Habits free up your executive control resources
Habits help you persist in reaching your goals
The word “habit” may elicit a negative connotation. As in a drug habit. But healthy habits can be your indispensable friends. What is a habit, anyway? Wendy Wood, a psychology professor at UCLA, defines habit as, “a mental association between a context cue and a response that develops as we repeat an action in that context for a reward.” A context cue I use is leaving my gym bag by my front door on the days I hit the gym. My response: grab my gym bag and ride my bike to the local YMCA where I exercise. I’ve been doing this routine for years. I don’t have to think about it. I reap multiple, immediate rewards: chatting with my friends at the Y. Plus, relishing the feeling of being clean, refreshed, and relaxed after I shower. This arranged series of events ensures that I get plenty of physical activity.
Why are healthy habits valuable? Habits operate outside of conscious awareness. Most of us aren’t aware of the extent to which we employ habits – either good or bad. A study by Wendy Wood and colleagues showed that habits accounted for 43 percent of the behaviors of a sample of college undergraduates.
Habits free the executive control portion of our brain from making decisions. For example, I don’t have to think about going to the gym on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 3:30 pm. It’s a habit. Executive control is an important resource that decays during the day. We’re better off saving our executive control for situations that truly require them. For example, preparing a compelling case to present to the boss for a pay raise.
Most of us assume that making healthy choices largely reflects our degree of self-control. If we make poor choices, we tend to blame ourselves, see ourselves as incapable, and devalue our self-worth. Interestingly, people who believe they have a high degree of self-control may be deluding themselves. Instead, such people may rely on healthy habits to move them toward their goals. They may not actually rely on conscious self-control to make healthy choices. These folks organize their lives in ways that develop and maintain healthy habits.
Habits also promote persistence. A study of 94 members at a gym in the UK showed, unsurprisingly, that only 29 percent of gym members completed a three-month program. Even though all of the participants were initially motivated to succeed. What led the successful participants to finish the program? They went to the gym regularly and presumably developed a gym habit.
If you want to live better, don’t rely solely on self-control or will power. Develop healthy habits that operate automatically, free of your conscious control.