At Ritual, we often advocate that diet and exercise should be a lifestyle. That word itself usually elicits much groaning and sighing. Somehow, there is the impression that strict discipline or willpower is needed to make a change.
A lifestyle is different for every individual, and it is vague. When we attempt to overhaul something as vague as lifestyle, we are essentially trying to blindly rip out and replace whole parts of a machine that aren’t guaranteed to function well together but hoping that they will anyway. It then eventually trips up, and we remove all the shiny new things, chuck them in a corner, and replace the old parts again – we give up.
Now before you choose to disengage from this lively topic, I’m here to convince you that lifestyle is less of an issue of control and sacrifice, and more about habit formation. It’s time for a change in perspective this New Year.
For something to be sustainable, it has to be effortless. Think about it this way, you’re not supposed to truly grasp that anything is changing until you start looking back. It’s like taking a stroll and not realizing how much time has passed and distance you’ve covered. When you do, you will be amazed with yourself.
A habit is a behaviour that is repeated naturally. Every decision you make about exercise and diet consists of habits, and these contribute to your lifestyle. They are the missing link between who you are now, and what you want to become.
Instead of purging yourself of who you currently are, let’s focus on tweaking all the little cogs in the machine to bring awareness to the reality of human behaviour. When you understand yourself, you will understand where your ship is going and how to steer clear of the sharp pointy rocks.
How Habits Happen
Deep inside our brains lie the basal ganglia, the part of our brains that control cognition, emotion, voluntary motor movements and routine behaviours. It’s a depository of all our habits.
It is present in other vertebrates as well.
MIT researchers have conducted experiments in mice with electrical probes running through mazes to discover the neural activity that goes on in learning, and suffice to say, it is identical to how humans learn.
The habit formation process begins in the cerebral cortex, the outer layer of neural tissue in mammalian brains responsible for thought, consciousness, attention and memory. Upon learning something new, the cerebral cortex is activated as the brain tries to make sense, evaluate, re-evaluate, and navigate a novel situation. You know that increase in tension around your head and pressure at the front of your eyes when learning a new language, a new subject, or a new musical instrument? That is the product of your cerebral cortex sussing out the situation.
Over repeated practice though, mental activity in the cerebral cortex – including the parts to do with memory – is found to decrease, almost going quiet, as activity in the basal ganglia intensifies. The cerebral cortex effectively transfers the work over to the basal ganglia, where it takes over on autopilot, leaving the cerebral cortex languishing on an armchair, sipping a margarita, while awaiting the next challenge.
This is your brain freeing up mental RAM. This is your brain running on habits.
When a language gets easier to speak, or packing home cooked lunch becomes a routine, or a deadlift gets easier to execute without thinking, that’s when you know the encoding is happening.
Why our Brains Learn Habits
From an evolutionary standpoint, organisms that acquire information from their environment and adapt accordingly have a higher chance of survival. While we don’t have to recognize the crackling and rustling of a large carnivore creeping up on us through the bush any longer (Shrek?), this mechanism is still incorporated in our brains. The next time you park your car, shift the gear into reverse, check all mirrors and blind spots, and turn the steering wheel while controlling the accelerator, you can thank your basal ganglia for taking over the wheel (pun intended) while you chat with your friend in the passenger seat. Parking is now second nature. Compare this to the first time you ever parked a car and be in awe.
Skill acquisition aside, let’s focus on the behavioural aspects of habit formation. Think about it: You are the sum of all habits formed since you were born.
The way you eat, the food you eat, your daily routines, your positive or negative thought processes, the way you treat others, your work ethic, the things you buy, the choices you’ve made up to this day – these are all influenced by habits in one way or another.
Why Motivation and Willpower are Irrelevant
There is no place for discussion of a lack of motivation or willpower when talking about habits. Habits are supposed to be effortless.
Motivation comes and goes like the wind – in specific, extrinsic motivation. It’s what many of us rely on most of the time when we’re driven by external rewards or pressures like a huge birthday dinner later on, or the pressure to lose a certain amount of weight in a period of time. The environment imposes such constraints on us. The issue here is that these events are temporary, which therefore makes the motivation temporary as well. Relying on something temporary to instill something that’s permanent would be an exercise in futility.
So when we talk about habit formation, let’s leave motivation out of the picture. It never arrives when we most need it to anyway.
A lack of willpower is also an invalid argument because habits are executed on autopilot – no mental energy is required. Our willpower quota for the day should remain more or less untouched. The purpose of fostering a habit is to reduce our reliance on willpower to take us through an action. The more you repeat a habit, the less willpower needed. It’s this very reason that we should focus on cultivating a habit, whether new or modified. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to save all that brain juice in the big thinky brain for achieving big thinky things.
Habits are not goal dependent. If habits could talk, they’d tell you that they’re indifferent to us wanting to lose fat, or get fit, or get stronger. You bet they don’t really care if we ate a whole chocolate cake or chicken. It’s our job to realign them to meet our goals. We’re supposed to whip them into doing our bidding, not the other way around. Take that, bad habits!
Having understood the role that habits play in shaping our lives, we’ll want to be able to tinker around with them to our advantage. This is just the first post in our series on Habit Formation so keep your eye on this page for the next on creating and changing habits.
Remember how Neo from The Matrix downloaded skills to his mainframe and wakes up saying “I know Kung Fu”? Habits are similar. While we can’t download them instantly, we can encode and store them. Good habits always pay off.
“Another great advantage that springs from the fixity of habits is found in the fact that, by means of this, our lives may make real progress. What we have gained is secured to us.” – Charles Carroll Everett
Duhigg, C. (2012). The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. New York: Random House.
Everett, C. (1891). Ethics for young people. Boston: Ginn & Co.
Neal, D., Wood, W., & Drolet, A. (n.d.). How do people adhere to goals when willpower is low? The profits (and pitfalls) of strong habits. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 959-975.