Habits free up executive control resources
Habits help you persist in reaching your goals
The word “habit” elicits a somewhat negative connotation. As in a drug habit. But healthy habits can be your indispensable friends.What is a habit, anyway? In her new book, Good Habits, Bad Habits, 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. The 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 and relishing the feeling of being clean, refreshed, and relaxed after I shower. This consciously arranged series of events ensures that I get plenty of physical activity.
Why are healthy habits valuable? 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 we deplete during the day. We’d be 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.
Habits also provide persistence. A study of 94 members at a gym in the UK showed, unsurprisingly, that only 29 percent completed the three-month program. All of the participants were initially motivated to succeed. What did the successful participants do to finish the program? They went to the gym every week and presumably developed a gym habit.
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 43 percent of behaviors of a sample of college undergraduates were habitual.
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. Such people may actually rely on healthy habits to move them toward their goals. These folks don’t rely on conscious self-control to make healthy choices. They organize their lives in ways that develop and maintain healthy habits.
If you want to live better, don’t rely solely on will power or self-control. Instead, develop healthy habits that operate automatically, free of your conscious control.