Understanding Habits & How They Work

Understanding habits and how they work can enable us to make the changes we want to make. One of the hardest things I do with my executive function clients is getting them to understand that they can make changes in their lives. They have the power to create the habits they want.

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People are a product of their positive and negative habits. We all have hundreds of patterns that we rely on daily from taking a shower to the route we take to work to how we tuck our kids in at night.

Every day we consciously and unconsciously perform habits. Habits (or routines or rituals – whatever you want to call them) are a part of all of us.

Understanding Habits and how they work - images of self-care and routine
Understanding habits and how they work

Habits can be divided into three different areas. First, are those habits that we don't notice anymore because they are deeply embedded in our daily lives. These habits include brushing our teeth or tying our shoelaces. However, (and this is one of those big BUTS), if you struggle with executive functions, these types of things might NOT be automatic for you. Part of what we need to do is work to get them to be automatic. But don’t beat yourself up if you’re not there yet. (Or if your kid isn’t there yet.)

The second kind of routine is health-related—those things we know we should do and maybe we even try. These kinds of habits include healthy eating, getting enough sleep, and exercising regularly.

The third kind of habit involves those we consider bad habits: overspending, smoking, and procrastination (of course, the possibilities are endless).

Every New Year’s Day, so many people are filled with the excitement to change their lives. They want to start the new year off fresh and set goals that will change their lives. Or so they think.

Then, within a few weeks, they’re battling the same bad habits from the previous year. I always use “they” in this instance because I never make resolutions like this.

The worst part about this is that bad habits creep back in without our knowledge. The cycle of making resolutions and then failing takes its toll. We get tired of being disappointed in ourselves, so we give up trying to change our bad habits. We let the bad habits win.

This leads to a negative connotation about change. We start to believe that change is meant only for those with more willpower or self-drive than we have. We don’t believe we can measure up. This goes about tenfold for those who struggle with executive functions. You look around at people who make success look easy. They tell you things like, “Just do it.”

Except it’s not that easy for you. You plan to do something, and then fifty other ideas run screaming through your brain demanding attention. Or your anxiety whips its ugly head and paralyzes you. Or your depression requires you to pull the blankets over your head and hide for a while.

You can still make changes. And it will work. But you have to make it work for you. Before you can figure out your process, though, you need to understand how it usually works so that when you start to see success, you know what it is. You need to adjust your mindset to believe you can.

Since a habit is something that you acquire as a result of the influences in your life, being able to change it will require some skills. Like any other skill, it needs both effective techniques and practice to be successful. You need to equip yourself with these skills so that you can be competent enough when facing your habit. If you want to change your habits, then you have to work on developing your skills continually.

A habit only becomes automatic when it is practiced with consistent, repetitive patterns that are created in your mind. The only way you will be able to defeat your bad habits is by standing up and equipping yourself for the tasks.

What Are Habits?

In order for you to understand how to break your bad habits (or institute good ones), it is essential that you first understand precisely what habits are. A habit is a recurrent and often unconscious pattern of behavior, which is usually acquired through regular repetition. I usually make the distinction between routines and habits for my clients. Routines tend to be more conscious than a habit. We create and use routines in order to build habits.

To understand how habits work, you need to know how your brain works. Your mind is created by and connected with a complex array of neurons. These neurons are fed with input from our sensory nerves and organs, which are then delivered to the brain. People who are neurodivergent are often overloaded with input and it makes it hard for the brain to focus. This is why routines and habits are hard.

Neurons create a vast, complex framework to connect all parts of your body to your brain. Because the brain manages everything, it wants to keep a streamlined process. The neurodivergent brain doesn’t necessarily agree. The streamlined process includes setting the most used pathways as connections, which allows them to run automatically. These are your habits—things you don’t need to think about.

For example, let’s say you had a crazy morning—everyone woke up late, kids were fighting, you know how it goes. You get in your car to go to work or drop the kids off and you’re distracted, thinking about what you have to do at work, or your never-ending to-do list. You automatically take the turns to get you where you need to go. You don’t need to read street signs or use Google Maps to get there. You don’t even think about it. Your brain just knows what to tell your body to do.

A positive habit will bring you success in life, while a bad habit is one that can ruin the success you experience.

There is no set definition of bad habits because many habits could be bad or good. What matters is what you do with the habit. Consider whether your habit has a positive or negative impact on your life and the life of those around you.  A bad habit is anything that takes up your time and prevents you from achieving your goals, without providing you anything in return.

