“I wouldn’t say he is lazy; he just preferred his habit. I wouldn’t say she is a workaholic; she just preferred her habit.” – Manuja Ranasinghe
Habits are either inherited (natural) or acquired. Habits are an automated process. Being lazy is a habit. Being a workaholic is a habit. Generosity is a habit. Theft is a habit. These are acquired habits. Breathing and digestion, for example, are natural habits.
Habits are also formed through practice. Think about the route you take to work on any given morning. Once you got into the car, you didn’t give much thought to all the turns and the exits you took until you parked the car at work! Think about a basketball player during the game. Do you think he is constantly thinking about dribbling the ball? No! His only thought is getting the ball into the hoop on the other side and the ball travels with him; not giving any thoughts to dribbling. All his fancy hand and foot movements come without any thought.
How much attention do you think Elton John pays to the keys on the piano when he sings? None.
Magic, right? No, those are habits! They are ingrained routines in the mind. We are creatures of habit, and therefore we are a mass of habits. We like to think that we are constantly making conscious decisions, yet we do not.
The advantage of habits is that they help us to pursue our goals or tasks (good or bad) deliberately, yet unintentionally. A seamless effort. At first, you drive to a place with intention. Once you begin to drive to the same place, again and again, you become familiar with the route. They are examples of intentional actions that become automated routines of habits. The basketball player’s action is a practiced, or intentional, habit. On the other hand, alcohol and food addiction is generally unintentional. We start with one glass (or bottle), or a bite. These (addictions) are also habits! Without giving much thought, the proportions get larger and our consumption becomes a regular practice throughout the day, because with every drink or bite we gain satisfaction. Same with procrastination. Once you procrastinate a couple of times (unintentional), your brain will automate that practice!
Why does the brain want habits or routines?
The reason for the routines and habits is because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort and lessen complexities. To the brain, more effort means the need for extra energy and space. Therefore, by establishing habits, the brain increases efficiencies and reduces the space needed in the brain. If there were no habits, considering all the activities in our lives, the brain will require an enormous amount of space, which will lead us to have very large heads. Also, the brain will become a very hot organ. The efficient brain allows us to stop thinking constantly about basic behaviors. I wonder the term "Cool-headed" orginated because of it!
However, habits can have dangerous side effects. Think about the instance of you driving to work (or any familiar place). The brain is in an automatic pattern where you don’t have to think about the route. This opens up the capacity to think of other things! Meaning…you become distracted with other thoughts. You have stopped paying attention to where you are going, and the mind has focused on another matter.
Habits are formed in three steps:
1. In the beginning there is a trigger - thought or stimulant.
2. The thought or stimulant leads to a set of actions – physical or emotional.
3. After the actions, the holder of the thought/stimulant, is satisfied or fulfilled.
The brain wants to be satisfied or fulfilled. Once it realizes the set of actions leads to satisfaction, brains understand the sequence is worth remembering. Thus, a habit is formed!
Habits are never the destination, only a means to an end. The brain can’t distinguish good from bad habits. It is only focused on the triggering thought and how to satisfy that trigger. Once a habit is formed, the brain stops engaging in the decision-making process of that thought.
The Good News is that any habit can be changed. How?
The first step is to identify what establishes a routine. Identify the triggering thought and the routine associated with it. Now look into what other routine you can add (to the same triggering thought), while still keeping the same satisfactory results.
So, the trick is to receive a similar satisfaction for the same thought, via a different routine. In a nutshell, it is a behavioral change.
Become introspective. What is the real reason for this Routine? Is it hunger? Boredom? Loneliness? Frustrations? Medical? And what's the satisfactory reward? Experiment with different routines and rewards! Finding the right routines is powerful because it leads to satisfaction.
Here’s the reason dieting to lose weight doesn’t work. Once you restrict what you eat, the result is dissatisfaction. The brain doesn’t like to be dissatisfied. After some time, you go back to your old routine! However, if you still feel hungry, but add a new routine such as a dedicated exercise program, you still get to eat your food! The result is satisfaction. Now the brain doesn’t mind the new routine. As you exercise more, you become conscious of what you eat – healthy foods. With happy results, the brain acquires a new habit!
