It’s easy to dismiss routines and habits as “boring.”
But give some of them credit for keeping you on track amid the uncertainties of daily life, as well as freeing up brain space to dream, to create fresh ideas, to solve problems.
“Habits help us get through the day with minimal stress and deliberation,” says social psychologist Wendy Wood, provost professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California whose research focuses on the effect of habits on behavior.
Your morning teeth-brushing-yoga-stretching-showering-and-dressing habit? That 30-minute limit you put on dealing with e-mails before leaving the office? The 20 bucks you tuck in a savings account every week? They may pale next to white-water rafting in Colorado, but because they’re part of your routine, you barely need to think about them, and that’s a blessing.
“Routine basically gives us the mental freedom to think about what’s actually important. That way we don’t have to think about all the mundane aspects of life,” says Charles Duhigg, author of “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” (Random House). “Getting to relegate all those things to sort of an automatic thought process, we gain all the mental bandwidth we need to do the really important things in life.
“Almost every single species that has survived has the ability to take routines and make them automatic. That way you have cognitive power to invent spears and fire and video games.
“People who are very, very successful don’t forget the importance of routines. There’s a huge correlation between thinking very deliberately about (creating) the right habits in your life and developing successful habits,” says Duhigg, a New York Times investigative reporter who plowed through mountains of scientific research for the book.
Habits begin with a decision you made at some point, Duhigg explains, but eventually you stop having to make the decision to continue acting on it. And for good reason: a reward.
A habit consists of three parts: a “cue” that prompts a “routine” that delivers a “reward.” (Think about how good that post-workout coffee stop feels.)
“The routine is sort of the behavioral aspect of the habit,” Duhigg says. “Because habits occur almost subconsciously, we tend not to notice them or notice the cues and rewards.”
Blame your noggin. When a habit kicks in, one part of the brain (basal ganglia) is active and it feels automatic, he explains.
But when you’re actually thinking about doing something (finishing a work or craft project or, well, white-water rafting), another part of your brain (the prefrontal cortex) can be sending out reward signals much faster and stronger.
“People basically experience things much more deeply when they’re actually engaged with the more advanced parts of their brain,” Duhigg says.
So this is where mindfulness kicks in: As helpful as habits can be, an occasional reality check can help ensure they’re still serving you well.
Consider that those routine chats you have with your spouse every morning may help you both get out of the house more quickly, but it’s the deeper conversations that will be more satisfying for both of you.
The reason we adopt habits is to help us meet our goals, whether it’s getting to work on time in the a.m. or reacting to a grumpy spouse in the evening.
“We usually repeat responses that are working for us in some way,” Wood says. “If you drink coffee in the morning, you probably have a set way to get it: make it in your kitchen, stop by the same coffee shop on your way to work or after dropping kids off at school.
“You repeated these actions because they provided the same outcome each time: coffee.
“What makes the habit good or bad is really just whether it’s aligned with your current goals,” she adds. “Good habits are the ones congruent with our goals (toothbrushing), and bad habits are ones that aren’t in line with desired outcomes (overeating).”
To maximize your habits in the family, in the workplace, in your relationships with your spouse and children, consider your goals with the understanding that “each person’s habits are driven by different cravings,” notes Duhigg.
“There comes a point in most people’s lives where they realize how powerless they are over certain behaviors,” he says. “When people have that moment, I think that’s when they realize, ‘Oh, it’s because there are all these routines in my life, these patterns in my life I’m not paying any attention to, but they are having this huge impact.’
“If you have habits you feel are boring, that you don’t like, spend time thinking about how to change that habit,” Duhigg adds. “Once you have the habits that you genuinely want, at that point your life kind of becomes this wonderful place because you have all the mental energy you need to concentrate on the things you really want to concentrate on.”