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Deep-dive #2: Habits are addictive

Updated: Jun 2

triggers, coach parthena, parthena intze, coaching, leadership coaching, business coaching, habits, behavior, autopilot, patterns, reward system, messenger substances, basal ganglia, new habits, hyperbolic discounting, reward, change

Have you ever wondered how it is that some of us get up at five in the morning to go jogging while others hit the snooze button on their alarm clock?

Once again, the answer lies in the mysterious depths of our brains: brushing our teeth, buttoning our shirts, tying our shoes, or even more complex processes such as driving a car or cooking, become habits because we constantly repeat them and at some point, perform them unconsciously.

Habits are behaviors that we perform regularly without thinking about them or weighing them up. They determine our lives and guide us silently and secretly through the day. They are always triggered by something and have the purpose of providing us with a reward. It goes something like this:

1.    The trigger (e.g., a place, a time, an emotional state, other people or a previous event) triggers a fixed sequence of actions or behaviors.

2.    Our brain decides whether to store a sequence of actions as a routine. The basis for this is whether it associates it with a reward, i.e., something that makes us happy or simply feels good. Our "reward system" is set in motion.

3.    Our brain reinforces what it knows by releasing messenger substances that make us feel particularly good. When we brush our teeth, for example, the reward is the good feeling of having particularly smooth, clean teeth. Our "reward system" is set into motion!

4.    If, on this basis, we experience that a certain behavior leads to a reward, we repeat it as often as possible: the same sequence of actions that lead to a reward is performed again and again and again. Hello, habit!

In short, "making something a habit" means "redefining reward".

Repeated often enough, the path of a new or changed habit eats its way deep into our brain and is automatically followed at some point. Voilà, a new habit sees the light of day! The following short video illustrates this process very aptly and playfully.

So, it's no wonder that habits have "addictive potential". Not only do they contribute to our well-being, but they also give us security, as they guarantee that life around us (and therefore we ourselves) remains the same. This uniformity gives us stability in a complex and unpredictable world and thus ensures our survival. Without habits, our brain would be overwhelmed by the many details of everyday life, because confronting new things requires attention and concentration. That's why it tries to routinize everything. By no longer having to think about basic behaviors (such as walking), our brain goes into "energy-saving mode". This leaves us with more mental energy to do something else.

What exactly happens in our brain when habits develop?

When habits develop, the areas in our brain that are responsible for complex thought processes and decisions and that require the most energy (see Deep-Dive #1) stop working. Only our so-called "action memory", the basal ganglia, remains active in this mode. They store all the movement patterns that have proven successful at some point or have led to a reward. The basal ganglia activate the familiar patterns while the rest of the brain remains dormant. It only becomes active again when we encounter problems.

So, while a large part of our daily life (between 30-50%) and actions run on "autopilot", our brain does not distinguish between good and bad habits. This is not a problem if our habits are in line with our goals. Then they are useful or sometimes even vital to our survival. However, if they are not in line with our goals, then they get in the way, rob us of energy and time - and sometimes damage our emotional, mental or physical health.

So, when we realize that some of our habits are limiting our perception or making our lives difficult and we start to wonder if there is a better way, we usually realize how hard it can be to change an unpleasant habit.

Why is that?

One reason for this lies in the "energy-saving trick" of our brain described above: its control lies in an area that we do not consciously control. In addition, the trigger stimulus as the starting point and the reward as the end point of our habits function like barriers for our brain, within whose boundaries it can rest. This mechanism applies equally to simple (e.g., walking) and more complex (e.g., driving a car) processes (sailing).

Another hurdle on the road to behavior change is that we humans tend to overvalue immediate rewards while underestimating the value of future rewards or punishments. This is called "hyperbolic discounting": the tendency to overvalue immediate rewards and downplay the effects of future rewards or punishments. We would rather have 10 euros now than 12.50 euros in three days' time - or the cake on the table in front of us now than the bikini figure for the summer vacation that is still six months away. If the reward (or the punishment) is a long way off, then it's difficult or impossible to get to do anything about it.

Establishing new habits is generally easier than breaking old ones. Without outside help, the chances of rethinking and changing our own behavior dwindle. Unfortunately, this help often comes in the form of so-called "teachable moments" (serious illness, divorce, job change or a new affinity group), i.e. incisive and often painful events that force us to take a critical look at our behavioral patterns.

The shell of the nut:

Once a habit has become ingrained, it is very difficult to change it if you want to. If we become aware of how the mechanisms of our routines work, what triggers them and where they start, then we can put them to the test and/or form new habits that are better suited to our desired goals and our identity.

"We always think about changing attitudes first and then move on to behavior. It should be the other way around. If we manage to change the behavior, the thinking also changes." (Bas Verplanken)

How Coaching can support:

Coaching can help to identify obstructive behavioral patterns by changing the perspective on one's own behavior through targeted questions and reflections. It can also help to change these patterns by encouraging the development of individual strategies and goals that best fit your own value system.


My books of the month:

"The Psychology of Habit"(Bas Verplanken, 2018)


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