Another example of habit is fast food. Let’s say you like a specific fast-food restaurant, i.e. Chick-fil-A. You are familiar with the menu and its food has given you satisfaction. After a few visits to the restaurant, the brain takes notes. The next time you “SEE” a Chick-fill-A sign, it becomes the trigger. The brain reminds you of the satisfaction from that restaurant, and neurologically urges you to make a quick stop at the restaurant. I'm speaking from a personal experience 😊 The brain’s goal is always to satisfy you! The more you resist your urges; the stronger the need becomes! This is why fast-food company logos, signs and menus are the same, no matter where you are! Also, if you are feeling down, the brain may think of your favorite restaurant to bring you satisfaction. The reason is that the brain knows food has brought you happiness! Same with smoking and alcohol. If the brain realizes these substances bring you satisfaction or happiness, it will do its darndest to drive you to consume them. The fact that you can’t avoid consuming those substances is that with every willpower to stop, your urge or craving exponentially increases. It increases to a point where the only way to satisfy it is to consume it.
Most habits develop without your awareness. It is the satisfactory reward that yields into a habit. The rewards come from anything! Food, drugs, actions, pride...
Strong habits mean actions without the brain’s engagement in the decision-making process. Your actions are on autopilot. Habits start with [deliberate] choices and then we stop thinking about them.
In my college marketing class, the professor said, “The mouthwash doesn’t have to tingle. The ingredients in it can clean your mouth without the sensation. However, to the consumer, the tingle says that the mouth is being properly cleansed.” That is the reward we are looking for.
On a side note, gargling warm salt water is an excellent way to cleanse your mouth 😊 It can remove plaque! You may have to do this a couple of times a day. Saltwater is an antiseptic. Salt can heal wounds and dissolves plaque. But saltwater tastes yucky!
Again, to change a habit, we must address and analyze the craving. Understand the routine between the thoughts and the rewards. Then feed the thought with different routines to receive similar reward or satisfaction. Writing down your actions will help to consciously track your routine.
How habits plays an integral part of leadership.
Leadership is an ability of an individual to influence others (or organizations). The influence comes from instructions from the leader. The leader gives instructions that leads to establishing routines in others. The influence can come in a dictatorial way, but the effects don’t last. The founding influence comes from inspiring others to build routines within themselves to achieve desired rewards.
For example, take a look at Rules of the Road at Delta Air Lines. The leadership at Delta Air Lines states “strong core values and a clear set of unifying behaviors provide a solid foundation for Delta’s culture.” A culture is an established set of habits (beliefs, values rituals and mind-sets).
Delta’s practices, Rules of the Road, allows them to establish a culture that reaps the desired reward. Delta understands that the core values can’t be sustained by themselves. Core values – Delta’s guiding Ethics, can only be sustained by specific behaviors (routines). Therefore, to support core values, Delta has introduced 11 behaviors!
Another organization that promotes such behavior is Toastmasters. Toastmasters has Core Values – guiding ethics. To build those ethics, they have instituted 10 behaviors known as A Toastmaster’s Promise.
The success of these organizations is due to their Values (primary thoughts) and supporting (behavior) Routines!
The right routine doesn’t dictate people to change, but rather inspires them to adopt the right action. You can’t order or demand people to change.
Therefore, establishing the right habit, or habits, is of utmost importance. Once you master a good habit, everything falls into the proper place. Once you secure a good habit, you have gained an advantage. That advantage sets in motion another win, and so on. Each win is a reward. Therefore, the brain ingrains that routine in you!
Take a look at a quote from MLK (this quote is also one of my dimensions in leadership).
“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, 'Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’
Dr. King is referring to establishing habits that produce great rewards!
Strong habits create widespread changes and great cultures, and define a great person or organization. Strong habits attract like-minded people and they encourage each other to be successful and overcome obstacles.
King Randall I said, “Stop trying to find your purpose when you haven’t found your work ethic yet.” That ethic is built from your habits!
You may have extraordinary goals and plans, but without the right habit, nothing will be achieved.
We first make our habits, and then our habits make us. - John Dryden
***Understanding how habits are formed is very important, because habits are our behaviors. The right behavior leads us to become better leaders and to live healthier lives. A book I highly recommend is, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. I would also like to recommend an online magazine, Psychology Today - www.psychologytoday.com). The magazine has a series of subjects related to Habits: Habit Formation - A Behavioral Change; The Science of Habits, and Changing Habits; 6 Powerful Ways to Build New Habits; Power of Habit; and How to Break Bad Habits.