So what is it about habits that makes something like biting your fingernails so hard to stop, while making something like running a couple half marathons per week possible?
There’s three things to know about why habits develop whether you want them to or not. The average brain is made up of 40% gray matter and 60% white matter. White matter lies under the gray matter and is composed of long nerve fibers insulated by myelin sheaths. Myelin is the fatty tissue that makes white matter white, and it’s one of the reasons people can get good at things. As you repeat an action, the neurons associated with that action will have their axons wrapped in myelin. So every time you put in an hour of practice you earn yourself another wrap of myelin around the neurons used for that activity. More myelin means nerve impulses can travel more quickly and efficiently across the axons. This means the action can be done more easily, skillfully, and will require less concentration. A bare, un-myelinated neuron will have a signal speed of 2 miles an hour. The signal speed of a fully myelinated neuron is about 200 miles an hour. Practice makes perfect because practice makes myelin and myelin makes perfect.
This is one of the key principles in “The Talent Code”. Author Daniel Coyle explains that most athletes, singers, or musicians that we would normally refer to as “talented” are actually incredibly diligent individuals. They have put hours and hours of practice until their brain was packed full of myelin associated with their craft.
The second thing to know is about willpower. By the 1980s, the theory that willpower is a learnable skill was generally accepted. It was understood as something that can be taught the same way kids learn to do math and say “thank you”. In “The power of habit”, Charles Duhigg talks about how a group of PhD candidates totally changed our understanding of willpower. Mark Muraven and other psychology PhD candidates at Case Western started asking questions about the existing view of willpower. After all, it didn’t make much sense: if willpower is a learnable skill, how can we be super diligent some days and end up binge watching a TV show for the majority of other days? That would be like forgetting how to ride a bike every other day.
Muraven conducted an experiment where they set out two bowls in a room: One with freshly baked cookies, and one with radishes. One group of participants were told they could eat as many cookies as they liked, and another group could eat the radishes but were told they could not eat any of the cookies. Afterwards, they gave each group a very difficult puzzle to try and solve. The group that got to eat cookies merrily tried again and again at cracking the puzzle. On the other hand, the radish group muttered to themselves and were visibly frustrated, saying they were “sick of this dumb experiment”. The conclusion was that the amount of willpower you have is finite, and it’s more like a muscle: you can tire it out if you work it too hard. Since the radish eating group expended willpower by resisting the cookies, they had much less fuel left in their willpower tank to use on solving the puzzle.
Another experiment was conducted where participants had to do a four-month money management program. This required them to keep detailed logs and deny themselves luxuries like eating out or going to the movies. What they found was that “People’s finances improved as they progressed through the program. More surprisingly, they also smoked fewer cigarettes and drank less alcohol and caffeine… They ate less junk food and were more productive at work and school. …As people strengthened their willpower muscles in one part of their lives – in the gym, or a money management program – that strength spilled over into what they ate or how hard they worked. Once willpower became stronger, it touched everything.”
The third thing to know is about your built autopilot. In the 1990’s a neurologist named Ann Graybiel figured out a way to get sensors into rats skulls to measure what was going on inside. After she got over 100 sensors in their heads she put the rats into a very simple T-Shaped maze. At the tip of the T was a rat, partitioned off from the other side of the T which had a piece of chocolate. Along with an audable click, the partition would be pulled away and the rat was allowed to go searching for the chocolate. On the first couple times through the maze the rat moved very slowly, scratching at the walls, sniffing around, until it found the piece of chocolate. After running through the maze many many times however, the rat would immediately go down the T, turn left and get the chocolate. What Graybiel demonstrated was that “a task-bracket” or “chunking” pattern of neuronal activity emerges when a habit is formed, wherein neurons activate when a habitual task is initiated, show little activity during the task, and reactivate when the task is completed. What this means is that your brain is taking series of actions an grouping them down into a single task, making the process require much less conscious effort. The part of the brain responsible for this is the basal ganglia. Chunking can make all the actions leading to completing a workout at the gym easier to do, but it can also apply to all the actions associated with putting yourself on the couch with netflix and beer.
The other part of Graybiel’s discovery is that habits need a cue to kick your brain into autopiloting the task. For the rat, its cue was the click sound it heard as the partition opened up. For my diligent colleague who ran every morning, the cue was probably his alarm going off. Habit cues can be pretty much anything from feeling bored or irritated to the clock striking 3:00.
So that’s the behind the scenes on building habits, but now what? How do you actually build the habit?
You can probably find all kinds of tools and tricks, but for me at least, they usually just get in the way. I tried a bunch of habit tracking apps until I realized it was just making the process harder as I had to also make the new habit of remembering to track my other habits. Utilizing cues however, has proven to be very important. You can use new cues to create new habits, or use old cues to replace bad habits with good ones.
For example: New Habit – Meditating for 20 minutes. Cue – finishing brushing my teeth. Or Bad Habit – Wasting time on reddit. Cue- feeling “stuck”.
So I keep the cue but replace the bad habit with standing up and walking around for 2 minutes. If you have a bad habit of say buying a cookie every time you finish lunch, replace the action with buying a cup of tea instead. If you want to make the new habit of studying every night, make sure it comes right after something, like finishing dinner or finishing showering. Being consistent with your cue is particularly important. Once the cue is set, just… do it. And then do it again. All you really need is the right cue and the right mindset when building the habit.
Carol Dweck, professor of Psychology at Stanford, analyzed 2 groups of kids struggling with their grades. One group was taught that every time they “push out of their comfort zone to learn something new and difficult, the neurons in their brain [would] from new, stronger connections, and over time they [would] get smarter”. The kids who were not taught this growth mindset lesson “continued to show declining grades, but those who were taught this lesson showed a sharp rebound in their grades”. Carol says this kind of improvement has been shown with thousands and thousands of kids, especially struggling students. Once I adopted this kind of growth mindset towards building habits, habit building started to actually feel …fun. As Carol puts it, I used to be a “gripped in the tyranny of now”, and not able to appreciate the “power of yet”. Once I understood why and how habits form, I gained the confidence that things would get easier if I persisted. This confidence made it easy to consistently get a workout done first thing in the morning – a habit I had been meaning to make forever. Every morning, it became a little bit easier to get out of my warm bed and lace up my shoes rather than scrolling around on my phone. Of course when I was actually running, my legs would still hurt and I would have the urge to stop and take a rest, but the next time always took a little bit less willpower to keep going. So while you’re going about your day, just remember that whatever you’re doing – whether it’s watching cat videos or learning guitar, your brain is making it just a little bit easier for you to keep doing that.