Habits are all the rage right now, and for good reason. After all, we are our habits.
What do I mean by that?
The venture capitalist Ben Horowitz released a book late last year titled What You Do Is Who You Are. Now, I haven’t read it, and I’m pretty sure the book has nothing to do with habits, but I think the title captures a fundamental truth about the self that’s not emphasized enough:
We are nothing but the sum over time of the actions we take.
Which is why our habits are such a fundamental aspect of our lives. If we are what we do, and we do our habits, then it follows that we are nothing but our habits.
That’s a bit stretched, admittedly. But I believe it’s more right than wrong. Maybe we can hedge that and say that 80% of what we are is the habits we have, but then that isn’t as sexy a statement is it?
Nonetheless, this shows why it’s so important that we have a handle on our habits, and why it’s so important that we not only understand what a habit is, but also how we can adopt more of those habits that help us get closer to becoming whom we want to become, and how to break those that get us farther away from that goal.
So what is a habit?
A habit is a bundle of behaviors that is automatically triggered in a given context.
Habits are an if-then rule. If this, then that. If you’re in your room, and the sun has set, then you’ll play videogames. If you enter your kitchen and see a cookie jar filled with cookies, then you grab a handful of them.
Crucially, habits are contextual. You don’t take the cookies out of all the cookie jars you see - that would lead to many awkward situations.
Imagine you’re visiting the Queen of England; let’s say you’re about to become a knight of the realm. For some weird reason, she has a cookie jar filled with biscuits next to her, and as she is about to take her royal sword out of its scabbard to knight you, she notices you’re nowhere to be found. She asks her butlers to find you, and where do they find you? In the corner of some room, munching on those biscuits like a guilty chipmunk.
Thankfully, that’s not how habits work. That habits only occur in a given context is extremely important to keep in mind if we want to shape our habits.
Because you only do your habits IF you find yourself in the context that triggers them. That’s why you don’t steal the Queen’s biscuits, because that context is not the one that triggers the habit of taking cookies out of the cookie jar.
And that gives you a lever to break old habits and build new ones. For example:
Do you want to study instead of play videogames all day long? Get out of the house and go to a library. The house is the context that triggers the habit of playing videogames, not the library.
Do you want to stop eating so many damn cookies? Don’t buy them in the first place. Seeing the cookie jar when you enter the kitchen is why you eat them, that’s the context.
Have you ever noticed how easy it is to change your habits when you move to a different city? That’s because when you left your old city behind, you left your old triggers behind as well. Scientists call this the habit discontinuity hypothesis, which I think is just a overly complicated way for something that’s rather simple, but you know how scientists are.
Of course, you can’t change cities each time you want to change your habits. That’s not scalable (unless you’re a nomad), but the idea still stands.
To break old habits is to disrupt and destroy the cues and context to which they are associated. The cookie jar gets thrown into the trash. You go out to the library every morning instead of staying at home.
You shape your context, and by doing so, you shape your habits.
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