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Thoughts & Observations of a Free Range Astrophysicist

Clockwork Mind

Habits Make the World Go Around

Consciousness is along for the ride

A lot of what we think of as conscious decisions are actually the consciously inaccessible pieces of behavioral code that we call habits. You can’t take charge of your life without facing that basic, unalterable fact about how the brain works.


What we think of as “conscious” decisions often aren’t.

You roll over in the morning, get out of bed, brush your teeth, take a shower, get dressed (putting on the same shoe first every day), grab a bagel and cup of coffee, and head out the door. A few hours later you are going through your workday when you realize that you’ve pretty much been on autopilot since the moment the alarm went off!

Habits are an efficient autopilot

Even while we are awake, we spend much of the time on autopilot. Most of what we do is controlled not by conscious decisions, but by the habits we have formed.

You aren’t alone. It’s not unusual that you spent the day on autopilot. The only thing different is that at some point you realized that you were on autopilot.

Most of us imagine that we go through the day making conscious decisions about everything that we do. It feels like that is what we are doing. The conscious mind is the captain of the ship, with hands always on the wheel! But researchers who study patterns of activity in the brain will tell you that is not what is happening at all.

A better analogy is to say that the conscious mind is like a corporate executive. Said executive might have a corner office with a great view, and she is certainly involved in making decisions about the direction the company takes. But when it comes down to what is happening with the company right this minute, mostly she is an observer, and a distant one at that. The reality on the ground is determined by a host of employees who are just going through their day, doing what they do.

Most of the time the conscious mind is sort of along for the ride as our brains execute one automatic set of behaviors after another. If you are a computer geek you might think of those easily executed pieces of behavioral code as subroutines or procedures. But in common parlance they have a different name: habits.

Habits are efficient.

There’s some fascinating evolutionary neurophysiology behind this whole habit business. Our brains only make up a few percent of the mass in our bodies, but they consume something like 20-30% of the calories that we burn. We evolved in a world where food was hard to come by, and those ever-hungry brains could be a liability.

Habits / The Basal Ganglia

The habits that carry us through the day are coordinated by the basal ganglia, embedded deep within our brains.

In that world our brains needed to work as efficiently as possible. Not surprisingly, when a brain is executing a well-established habit it requires a lot less energy than it does when it is calling on the full machinery of conscious decision-making.

Conscious decision-making is a bit like an after-burner on a jet engine. It’s there when you need it, but when it kicks in it burns fuel fast! It’s not that brains are lazy; it is that brains are frugal. When you are doing something that you have a nice, efficient habit for, that’s what your brain will naturally turn to.

Habits actually live in a different part of your brain than conscious decisions do. Conscious decisions are made in the prefrontal cortex. Habits, on the other hand, are controlled by ancient parts of your brain called the basal ganglia. The story of how scientists learned about habits, and just what they have learned, makes for fascinating reading. If you want to get into the meat of it, I heartily recommend Pulitzer Prize-winning author Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit.

Habits are effective.

Habits are more than a way for the brain to save on fuel. Habits are fast! They can kick in before we are even aware of it! They also let us unthinkingly do many things better than we ever could if we were making every decision consciously. If your brain does something really well, the last thing you want is to have your conscious mind step in and try to take control.

Surfer riding the wave

Habits may allow the brain to do even highly complex tasks better and more efficiently than conscious decision-making.

If you want to see an accomplished athlete or musician choke, just get them to consciously focus on what they are doing in a high-pressure moment. Professionals of that sort train to learn to relax and just let their brain and body do what they know how to do. Some call it “muscle memory,” but the correct term is, “habit.”

Habits are comfortable.

The brain likes to stick with what it knows. Completely novel situations force us to make conscious decision after conscious decision. That can be very uncomfortable, especially when the stakes are high.

“Learning the ropes” at a new job, for example, involves gathering the knowledge that you need to do the job. But it also involves doing things over and over until you have burnt in well-worn neural pathways – i.e., habits – that let you comfortably move through your day. When you have a habit for something, the brain knows what to do, and doesn’t have to feel uncertain.

I want to stress that habits can be very complex, high-order behaviors! Some people do very well in novel, risky, high-stakes situations. Usually those people have a lot of successful past experience dealing with such challenges. They have developed habitual patterns of thought and behavior that let them thrive in the face of challenges that would overwhelm most of us.

Let me say that again. The way that you respond when you don’t have specific habits to turn to is itself a habit!

Habits don’t always work out so well in a world that is constantly changing.

So habits have some serious upsides. But they have downsides as well. Habits evolved in a world where things didn’t change all that rapidly. Habitual behaviors turn out best when today’s challenges are likely to be pretty much the same as yesterday’s challenges, and yesterday’s challenges were pretty much the same as last year’s challenges.

But that is not the world that we live in. This is one of those cases where the brains that we evolved in the Pleistocene are not always so well adapted to life in the Twenty-First Century. Today the only constant is change. Even habits that started out as useful can become obstacles when circumstances change.

Big Juicy Burger

Habits determine most of what we do. That fact has a serious downside. As anyone who has ever tried to lose a few pounds knows, habits can be tenacious! That is a special challenge in a world that is changing constantly.

