PRAKASH CHALAGULLA explores the process of change, and turning routines into habits.
Are you happy with the person you have become? Most of us experience a disparity between who we are and who we wish to be. To attain the desired goal, it may seem essential to alter our personalities. We get frustrated and irritated with ourselves, more and more with each failed attempt. As with most things in life, knowing “why” makes things simpler.
Due to the preconditioning of the brain, it is increasingly difficult to change old habits and form new ones. To explain, imagine your brain as a rich and dense forest. It is challenging and energy-consuming to move through it. All of our actions and behaviors leave trails in the forest of the brain because our brain dislikes expending energy, so it uses a trick. We begin by trampling some plants to make routes through the bush. The more we do it, the more noticeable the trail becomes. Over time, it is a more pleasant road to travel, so we use it more frequently and eventually it becomes a street. When we do the same thing again and again over the years, the roadway transforms into a motorway. It becomes effortless, familiar, and pleasant to traverse. The more apparent the brain highways, the more involuntary they become. We keep using them, which means we keep doing what we’ve always done. This is why change is difficult, especially when we are adults, because our brains have already created concrete paths and roads.
To understand how such highways are built, we must first distinguish between routines and habits.
A routine is a series of acts that we repeat over and over because they are successful. For example, we buy the same ingredients for cooking, then cook them in a specific order to get the desired flavor. Or we set an alarm for 6:30 a.m. to wake up at that time every day.
Imagine you have a smart planner that plans all your routines thoughtfully, with awareness of the future and careful consideration for the results. Based on that, you choose actions to achieve specific outcomes, even if they are uncomfortable, like taking a shower after waking up. Routines can eventually become habits.
Habits seem much more comfortable because they happen without thinking, which is why they are also called muscle memory. We’ve done those things so many times that the brain finds them rewarding and an excellent response to the problem. As a result, a habit makes us feel like we’re on autopilot. We don’t have to persuade ourselves to do something when it has already become a habit. The crucial thing to remember about habits is that they are put in motion by triggers, which have context cues, that send a signal to the brain to begin the behavior or activity. We may have many triggers in our life, such as when we see our phone we almost always unlock it. When we sit in a car, we put on the seat belt. When we buy coffee before work, we get a cookie even if we aren’t hungry.
Toddlers help us understand habits. They react to their current desires based on what is nearby, without regard to any longer-term objectives. Toddlers have no concept of the future, so when they detect a trigger, they steer down the simple path inside the brain that leads to a familiar pleasant outcome. Most of our challenging habits began with this satisfying feeling: chocolate is good, or browsing Reddit is moderately entertaining. This is why we continue to do these things, even if they are unhealthy for us. Rewarding feelings are linked to an active urge for repetition, thus forming habits.
While toddlers may appear to have built-in sabotage mechanisms, they are just as necessary as the smart planner, and they function well together most of the time. We need our smart planner for big ideas, parallel parking, and tax preparation. However, allowing our smart planner to accomplish everything would consume too much energy. Outsourcing dull and repetitive chores to toddler-managed habits lets our brain manage daily life, while also coping with more sophisticated mental issues. So, if we wish to modify and incorporate new behaviors into our lives, we need to employ these energy-saving methods to help us.
We can concentrate on minor details rather than major ones. Improving our life incrementally is far preferable to aiming high and altering nothing. Tiny adjustments can have a big impact over months and years. If we want to make change easy, the greatest solution may not be to push but to convince our brain that it isn’t such a huge problem. We simply develop new routines and make them habitual. We want our smart planner to build the initial trail and then utilize our toddler to smoothly launch the action.
If we want to make change easy,
the greatest solution may not be to push
but to convince our brain that it isn’t such a huge problem.
We simply develop new routines and make them habitual.
So, we begin by attempting to establish a pattern, and add clear triggers that the toddler can take up later on. Remember that a trigger is simply a signal that we always identify with an action. It can be a visual cue, such as seeing our exercise attire, a specific time of day, or a specific location. What matters is that we always begin the action in a precise setting. This trigger is the start button that will initiate the activity. If we continue, it will transform from a routine into a habit, from a path to a highway. Don’t get me wrong, squats will still require energy, but doing them will seem less like a job and more like a regular part of your day.
Wanting to exercise to get into shape is a relatively common objective. The first step is to break down this generic goal into distinct, discrete activities, to make the action as simple as possible – small enough to be feasible, and detailed enough that we don’t have to think about it. For example, a tangible, controllable action could be “performing ten squats” every morning.
While this is straightforward, it is not simple. Many things you want to turn into habits don’t provide as much immediate enjoyment as squandering time on Reddit. The trick is to make the new activity delightful, so it is easier to repeat and more likely to be picked up by the toddler.
Try to make the action or behavior more joyful in and of itself, for example, listen to your favorite music or podcast while working out. The beginning is the easiest phase, especially during the first week or two. The difficult part is continuing every day, however, as you progress, it will become easier. Finally, change is a continuous journey, leading to a destination.
“Sow an act, you reap a habit; sow a habit, you reap a character; sow a character, you reap a destiny.”
Manson, M., 2022. How to Change Your Life. Mark Manson. 10 June 2021. Web. 28 Aug. 2022: https://markmanson.net/how-to-change-your-life.
Kurzgesagt. Change Your Life – One Tiny Step at a Time. Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell. 07 June 2022. Web. 28 Aug. 2022: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=75d_29QWELk.
Prakash is a high school student, passionate about nature and functions of the brain. He writes a blog, chalagullaprakash.blogspot.com/, and has developed an app for mental wellness, SOLACE. He wants to study neuroscience to understand how memory works.