our usual behaviour but it takes a lot of effort by the prefrontal cortex.
From Upward Spiral
“Stress takes the prefrontal cortex offline.” Stress changes the dynamics of that conversation. It weakens the prefrontal cortex. That part of your brain doesn’t have infinite resources. It can’t be eternally vigilant and so while it’s not paying attention, your striatum is like, “Let’s go eat a cookie. Let’s go drink a beer.” Anything that you can do to reduce stress can help strengthen the prefrontal cortex’s control over your habits.”
And our willpower is a depletable resource: to really quit you have to focus on one habit at a time otherwise you’ll be overwhelmed into a habitual stress response across-the-board.
1. Target one habit at a time
“If you try to transform everything at once, it tends to be very, very destabilizing. In general, what people should do, is they should think of change as a project. It’s a project that takes a while… Now, it might feel frustrating to say, “If you have ten habits you want to change, that means it’s going to take eight months or nine months.” The truth of the matter is if this is a behavior that’s really important, changing it will have this huge impact on your life. It’s worth spending a month to change one behavior permanently. You’re going to be reaping the benefits of that for the next decade.”
2. Isolate the cue, the routine, and the reward of your target habit
“USE THE SAME CUE PROVIDE THE SAME REWARD CHANGE THE ROUTINE”
Make it explicit what your triggers to misbehave our: they are tangible: cigarettes, fast food, time wasting websites, smartphone, computers, but what makes you go to them is emotional stress, anxiety, boredom, just running on autopilot. To stop the habit, first break it down into the cue which causes it, the doing of it, and the reward you gain from it. And then find a routine to replace it that retains the same cue and a suitable reward. Instead of the stress response turning you to passive Facebook, or to a cigarette go outside, for instance, and gain the reward from exercise.
3. Change Your Environment to Suit You
The best predictor of whether you will eat something is that the food be there, similarly the best predictor of smoking is cigarettes. By subtracting that trigger and adding a different routine – say to eat or get a caffeine nicotine high, the secret can be to have more caffeine and nicotine (in a weaning process) from other sources. And the secret to dieting? Eating more, just of the more nutritionally dense good-stuff – plant based food, as Dr Michael Greger outlines the brilliant How Not To Die.
Another finding of social research is the minimum viable effort principle – the more inconvenient the less likely you are to do it. As Shawn Achor of Harvard writes in The Happiness Advantage
“Watching too much television? Merely take out the batteries of the remote control creating a 20 second delay and it dramatically decreases the amount of television people will watch.”
And yes, it works. Even in the reverse of making good habits 20 seconds easier. It’s the hurdle – not the task – that we find hard to engage with.
4. Replace The Habit
“We know that a habit cannot be eradicated— it must, instead, be replaced. And we know that habits are most malleable when the Golden Rule of habit change is applied: If we keep the same cue and the same reward, a new routine can be inserted.”
Substituting a different routine repeatedly will overwrite the habit, but the habit will still be their—but don’t be upset, it’s to be expected, as outlined earlier habits are really neurologically compelling; stressing over breaking a habit merely encourages breaking it – because what’s the cause? That’s right! Stress.
The shared faith in the ability to recover, and commonly in God, outlined in the alcoholics anonymous program shows how more likely you are to succeed if you believe you can and have a group that reminds and exemplifies that you can.
6. Positive Peer Pressure
Research shows the number one predictor of negative behaviour like drugs and alcohol is of course the accessibility to the drugs themselves, and second is the friendship circle which either encourage or discourages. If you want to become fitter, for example, a major way to do is to surround yourself with fit enthusiastic people; whereas the contrary in the case of smokers, drinkers, or drug takers who will only encourage you by routine, trigger, and example to relapse into over regular taking. The same is true for milder habits like grade and work performance, plant based dieting, even musical ability.