Updated: Mar 3
“Excellence is an art won by training and habit.”- Aristotle
It seems simple, right? If we want to achieve excellence, we just need to make it a habit. Oh, OK…but how do I do that?
Well, it is not as easy as some may make it appear, but it is also not as hard as others make it seem. This is why it is important to understand the psychology of habits.
The psychology of habits is getting at the idea that you understand the emotional, mental, and or environmental factors that control or influence habits. In other words, how do habits work and why do they occur. Why are habits not just simply the “things we do daily”
What Is A Habit?
To start, you won’t be able to really understand the factors that influence habits unless we first understand what a habit is. So, what is a habit anyways?
Webster’s dictionary defines a habit as: “a settled or regular tendency or practice.” Simply, it’s those things that we do or engage inconsistently and without much effort or thought. It is an oversimplification though to just say that habits are “things we do each day.”
They are not just things that we do daily, but things that become or are developed into daily practice. They are not just robotic movements, but dynamic and living actions.
This is where the psychology of habits comes in. If habits are not just robotic movements, but developed tendencies, then we need to understand what influences their development. Science can give us some assistance here.
Habits Are Just Cycles
Charles Duhigg is a Pulitzer-prize-winning American author who has written extensively in the fields of habits and productivity. In his book The Power of Habit Mr. Duhigg reviews and summarizes the science behind the making of habits.
What we see is that all habits are broken down into a basic framework. There is a basic outline or flow pattern for habit formation. Habits follow the basic pattern of cues, actions, and rewards. This is often referred to as the Duhigg Model. Let’s take a closer look at each of these sections of this model.
Before a habit is engaged in it is nearly always proceeded by some kind of trigger. A habit does not typically occur in a vacuum but more often occurs in a particular context. The challenge can be identifying what the trigger is for your particular habit.
Your triggers may be something very simple. It could be as simple as just being in a particular location.
For example, maybe you notice that every time you are in a certain restaurant you want to eat particularly bad food that you don’t have a desire for any other time. Your trigger may also be as simple as a certain time of day. You may notice a sugar craving that consistently appears at the same time each afternoon.
Triggers may also be a bit more difficult to identify. Sometimes triggers may be associated with certain emotions occur or relationship experiences. This may add a layer of complexity to your trigger, but the fundamental idea is still there. A certain feeling or experience will cause your habit to occur.
The central idea to understand is that your habits occur in a context. They are not randomly occurring events but actions that are initiated by something. Many times, your habit can occur due to multiple triggers or a sequence of triggers. Whatever the case may be, identifying your trigger or triggers is crucial to understanding your habit.
Naturally, once your habit is triggered you then proceed to engage in the habit itself. This step may self-explanatory, but it does require you to do some further investigation.
When you are engaged in your habit, take time to think about what your habit consists of? Are there multiple habits that are occurring under one habit umbrella? The importance of looking at the various aspects of your habits is that it can give you valuable insight into the makeup of your habit.
At the end of the day, all habits are performed because of the reward that it gives us. This is the key aspect in the psychology of habits that you need to grasp.
You engage in habits because you ultimately get something out of it. Sometimes the reward to good and other times the reward may not be so good, but it always provides something for us. Even the bad rewards.
This might look like eating junk food when we are stressed. While this would be a bad habit and likely a bad reward, you are getting the reward of de-stressing and relaxing. The key here is once you know what your reward is you are able to switch one reward for another.
Because your reward is fulfilling or accomplishing something, you can interchange your rewards and possibly change a bad habit to a good one. All simply by adjusting your rewards!
Knowing Is Half the Battle
The answers to your “why” questions always lead you to the action steps of the “how” questions. This is particularly true when it comes to habits. Understanding the factors that influence habits is half the battle to gaining control of your habits which leads to excellence.