Habits and how to change habits, a systems view

Don’t you feel like time passes by so quickly these days? We wake up, go to work and before we know it, we are back in bed again. Without too much thought we flow through the day like it is nothing. We make our breakfast with hardly a thought, we work, drink coffee, eat lunch, without hardly thinking. This is because this behavior is ingrained into our daily rhythm. By repeating the same thing every day, the relative effort of the tasks becomes less and less. We get used to the things we do. When behavior doesn’t take require conscious anymore because we repeat it day-in day out, we call it a habit. Habits become rituals which is almost automatic behavior. We all have habits and they are very useful. Habits are useful because they require less mental effort and thus less energy. We can use this spare energy for new or other cognitive tasks; for example it is quite useful to be able to think while walking. Secondly, habits offer you stability. By repeating behavior, you don’t have to be uncertain what you’re up to in the future. You’ll probably know what you will do next week because you can expect your habits to occur.

An artistic impression of a 24 hours cycle where converging lines represent similar activities at a particular moment on the clock (the circle)

Habits as attractors
From a systems perspective, you can see habits as attractor states. Attractors are a term from the theory of complex dynamic system. An attractor describes (repetitive) behavior from a system which is so usual, the system is likely to be attracted to that behavior. It is behavior you don’t really think about, but just do. You might not really decide to wear or not wear clothes in the morning. You might not really decide to eat breakfast in the morning, you probably just prepare it because breakfast is a usual thing to you. An attractor can be very stable; you repeat this pattern daily and never deviate from it, like with an OCD cleaning obsession. Or unstable; like a shift worker who has irregular sleeping-, diet-, and social patterns. Depending on the stability of your attractor, behavior could be harder to change. Either way, deviating from your habits requires conscious effort, if you aren’t guided externally.

Multi-layered habits
Habits are usually not one thing. Habits often consist of multiple layers. With smoking for example, you have social layer, a physical layer, and a psychological layer that all contribute to the habit. Furthermore, you have external layers which I will discuss later in this article. Each layer has a pattern that has its own rhythm and can remind you to smoke your cigarette. Transitions within a pattern can act as a que to show certain behavior. A physical urge, a social need, and motivational need, plus external triggers (like time) could get a smoker to smoke at a certain moment. If you want to read more about multi-layered systems and how to change it, you can read this article.

Internal triggers
When you sit on your chair right now, there are many processes within your body going on. Your hormones have their own “habits” as well. Your cortisol levels typically rise in the morning helping you to wake up, and hormones like ghrelin make you hungry, controlling your diet behavior. Internal physical dynamics, form your thoughts, and eventually make your behavior. However, internal dynamics are often mixed with external triggers, they interplay and influence each other.

External triggers
Even if you have many habits, you might believe that you decide what you do today. But that might not be that simple. External triggers are a form of behavior guidance that could change habitual behavior without involving consciousness that much. One of the most influential external triggers that guides our behavior is the clock. For most people, it is quite habitual to look at the clock what evokes (semi) conscious behavior to initiate or stop activities. Furthermore, most of our habitual activities are aligned with timeframes. For example; when you wake up at 8AM, you might start eating breakfast at 8:20 (and when you see on the clock that it’s already 8:25, you might hurry a little), and leaving at home at 8:45 to be at work at 9:00. I don’t say that the clock always regulates our behavior, but it is often an indicator for the schedule of our habitual behavior. Another trigger are social triggers. Our peers, and unknown people guide our behavior unconsciously. Often we just flow along with the crowd once we move through a city (especially when its unknown to you). But also at work and at home, your peers expect some habitual behavior of you. If you eat a Yoghurt every evening at 8PM, your family will trigger you if you forget to eat your Yoghurt. In our daily digital lives, we of course shouldn’t forget to mention the smartphone and other digital devices. The notifications of your social media, agenda, and other apps guide a lot of your behavior.   

How to change habits
When we talk about changing habits we already assume there is a default behavior that could be changed. This default behavior might be the habits that someone exhibits today. If you want to change your own behavior, you need consciousness to change your habits. You might read this blog to learn about changing someone else’s behavior (it’s work focused, but has broader applications).

