Practically everyone has at least a few habits they want to change. But unless you’re a very special person, you probably have more experience with failure than with success in trying to change your habits. That’s why we end up listing the same goals for our New Year’s resolutions every year. Why is that? Why are habits so difficult to change?
A System of Habits
Where do habits exist? We commonly say things like, “My body is in the habit of doing such and such.” However, habits aren’t located in the body. Habits exist in our brains in the form of circuits, established networks of connections between brain cells.
When attempting a new pattern of behavior, we need to summon a lot of concentration. All the choices and behaviors associated with developing a new habit are controlled by the prefrontal lobes of the cerebral cortex, the brain’s control tower. This area’s attention is the brain’s most valuable resource, and its rarest. If the same actions are repeated several times, the brain doesn’t leave them to be continuously processed in the prefrontal lobes. Instead, information about such behaviors is stored in the operating system of the basal ganglia, a subsystem of the cerebral cortex. Information that’s stored here gets processed virtually automatically, without the involvement of the prefrontal lobes. For example, you have to focus all of your attention when you first learn to drive, but once you’re comfortable with driving, you can listen to music, drink coffee, and even use the telephone as you drive (though the latter certainly isn’t advisable unless you have a hands-free system). Without thinking about the process of driving, you find that you’ve arrived at your intended destination and are parking your car.
Habit formation is a useful and essential system. We can save a great deal of time and energy by deferring to these stored processes. It becomes possible to focus our consciousness on more important things because we have a brain system for turning specific patterns of behavior into habits.
Certain habits, especially the ones we want to discard, are connected with specific rewards. Behaviors that you engage in when you’re anxious — smoking a cigarette, shaking a leg, biting your nails, twisting your hair, or touching your nose — aren’t easy to change, even when you know they’re harmful or socially unacceptable, because you get some sort of reward from them. Drinking alcohol, overeating, being totally absorbed in a video game — indulging in habits such as these plays into your internal reward system.
The situations that elicit habitual behaviors can be different for every individual. For example, meeting the opposite sex causes certain habitual responses in some people, while others exhibit similar responses when they stand in front of a crowd. But regardless of individual differences, all such habits help the brain recover its chemical balance.
Feeling anxiety or some sort of craving means that at that moment, the brain is in a state of electrochemical imbalance. The habitual behavior triggers secretion of the hormones or neurotransmitters the brain needs to find equilibrium; chemical balance is restored, which causes anxiety to disappear. As this process gets repeated, an ever-stronger connection is formed between the brain’s chemical response and the behavior, which compels the person to engage in the behavior again and again.
The brain’s system of rewards also causes habits to grow stronger with time. Once created, the habit-reward circuitry is reinforced every time the behavior is used. If someone who’s used to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day cuts back to half a pack, will their habit circuit for smoking cigarettes grow weaker? Unfortunately, current brain research says this is definitely not the case. Smoking even a single cigarette helps strengthen the circuit. This highlights an important illusion about changing habits — the illusion of “slow change.” The most effective way — in fact, the only way — to weaken a habit circuit is to discontinue using it completely, however uncomfortable that may be.
Although a process for forming habits exists in the brain, there’s also a process for changing them. Changing your habits is easier if you really understand the system by which the brain operates. Regardless of what habits you want to change, the following principles apply.
Cooperate with Your Brain
When we try to change our habits, we often choose to fight with our brains instead of cooperating with them. This example is a little extreme, but let’s suppose that someone had tried all kinds of ways to quit smoking, without success. Finally, he has himself locked in a room so that he can’t get near tobacco. The door is locked from the outside, and he can’t go out even though he wants to smoke. What do you think he’ll be thinking about the most? That’s right — he’ll probably think only about smoking.
Consider what this means for the brain. The experience and feeling of smoking tobacco is continuously being reproduced in this man’s head, and a powerful current is continuing to flow in the circuits associated with that habit. He’s fighting with his brain. This approach is going against the principles by which the brain operates, and as a consequence, it’s unlikely to succeed.