For example, you might have the habit of playing video games during your free time. This could be a good or bad habit, depending on how you do it. If you usually play video games with your family, it counts as spending more time with your family, which is a positive habit. However, playing video games by yourself every day contributes to nothing, and could be a bad habit. If you use it to de-stress and relax, it could be good. If you’re using it to avoid other things you should be doing, it’s bad. When determining whether your habits are good or bad, you have to be honest with yourself.

Take the time to weigh your habits and see if they are beneficial to you. If something hinders you from achieving your goals, define it as a bad habit, and start devising a plan to break the habit. Sometimes it’s easy to define a bad habit, like smoking. Other times, you might not realize how a habit is affecting you, so it’s important to do some regular self-reflection.

Recognizing Your Habits

Most of us are so used to our habits that we don't actually realize that you have those habits. The first step that you need to take if you want to change your habits is being aware of which ones you have. You can't change what you don't know.

You can become aware of both your positive and negative habits by doing a self-assessment. Here are two methods that you can use to help you identify both your good and your bad habits.

Internal Review

Doing an internal review of your habits requires self-reflection. Self-reflection is just analyzing your daily behaviors and noting how they make you feel. For example, if you play video games all night and then feel guilty that you didn’t spend time with your family or didn’t get a project done, then you’ve narrowed down a bad behavior.

You can also use measurement as a way to recognize your bad habits. If you track how you spend your time, or how often you do something, the numbers won’t lie. We lie to ourselves all the time. How often have you thought, “I’ll just hop on social media real quick,” and then you lose three hours? With tracking, you can quickly note your bad habits.

To do this, take a notebook and pen, or use your phone to record everything that you do daily. Write down EVERYTHING. If you want to find out if you have any bad eating habits, write down everything that you eat in a day, how it makes you feel, and what you think you could do about it. When you take the time to write down what you do every day, you can uncover and reveal habits that you didn’t even know existed.

External Review

Before I get into what an external review is, I want to say that if you are a mom who struggles with executive functions, skip this part. I never want to have you do something that might ultimately make you feel bad. The external review might be helpful if you are able to use your executive functions well, but you’re trying to help your kids who are struggling.

For real, if you’re struggling with EF, skip to the next section!

An external review means using information outside yourself as a way to understand your habits. You observe and study the people around you and your environment so that you might gain a bit of insight into your own habits.

For example, you can observe the lives of successful people around the world. Look for people who accomplished remarkable things in their lives and note what habits helped them to achieve their goals. Observing successful people will help you note some bad habits that you might not have considered harmful before.

This is the part that can often backfire for someone who has been struggling with executive functioning for a long time, this can make you feel bad. For some people, looking at successful people is hard because it looks like it’s supposed to be easy. Plus, what works for them might not work for you.

 Types of Habits

Habits are a crucial part of our daily lives. Different schools of thought have their own notion of different kinds of habits.

Habits can be divided into four different kinds as follows:

  • Instigating
  • Avoiding
  • Regimental
  • Unconscious

Let’s explore each category a little further so you can understand your habits.

Instigating Habits

These habits are those that are established throughout the course of our lives to help guide us through our life projects. These habits are responsible for moving us forward toward a goal; however, you can enjoy these habits without actualizing any goal.

They tend to take us on a path that is rewarding on its own. At times, these habits might have goals attached to them, but achieving these goals isn’t necessarily as important as the process. You can refer to these kinds of habits as open-ended habits. Since you aren't focused on the result or outcome, what happens during the process can be framed to be a success.

Examples of instigating habits include:

  • Reading
  • Working out
  • Spending time with friends
  • Eating healthy
  • Building a home

Avoiding Habits

Most people are aware of these habits because we see these habits everywhere. These are what we see as bad habits that we know we should break. Avoiding habits include media addiction, laziness, gambling, gossiping, drinking, smoking, and every kind of addiction. In this stage, the focus is on changing from one thing to something else. We do these things often because we’re avoiding something else.

These are the habits that we try hard to push away. Just saying you’re going to stop rarely works. Instead, try moving them toward the instigating habits by mentally reframing them. For example, if you habitually gossip, rather than just trying to stop, you can look for ways to compliment others instead. If this is done over and over again, it will eventually override the habit of gossiping.

Regimental Habits

These kinds of habits involve doing an activity each time the same way without leaving any room for change. It is an automatic response. People who tend to rail against habit formation only think of this type of habit. To them, it feels forced and inflexible (which I something the neurodivergent mind often rebels against). Once you form a regimental habit, you lose control of the present.

