We are creatures of habit. If you think yourself the exception, look no further than where you choose to sit every day in class. Chances are you haven’t moved much from your original location since the beginning of Winter Quarter.
A Duke study approximated we spend upwards of 40 percent of our day engaged in habitually driven behavior. That’s a staggering chunk of time where we act without thinking. What’s more, a habit through repetition can be reinforced to the point where it holds more influence than conscious intention itself.
While the importance of habits for human functioning is evident enough, the effects that habits can have on your ability to carry out your plans is quite astonishing. The beneficial aspects of maintaining good habits extend far beyond the immediate ones normally associated with it.
Take the habit of regular exercise — the physiological benefits are quite apparent. Exercise promotes cardiovascular health and wards off a myriad of health problems. It also keeps your body looking good. But can it reach anywhere past medical benefits? Science sounds off with a resounding yes.
To consider the scope of these behind-the-scenes benefits, we look to one of the greatest indicators of success in the field of psychology, self-regulation: The ability to delay instant gratification for future benefit. Recent research indicates that, like a muscle, it has an exhaustible energy source, but more importantly, the potential to be trained. Guess which feature of behavior ties directly with the presence of self-regulation?
Another study focused on whether the adoption of a good habit could affect other unrelated habits. Participants who forced themselves on a two-month exercise program exhibited an increase in nearly every “good habit” and a decrease in “bad habits.” These subjects decreased their cigarette consumption by a mean of 10 cigarettes per day, lowered their alcohol, caffeine and junk food intake and improved their eating habits. They felt less stressed, spent less on impulse, became more punctual and even left fewer dishes in the sink.
Just by implementing one good habit, behavior experienced a nearly universal shift in all other habits. The answer to kicking a bad habit? Try to force yourself into one good habit.
Now how exactly do you put a good habit in your life? The mechanism behind habit formation is a simple ‘Cue, Routine, Reward’ process. You create a cue that prompts you to exercise, this triggers the routine and you reward yourself with whatever you please. Charles Duhigg, acclaimed author of The Power of Habit, coined this process, “The Habit Loop.”
January’s rolling to an end, and to those who are still holding strong to their New Year’s Resolutions, I applaud you. To all else: I’m sure you’re aware of at least one good habit that you’ve always wanted to put into your life. You already have your desired routine; now take today to think up your cue and a reward, and watch as your neurons rewire right before your eyes.
A version of this article appeared on page 5 of January 29th, 2013′s print edition of the Nexus.