Habitually Human

Close your eyes. Map out the route to your neighborhood coffee shop. Easy. Humans are creatures of habit. From the obvious, like birthdays, to the trivial, like falling asleep, rituals anchor our lives. All of us, to some degree, rely on habits for a certain amount of controllable stability, a personalized “normal.”

You may be familiar with the Chinese proverb,

“Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.” -Chinese Proverb

Underlying this profound sentiment is the scientific process of habit formation. Repeated actions create habits that ingrain patterns into your brain, habits you might even remember over your own name if you were to suffer a traumatic brain injury. Repetition sends informational signals, called neurotransmitters, down the same pathways over and over until they become a part of your brain’s map through a process called neuroplasticity.

Your brain's default mode network kicks in to perform well-known tasks with almost no energy expenditure. This process is progressively more energy efficient as neurons transmit messages faster the more often they travel the same pathways.

While your conscious mind is otherwise occupied, the default mode network relies on these neuron pathways well worn by repetitive habits. Whether good or bad, our mind transforms everything it can into habits to optimize energy supplies.

In Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Duhigg explains a three-part process in forming a habit comprised of an:

  1. External cue: A spike in brain activity, evaluation of which habit is appropriate, triggering of the habit

  2. Routine: activity you’re used to performing in response to a certain cue

  3. Reward: a dopamine spike resulting from completing the routine

Charles Duhigg proposes that to change a habit, you first must identify the components of this chain reaction.

  • What is driving the habit?

  • What are the cues that initiate the action?

  • The routine?

  • The reward?

These might not be as straightforward as you immediately think. Once you’ve determined these, you can now supplement new routine responses for the less desirable ones. Consistency will establish the new routine. A familiar line is the shortest distance between the cue and reward. No matter how rich or poor you are you can invest in habits. Habits make up the routines that structure your life.

Okay. Maybe this is all very straightforward. You now have the tools to establish new habits. You can shape your willpower until it becomes second nature. Dissect your motives, diagnose your cues, and then rebuild routines to connect cues to rewards. Wonderful! Maybe.

According to Charles Druhigg’s hypothesis, forming new habits means setting a cue and switching out the normal routine response, then receiving the reward.

During Covid-19, many of us are stuck at home. We have nowhere to go, maybe little to do. Shouldn’t we be more productive? Theoretically, with the extra time we should have extra energy. Now’s the time to get super fit, to work on your novel, get back into painting, etc. But if you are anything like me or other people I’ve talked to, you’ve felt lost, confused, maybe a bit disoriented.

What happens when we no longer have our cues? I, for one, have had a hard time crying since quarantine hit. Not because I haven’t wanted to— I’m a big advocate of crying to sort out emotions—but I haven’t had my cues (e.g. the subway). Without my J-train sunrise and sunset commutes over the Williamsburg bridge, I haven’t been able to cry.

Similarly, almost two months in I can firmly say that, so far, I have not gotten ridiculously in shape as I expected. Without the cue of seeing my gym doors and storing my many tote bags in the locker (#47), my routine has lacked its usual energy. The fact that my “gym” is now the space between my couch and the fridge hasn’t helped either.

We’re living in a unique time. Lately, it feels as if there’s pressure pouring off every social media post and platform to finally break all your bad habits and emerge from your quarantine cocoon, a beautiful butterfly with a novel, a startup, a solid recipe collection, and a six-pack.

To create new habits during this time, decide which ones you want to break. Identify the cue, routine, and reward and see if simply swi