It seems weird that habits would have an anatomy, right?
Afterall, aren’t they just kind of these things we pick up (from who-knows-where?) and then somehow we repeat them without realizing it and then they become ingrained in our brains?
Well, sort of.
Habits ARE brain shortcuts – when we find something that saves our brain time and/or energy, it lights up and saves that shortcut for use later.
But there’s more to it, so read on!
Our brain may be ahead of its time in this regard – it doesn’t discriminate when it comes to habits.
But in this case, it’s NOT always a good thing.
See, our brains react the same way to habits that are good and bad for us, it’s the same chemical pathways at work here.
So a habit that has us doing push ups while we wait for the shower to heat up (a good habit) is going to be just as influential as a habit of reaching for chocolate when we’re stressed (not as good of a habit).
Which means, if we’re not careful, those bad habits weasel their way into our brains just as easily as good habits.
But when we realize this and we know how habits get stuck in our brain, we can do a little bit of work on the front end to make sure we’re instilling good habits.
A habit is another way of saying behavior, and in this case, it’s a behavior our brain has made automatic (or subconscious) because it’s able to save time/energy when it doesn’t have to think about it.
The three parts of a habit come from the work of Stanford behavior scientist/researcher/author, BJ Fogg, and are ability, motivation and prompt.
Simply put, those three things are what make up every single habit we ever do – the good ones, the bad ones, the benign ones, the automatic ones and even the tough ones.
Ability refers to our ability to actually do the behavior – whether it’s putting water on to boil for our morning french pressed coffee, flossing our teeth before we go to bed, or running a mile each day. What is your ability to do the behavior?
And ability ranges on a scale from easy to hard. Some behaviors are very easy – tying your shoes after putting them on; while others may remain difficult – running a mile each day.
Recall from a few weeks ago, the scale of what’s easy shifts over time, so you may find your ability to do certain things become easier.
The next anatomy part is motivation. Like ability, motivation is on a scale of low motivation to high motivation, but remember, motivation comes and goes so your scale is a moving one each and every day.
Ability and motivation are very closely related in the anatomy of a habit because they’re inversely related – the higher your ability to do something (aka the easier it is) the lower your motivation will need to be to do that behavior.
Think of my previous example – tying your shoes after you put them on.
Sidenote: if you weren’t aware it’s a habit, it DEFINITELY is – when’s the last time you put your shoes on and “forgot” to tie them? It’s that ingrained in our brains to tie our shoes after we slip them on that we don’t even recognize it as a habit anymore.
But that proves the point here with ability and motivation – your ability to do it is so high that you need almost zero motivation to do it. It takes only a few seconds and you don’t even notice the effort it takes to tie your shoes.
Can you imagine if you had to talk yourself into tying your shoes every day like many of us have to talk ourselves into going for a run? And then multiply that across ALL our behaviors throughout the day??? It adds up FAST – so you can see why habits have come to run the show.
The last part of a habit is the prompt, also referred to as a trigger or cue. This prompt is what tells our brain to do the behavior that has become automatic. In our shoe tying example, putting the shoe on is the prompt.
You wouldn’t think about tying your shoes if they weren’t on your feet, so it’s only the prompt of putting them on your feet that initiates the tying your shoes habit.
Moving the Parts
With the anatomical knowledge of a habit, you can begin to see how you might set yourself up with healthy habits (increase your ability – which lowers the motivation required; or improve your prompt).
On the flip side, you can examine bad habits to find out where you can intervene in the loop to change the behavior (decrease your ability by putting obstacles in the way – thus increasing motivation to do the bad behavior, or remove the prompt).
While it’s true that our brains are insanely complex, when we know how habits work, we can hack our brains and have habits working for us in the background instead of against us, leaving us well on our way to habituating healthy.