The fact that habits live in a part of our brain that is separate from conscious thought means that they are not easy to change. You can’t just “decide” to have a new habit, or to no longer have an old one. Look at eating habits, for example. In the U.S., helping people try to lose weight is something on the high side of a $50 billion industry. The fact that year after year it remains a $50 billion industry illustrates just how effective it is!

Part of the problem is that when deep in a habit loop your basal ganglia might not want to relinquish control to the conscious mind. Again, eating is a good example. There you are at a restaurant looking at the menu. You told yourself you were going to order off of the “healthy options” menu, but before you know it the waiter is walking away with your usual order for the Double Burger with Everything. Later you decide to make up for your earlier indiscretion by only eating half of the meal that the waiter brought you. You are going to stop eating now. You are going to stop after this one last bite…

And so it goes, until you discover that your habit has held onto control until you finished the meal anyway. Now for the desert menu!

There you are, doing something that you habitually do, fully aware that it might not be the best choice in that moment. You even decide, “This time I’m doing it differently.” And yet the habit plays itself out, regardless.

(By the way, one of the best suggestions that I’ve heard to stop eating when you want to is to pour salt all over the remaining food. Make that a habit and you won’t be finishing those meals!)

Changing your life means changing your habits. Awareness is the place to start.

The good news is that habits are not hard-wired into your brain. The human brain is remarkably malleable, a quality referred to as neuroplasticity. There is no way to change the fact that your habits are what carry you through the day. Even so, saying “it’s a habit” is not an excuse for not taking control of your life! Anyone who has ever made changes in their life has done so by forming new habits and modifying or extinguishing others. It’s not always easy, but it can be done.

Research on habits has identified a loop that begins with whatever serves to trigger the habit, carries on through the behavior itself, and ends with a reward. That reward can itself be the trigger for another habit. There are subtleties, and every habit loop is different.

The crucial point is this. Things that go on in the basal ganglia, the place where habits live, are not under your direct conscious control. You can’t just will yourself to change a habit! Modifying old habits and establishing new habits takes time and effort, and has to focus on triggers and rewards as much as on the behavior itself.

You can’t do that until you know what you are working with. The starting point for taking control of your habits and your life is always the same: awareness! You won’t get anywhere until you have correctly identified the habit you want to change, and started to understand the triggers and rewards associated with that habit.

Turn yourself into a research project.

It’s not uncommon for me to suggest that a coaching client start keeping written notes during the day as they notice things about their behavior.  For some clients I might refer to the process as “journaling.”

Making awareness a habit

The first step toward taking control of your life is to make a habit of being aware of your own thoughts and behaviors.

By journaling I don’t mean letting your feelings spill across the page, although that can be a very powerful tool in some circumstances as well. When talking about taking control of habits, what matters are patterns in things that you do and think. “In such and such a situation I did this and thought that. I’ve noted that before. It seems to be a habit. And when that habit kicks in, here is what happens next.”

Maybe the habit is a good thing that you want to reinforce. (“When I turn off my mobile phone at 8:00 PM I wind up going to bed earlier.”) Maybe the habit is something that is holding you back, and that you need to change. (“When my boss asks how I’m doing at work, I instantly get defensive.”) Either way, until you understand what the habit is and how it works, you are stuck!

By the way, if the client is someone like a doctor or engineer, I don’t talk about journaling. Instead I call the process what it really is. “You keep lab notebooks in your work. What might you learn if you started keeping a lab notebook about yourself!?”

I have one client, an engineer, who sets a reminder on her cell phone that goes off every couple of hours at work. When the reminder sounds, she takes a minute or two to check in with herself and jot down a few notes. What she learned in the process became the basis for some very transformative changes in her life!

Anyone can put this into practice. Anyone can chose to become the world’s foremost expert on themselves. There is nothing to stop you from picking up a pen and notepad right this minute and starting to jot down factual, nonjudgmental notes about your own thoughts and actions. You might learn something interesting!

Among the most important habits you can ever have is intentional awareness of self.

Much of what you do in life is under the control of unthinking parts of your brain. It doesn’t matter whether you like the sound of that or not. It’s a simple fact. Observing your own life in an honest, careful way gives you the information that you need to start choosing what your habits will be.

That process never ends, which brings me to the real reason I encourage clients to start observing themselves and making notes. That can be the starting point for developing one of the most powerful and empowering habits there is: the habit of being truly, consciously, and intentionally self-aware!

In our most recent conversation, the client that I mentioned above had a big smile. “I realized this week that I don’t have to think about it any more. When I hit a challenge I automatically stop, think about it, and ask myself which of my ‘tools’ I should turn to. It’s great!”

She has reached the point where conscious awareness has itself become a habit. Her future is hers to make of what she will!

 

Habits Make the World Go Around ^ Consciousness is along for the ride  © Dr. Jeff Hester
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Over his 30 year career as an internationally known astrophysicist, Dr. Jeff Hester was a key member of the team that repaired the Hubble Space Telescope. With one foot always on the frontiers of knowledge, he has been mentor, coach, team leader, award-winning teacher, administrator and speaker, to name a few of the hats he has worn. His Hubble image, the Pillars of Creation, was chosen by Time Magazine as among the 100 most influential photographs in history.
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