Habits

In total, I read 11 books last year. In January alone, this year, I finished 8 books. I’m not going to go deep about the books I finished — although I should mention that 5 of them were non-fiction. I achieved this number by changing a habit: When walking my dog, Astro, twice a day, I no longer mindlessly swipe through social media. Instead, I listen to audiobooks.

Habits are normally incredibly difficult to destroy. However, I followed a simple idea that I read in Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit. While it’s tough to eliminate a habit, it’s relatively easy to modify it. Duhigg explains the pillars of the habit cycle as cues, routines, and rewards. When you isolate the cue leading to the routine, you have the power to shift your behavior. It’s harder than it sounds, but it’s a framework that you can rely on. 1

So that’s what I did. First, I found out the cue: It’s the first time Astro finds a tree to pee under. That’s when I get immediately bored and triggered to take out my smartphone. The routine is swiping through social media while walking. The reward? Well, I don’t get bored during those mundane walks. Once I noticed the cue, I introduced a circuit breaker: I started using my noise-canceling headphones. Thus, I was already listening to an audiobook when Astro found that first tree. Something was still triggering me to turn on my smartphone’s screen at first, but my behavior shifted in time. Now, if I go out without my headphones, I feel weird.

Artist: Gülfemin Buğu Tekcan — cosmodotart

Reading (or listening to) books instead of enjoying the walk is my preference, of course. I love reading as much as I love writing. Although this specific example is not for everyone, habits alone are crucial for every human being. Habits are our brain’s way of having principles. While a bad habit may be a curse, a good one is your superpower.

When acting out of a habit, you don’t need to think, and you don’t need to decide. Since you act on the routine without much effort, you save mental energy for the next task or decision. Good habits are a must for achieving sustainable productivity and save your precious mental energy in a compounding way. The great pragmatist and the so-called “Father of American psychology” 2 William James also noted how habits are tightly connected to our lives:

I believe that we are subject to the law of habit in consequence of the fact that we have bodies. The plasticity of the living matter of our nervous system, in short, is the reason why we do a thing with difficulty the first time, but soon do it more and more easily, and finally, with sufficient practice, do it semi-mechanically, or with hardly any consciousness at all. 3

Considering that we can explain habits with basic human biology, it’s also valid to say that anything can become a habit. Doing something over and over again literally carves a path in our brains. The more you do it, the more stable the path becomes. And as you’re more likely to take the road more traveled, your brain will also prefer the more stable path when it comes to a junction — thus even more strengthening the habit.

We speak of good habits and bad habits. Since anything can be considered a habit, we may as well get rid of the useless act of trying to destroy habits and call it a behavior shift. What bad habits do you have? What good alternatives would you prefer to replace them? If you’ve already achieved such a change, let me know in the comments.

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1

How Habits Work by Charles Duhigg

2

William James was an American philosopher and psychologist.

3

The Laws of Habit by William James