These habits usually become unconscious if you aren’t careful and on the watch. For example, parking in the same spot every day, showering, drinking a cup of coffee every morning, and more. It’s not that any of these are bad in and of themselves, but if you don’t stop to reflect and think about other options, you might be missing out on something better. These habits are only a problem if you rigidly adhere to them (and if you are OCD, this might not be something for you to worry about right now).

Unconscious Habits

These habits operate through us, and undeniably, we have them all. We don't see them, but we rely on our friends and family to help us expose them. These are habits that we repeat over time and that have become embedded in our character and lifestyle. We don't have conscious control over these habits. They include pessimism, negativity, overspending, frowning, etc. Our mindset and outlook on life fall into this category, and self-reflection will reveal a lot to you.

How Habits Work

Your life today is the sum of the things that you have done consistently over time. Your life is the product of habits, whether they are good or bad. Ultimately, you are what you repeatedly do, and your habits form the things you believe, the person you are, and the personality that you portray.

Sometimes, we don't even know how we exhibit certain habits. We do, however, know that over time, we end up doing them unconsciously. Understanding how habits work is the key to a life where anything is possible.

The Pattern of Habits

Every habit that you develop, whether good or bad, has a pattern. Because habits follow a particular pattern, you need to understand the three steps of the pattern, which are followed sequentially. The three patterns of habit are:

  • The reminder
  • The routine
  • The reward

Every habit follows this pattern. Whether you have the habit of reading, exercising, procrastinating, smoking, or something else, the pattern is the same.

Every habit is learned and can be unlearned with the help of this process. Habits are just the result of practicing and repeating a particular action over time, which means that any habit that you want to have, you can learn. But it’s a process. You need time, practice, and perseverance.

The Three R’s of Habit Formation

The moment you can comprehend how habits work, you can change the path of your life to be what you want. Understanding habit formation will help you make changes, even if you've had those habits for years. Unfortunately, you can’t escape the three R’s of habit, but you can change how they affect you.

The Reminder

This is known as the “cue” or the “trigger” and is the first pattern of how habits work. All your habits start with a trigger. The trigger is responsible for telling your brain to go into an automatic mode, as well as the particular habit of using. An external trigger reminds you of the habit, which is associated with that particular habit.

This means that from that point forward, your subconscious mind is in control of your behavior. The trigger from your environment can be likened to a button, which puts your entire behavior into action when pressed. This is then translated into the second pattern, the routine.

The Routine

This is the actual behavior that is triggered by the reminder. The routine could be mental, physical, or emotional. The routine can happen quickly, without much thinking.

This is the key to it becoming a habit because it doesn't require any thought or conscious effort by you to carry out the sequence. It merely happens because it has become encoded in our brains, but it's not yet firmly planted in your muscle memory.

It's like driving to work, and you automatically know where to turn without thinking. The moment the sequence is ingrained into your muscle memory and brain, it becomes difficult to change. The third pattern is the reason why it can be a challenge to change a habit once it is learned.

The Reward

Every routine has a reward, either positive or negative. The reward process is responsible for helping your brain find out if such a routine is worth remembering for the future. As time goes on, the process becomes automatic.

The reminder-and-reward process ends up becoming entangled until a sense of eagerness and craving arises. Most times, the reward is connected with a feeling.

The moment this three-habit pattern becomes encoded in our minds, it remains forever. There is a specific neural network for each habit that is formed in the brain. This unique neural network strengthens whenever you repeat an activity, and it also weakens when an activity is stopped. This is why when someone stops smoking for years, they’ll get a sudden craving for a cigarette in certain stressful situations. The network is still there—it’s just not as strong

When trying to build a habit, I always have my clients start with setting reminders. Sometimes it’s a sticky note on their computer monitor. Other times, it’s a series of alarms on their phone. The reminder is a trigger to do the thing. If you struggle with executive functioning, you can’t always “do the thing.” You don’t remember. Or you’re not motivated when you do remember.

That’s where the reward part comes in. For some habits, the reward isn’t immediate. Think about using a planner. There isn’t an immediate reward because you wrote in a planner. The reward is long-term because overall you’ll be more organized and less stressed. But you rarely will feel that right away. So, sometimes, we use external rewards to jump-start the process. Build the routines until they become habit.

What habits would you like to build or change in your life?

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