We are creatures of habit.
The saying is a cliché for a reason. It’s true to frustrating, incredible, “Okay I fucking get it,” degrees.
But it’s also something that, if recognized, can be controlled, and if controlled, can completely and totally change our lives.
The Power of Habit, as you might possibly guess, is a book about one thing. It doesn’t tell you how to lose weight, how to find your you-ness, or how to tell your spirit animal to stop pissing on the rug. It’s all about habits (so okay, I guess if your habit is pissing on the rug, it is about that).
As a result, it gets to pick that one thing apart every which way. It looks at where our habits come from, how much of our behavior they contribute to, how to change bad habits, how habits inhibit an entire organization, how bad habits can lead to disaster, and how disaster can lead to good habits.
The book is less directly a self-help book, and more a book about examining behavior. But if you look into this book, and understand how you can apply its understanding of habits to your life, you can help yourself a lot.
So fuck you. I’m still writing about it.
The Power of Habits in Our Lives
So you’re probably thinking something like, “Who cares? I have like three habits. I brush my teeth, I put my seatbelt on in the car, and I sing songs from Cats in the shower. Everything else I do is totally a conscious choice.”
Yeah, no. You’re insanely wrong. Almost everything you do is a force of habit. Habits control how you interact with people. Habits control how you take a dump. Habits control everything about how you work. Most of your life is—in some way—based in your habits.
As the book points out, there’s an evolutionary reason for this. When something becomes a habit, our brain doesn’t use as much energy to do it, and it can focus on something that does require its energy.
So it doesn’t matter what it is: brushing your teeth, how you mow your lawn, or how you bring up how much you bench whenever you feel insecure around strangers. When we start to do anything a lot—no matter what it is—our brain is programmed to become accustomed to the activity and to move it into the "Second Nature" quadrant of our daily activities.
This is hugely important because it means that a habitual activity becomes an efficient activity. When we can do something without thinking about it, we can do that activity more effectively, and we can advance in the way we do it. We can act more quickly, and kick more ass when instead of making a series of conscious decisions, we’re automating our actions.
Habits are the automated portion of our lives, and that’s a big motherfucker of a responsibility. Some of us automate to work out early in the morning, bring in donuts for the office at work, and read to our kids at night. Others automate when they smoke crack, steal vases from grocery stores, and smell girls’ hair when they hug them.
Regardless, habits become who we are. They define our actions we take every day. They are massively important.
But this knowledge on its own isn’t very useful. If you have a bunch of terrible habits—if you’re are a pathological gambler, you always tell children to fuck off, and you consider donuts at midnight a “week night tradition”, then merely reading “Habits are really strong,” isn’t going to do much for you. It’s like looking at someone with a compound fracture in their femur and saying, “That hurts a lot,” and then walking away.
But fortunately, the book doesn’t stop there. It goes in depth to tell us how to change our habits. It gives different examples of people changing their habits, how it happened on a deeper level, and what we all can do to emulate it.
How to Change Habits
So you may be considering this now, and thinking, “Fuck! I thought I was choosing every day to have three bagels for breakfast and to shop for My Little Pony memorabilia at work, and that I could quit any time. But come to think of it, I always talk about how I want to stop, and then I never do! It must be because it’s a habit! Oh no! What can I do to stop?”
The book goes deeply into detail about how to break habits, and it works like this.
Every habit is a form of the following loop:
See a cue, do the habit, get a desired result.
So when you eat three bagels for breakfast, that’s because you’ve experienced the cue of your rumbling belly in the morning, you complete the habit of eating like a Jewish sumo wrestler, and you get the result of a full belly, and lots of dopamine hits from delicious bites.
Because this becomes your mode of functioning, the conclusion the book comes to is that we can ever really stop bad habits on their own. Instead, we can only replace the habits.
So in other words, you can’t extinguish the cue of being hungry in the morning, or the desire for the positive feeling that comes from satiating that hunger, but you can try to eat something besides a half-pound of toasted self-hatred with cream cheese.
And instead of having the reward of delicious bagels and the result of feeling like a sentient bag full of hackysacks after your breakfast, you get something else. You get the reward of feeling like an alive, mobile human person, who can accomplish something besides sitting back with their belly poking out of their shirt, saying, “Oooohhhh no.” This new reward will help you develop a new habit.
If you can find something else that gives you what you’re looking for when you’re cued into wanting something, then you can replace the bad habit with something less terrible. This can apply to many different areas of your life.
One of the most important elements you can take from the book is the development of Keystone Habits. Keystone Habits are singular things that you can change in your life that totally alter everything else about you.
When you make one real, significant change in your life, you’re contributing to a change in the way you function. You’re rewiring your brain in an extremely powerful way.
In other words, being less shitty in one way—when it’s a powerful change—can make you less shitty in several ways. This is why you’ll find people who start to run or swim every day also start to eat healthier, work harder, and stop sending dickpics to their Tinder matches.
This is so, so important to remember when you step back and take a look at your life, and you realize that you fucking hate what you see. You realize, “Shit I need to get out of this job, get into shape, start to talk to people, and stop blowing off my friends to stay home and play board games with my dolls.”
A change in a Keystone Habit (like say, getting into shape) can set off a domino effect in your life that changes all of that (also wouldn’t hurt to throw out your dolls).
Disaster Brings on New Habits
So how do we bring about this change? Well one way is to go through something terrible—or maybe just dramatic.
Tragedy is often needed to spark change for many of us. It is nature’s way of slapping you upside the head and saying, “HEY! ASSHOLE! STOP THAT!”
But it doesn’t have to be tragedy per se. The point is that most habits change after something truly motivates you, and the only true motivation comes from some kind of stressor. With the right approach, you can see huge benefits from a stressful kick in the ass.
Now does this mean that you should kick yourself in the ass? Does this mean that you should take a dump on the carpet at your office, just so that you can then say, “Oh no! I lost my job! Time to really get my life in order?”
No. But it is a helpful reminder for how you can respond when you do encounter some bullshit in your life.
Your Responsibility Remains
It’s easy to think of habits as being out of your hands—like, “Well it’s an automated part of me. The part of me that makes paperclip figurines when I should be working is a robot now, and the robot has taken over. Nothing I can do. Same thing with my meth addiction.”
So perhaps most importantly, the book maintains one powerful and clear truth throughout: Your habits are your responsibility.
This is vital to acknowledge and remember. As soon as you are able to identify consciously that you have developed a habit, that habit is still, ultimately a conscious behavior. If you are compulsive in pursuing it, then you need to take steps otherwise to prevent compulsions, to get away from it, and to replace it. You still always can change even the most ingrained habit.
Your habits are what you automatically are. They are your learned reflexes. But you know what? When your doctor hits your knee with that rubber hammer thing, you don’t have to kick up. You can decide to say, “Nah, fuck you dude. I’m not letting you control my knee.”
That’s a weird example because dude is just trying to do his job and I don’t know why you care so much about knee control, but you get the idea.
No matter how pulled into your habit you are, you have a say. And as soon as you really, truly believe that, then you can start to fix the bad habits, replace them with ones that don’t suck. So maybe, somewhere down the line, when you find yourself habitually acting in fear of any minority, eating handfuls of Funions every hour, and photoshopping your shitty face in Tinder pictures until you look like Emily Ratajkowski, you can instead stop for a second, and say, "Wait a second. I suck ass right now. Let's try something else."