The Habit Loop

I took an intro to philosophy course a thousand years ago. I never really got into philosophy, but a famous quote by Aristotle has stuck with me ever since:

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

I always thought habits were simple - just things I did often. Routines I’ve fallen into. The route I take on the way to work, or what time of day I brush my teeth, or the brand of deodorant I buy. Ten thousand automatic behaviors made to reduce cognitive load so I can get shit done, instead of being paralyzed by choice every time I want to have a bowl of cereal.

Automatic behaviors are part of being human. Nobody would get anything done if the prefrontal cortex was responsible for every decision. It’s a waste of time, and a waste of good brain power. So we develop habits, both good and bad. I finished The Power of Habit a couple weeks ago, and realized there’s a bit more to a habit than just something I do often.

Basically, habits consist of three components:

  • 1. a trigger
  • 2. a routine
  • 3. a reward

The interesting thing about habits is you can replace a bad routine with a good routine. Saying “I want to spend less time on reddit because reading reddit makes me feel like swimming in raw sewage” likely isn’t enough to stick. Forming new habits is hard, and if wasting time on reddit is a habit you want to change, you’re first need to identify its trigger and reward, then change the routine.

Existing habits are stickier than new habits. When we dedicate ourselves to a new behavior, we often focus on the routine, and forget about the trigger and the reward. Habits need all three components to stick around.

Since the new year, my morning habit has slowly changed. I’d wake up, pour my coffee and then waste time on the internet before eating breakfast and beginning my day.

In this case, the trigger is waking up, and the routine is drinking coffee while spending the first 20 - 30 minutes of my day browsing the internet, followed by the reward of a breakfast. I really like breakfasts.

This is a lousy way to start the day. I’d rather start the day by making something, not consuming junk on the internet. The first step was identifying each piece of this habit (done!) and then altering the routine.

Now I wake up, get my coffee, and get to work writing. First thing, no excuses.

It’s a good system, and now that I’m aware of how habits work at a higher level, identifying ways to alter my behavior will be easier.

I'm Tyler, and I blog about marketing, programming, writing, and things I'm working on.

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