Conscious behavior
So most of our days are formed by habitual behavior. When we have breakfast, go to work/school, return home, eat, chill, and sleep, we don’t really need to think a lot about doing these activities. You could imagine your life to flow as a river over time. Our usual behavior just flows out of us, it happens without too much conscious thought. However, we need conscious behavior to initiate, adjust, and stop the flow of our behavior. In the morning we need to think consciously about which day it is and what we’ll do today. When you wake up in the morning, you need to think consciously about which day it is, and then start with your habitual behavior. When you start doing things the usual way, you might think semi-consciously about the activity, and then think about it consciously to adjust and improve it. After a while we can use conscious behavior again to stop the activity. But external triggers or other habits might change the activity as well.

Activity and context
When we want to change behavior, we have to consider two levels within behavior we could vary in order to live a better life. I believe these two levels of behavior are useful to consider and possible to change:

  • 1. Activity
  • 2. Content of the activity

With Activity, I mean general activities like eating, working, sleeping, watching TV. Activities have a starting- and an ending time. When we look at Content, the content is the actual thing you are doing wile doing the activity. So when you watch a different show on your usual TV-watching activity, the content deviates from your habit. but when you watch a show you’ve seen before, the content is habitual. Activities and content are strongly connected; content is depended on the activity. Activities have their own rhythm over the day. On usual days, the starting and ending times of your sleeping time and worktimes are probably quite similar. Within each activity we have the content; the actual thing you are doing. So within an activity like eating, you can change the content; you can eat rice, potatoes, noodles, and so on. For an activity like following a course, you probably never have the same content but the activity (learning) is always the same (possibly a strange attractor?). The content is easier to change; you can do the same things differently. But with many activities, we also have attractor content. For example, we are used to cook the same thing over and over again because we know how to cook it.

Changing activity and context
So when you want to lose weight for example, you can eat a healthier snack (content) or eat no snack at all (activity). If you want to develop yourself, you could start playing an instrument (activity) or achieve your drivers license (activity). But it is often hard to start, firstly because it doesn’t fit in your pattern of habits, or secondly you don’t know where to start (you have difficulties with the content). When you want to initiate an activity, you need to realize you need to let go of other activities you usually do. So it might be helpful to ask yourself; which activity would I love to stop the most? This activity is the candidate to be replaced with your new (better) activity. When you planned an hour of reading (activity) you might have a difficulty with keeping up with this, so you might spend the second half hour on your phone. If you just start doing an activity, you can improve the content of the activity over time. Therefore, it might be wise to schedule an activity even though you know you can’t realize the desired content right away. Nonetheless, this might require training. When you cut of activities that you are used to, you will have gaps within your schedule. If you are used to go to the bar at Saturday, but stop the activity, it feels weird to have a gap there. Your Saturday evening has suddenly a gap and you don’t really know what to do with it. This causes risks for relapse. Replacing the activity with a different activity makes it more easy to achieve the change you desired. This change in activity is close to changing the content; like going outside to eat a lollipop instead of smoking a cigarette. This is related to the multi-leveledness of habits; when you are changing content, you should consider the multiple levels which are at play. Influencing all the rhythms of each level of your habit at once is probably more successful than just changing one level. I could on talking about this, but I believe this is enough for now.

As you know, many of our behavior constitutes of habits which are formed through repetitive behavior and external triggers. Habits could be seen as attractors of different stability, which makes it easier to talk about them. Through conscious intervention we can adjust and change our behavior. When you want to change behavior, you can change the Activity, and the actual Content. Where changing the content is easier than changing the activity. However, it is up to you to change the exact behavior you would like to change if you want to change anything. Even though I described the change of habits to be quite simple, it is often very hard to do. Doing certain behavior for years really made your body, and your brain wired to think about, and longue for certain behavior. Especially when the behavior comforts you psychologically or physically. Taking small steps by changing the content or going cold turkey (changing the activity) could be the way for you (read more about in this blog on transitions). However, changing habits is a complete personal situation and its depends on the actual habit and your history what would be the best way to go. If you need help, you can search for a professional, but if you enjoyed my look at things, you can also contact me for a chat.

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