It’s 12:15 p.m on a rainy November afternoon in Portland, Oregon. I’m wrapping up projects for the morning, replying to emails, and closing out tabs on Chrome. My coworkers are shuffling their things together, too––ready to head to the break room for lunch.
But not me. There’s a pull. A drive. An overwhelming craving taking over my body. A craving for a hot, cheesy tuna melt with fries and a cup of tomato soup to be exact.
It’s 2015, and I’m hooked on Elephant’s, the delicatessen across from my office that serves the best tuna melt and tomato soup on the west coast. I trudge through icy rain to the deli door, give my order, sit down with a novel, and wait for cheesy happiness to appear on a white platter.
I’m staring down the barrel of nine months of cold Oregon rain, and my Elephant’s break is a fuzzy blanket of sunshine. It warms me from the inside out.
And here’s the big BUT.
It’s my big butt. 🍑
Altogether, the meal is about 1300 calories. It’s loaded with carbs and cheese and fogs me over in fifteen minutes. With every trip to Elephant’s, I ding my bank account and add extra memory foam to my butt and thighs.
But logic doesn’t matter once the crave kicks in. Rational decision-making left the building when my brain switched to autopilot, cued by dropping blood sugar, shuffling coworkers, and the clock striking 12 p.m.
The Tuna Melt Mambo of 2015, my friends, is what we all call a bad habit.
It’s the 10-minute cigarette break you take at three p.m. The salted caramel candy bar you snag at the Trader Joe’s checkout line. The Mickey D’s pitstop you take every Wednesday before picking up your daughter from daycare. They’re the little things you want to stop doing so you can focus on your goals like writing and living a healthy life.
It’s the icky routine we do on the reg while telling ourselves…
“But I’m STARVING!”
“Today’s a cheat day.”
Or, the biggest lie of all: “This is the last time.”
Bad habits are sticky because they provide immediate and intense gratification. A rush of feel-good endorphins floods the brain sending a wave of contentment through the body. It’s the ahhhh feeling.
But why, even when a habit is bad for us, is it so hard to resist? Aren’t we self-aware creatures with free will? What is driving the irresistible pull?
The answer lies in the Anatomy of Habit.
(Side note – I’m hosting a workshop for writers who want to develop a consistent writing schedule unique to their life.
Want in? Shoot me an email or sign up here👇)
What Is A Habit?
A habit is an automatic process that eliminates decision making so your brain can conserve energy. Our big human brains are always looking to save energy so they can direct it back to more important things. As discussed in my post on energy vampires, every decision we make depletes brain fuel. Your brain uses habit to conserve the fuel.
The basal ganglia is the area of the brain responsible for habit formation AKA automation. Think of the basal ganglia like that techy friend with his whole ecosystem on autopilot. The basal ganglia identifies patterns and automates them to eliminate decision-making and conserve energy.
When you perform a habit, you’re on autopilot. Some habits are so automatic, you might space out. Have you ever commuted from work, pulled into the driveway, and didn’t remember the trip?
Was I just abducted by aliens?
No. Your brain conserved energy by making a regular routine (your evening commute) automatic. A little unnerving when operating a 180-horsepower vehicle, but true.
Now that we understand what a habit is, it’s time to dig into how it’s formed.
The Habit Loop
According to habit sage and author Charles Duhigg, habits are created and preserved through a framework he created called The Habit Loop.
“If you can diagnose your habits, you can change them in whichever way you want,” says Duhigg.
The Habit Loop is a concept to help you diagnose good and bad habits. After poring over mountains of psychological studies on habit, Duhigg identified four major elements that form a habit: Cue, craving, routine, and reward.
Cue: Triggers the brain to switch to autopilot and perform the routine.
Craving: The hankerin’ for the reward the routine provides.
Routine: The habit action. AKA devouring cheesy, calorie-rich, tuna melty goodness.
Reward: The benefit of the habit. The satisfaction that keeps you coming back. That awwwhhh yeaaah feelin’.
To diagnose your habit, you must identify each part of the loop. The easiest place to start is the routine itself. For me, the routine was walking across the street and inhaling an Elephant’s tuna melt and tomato soup. Yours might be smoking, biting your nails, or scrolling on social media.
According to Duhigg, the next step is to experiment with different rewards. The reward drives the craving, which drives the routine, so this is important.
The reward can be tricky to identify, and it’s not always obvious. For example, you might assume the reward for my Elephant’s habit is the tuna melt itself or the feeling of being full after a yummy meal. But when you dig deeper, the Tuna Melt Mambo of 2015 may have been scratching a different itch. It’s possible the reward wasn’t satisfying a hunger craving at all!
So how do we diagnose the reward for a pesky habit? Here’s How Habits Stick Part II: Rewiring Routines.