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 require conscious attention 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. 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 systems. 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 clothes in the morning. you might not really decide to eat breakfast in the morning. You probably wear clothes and eat breakfast because it is a usual thing to you. An attractor habit can be very stable; you repeat this pattern daily and never deviate from it (like with an OCD cleaning obsession). Or habits can be quite unstable; like a shift worker who has irregular sleeping pattern. Depending on the stability of your attractor, behavior could be harder to change. Either way, deviating from your habits requires conscious effort.

Multi-layered habits
Habits are usually not one thing. Habits often consist of multiple layers. people who smoke for example, might like to smoke because of the sensation, the statement, the social connection, and the relaxation period. So you have social layer, a physical layer, and a psychological layer that all contribute to the habit. Because habits are often so complex, they are very hard to change. When stopping a habit, all these layers need a replacement in some form if they are (implicitly) important to someone. If you want to read more about multi-layered systems and how to change it, you can read this article. If you want to read more about transitions in behavior you can read it here.

From flow to change
With habits we just flow through the day. Without too much cognitive attention, days just pass by, weeks end, and years go around. But how do we know what to do and when? Repetition brings the habits inside of our body, and outside in our environment. These constitute to triggers for our habits but could also be triggers for a change in behavior. Let’s review all the categories of triggers.

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” which trigger you to do certain things. Your cortisol levels typically rise in the morning helping you to wake up, and hormones like ghrelin makes 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 behavior that initiates or stops activities. Through they day, you behavior is constantly aligned with the clock. I don’t say that the clock always regulates our behavior, but it is often an indicator for the schedule of oyur habitual behavior. Another trigger that influences behavior are social triggers. Our peers, and other people around us 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 home, your peers expect some habitual behavior of you. If you always eat crisps every evening at 9PM, your family will trigger you if you forget to eat your crisps. When you drop on the couch in the evening, it’s not unlikely you’ll start to think about snacks. When you see a sportsfield, it’s not unlikely you start to think about exercising. Our physical environment directly triggers us to certain behavior that we are used to perform there. This is a process of (historical) associations we have with certain place, here you can read more about that. Lastly, we shouldn’t forget to mention our smartphone and other digital devices. The (often rhythmic) notifications of your alarms, social media, agenda, and other apps guide a lot of your behavior. 

Triggers that guide behavior
Social environment
Devices (smart phones etc.)
The clock
The body
Physical environment

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 are the habits that someone exhibits each day. 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 to guide 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. By the use of triggers we get some conscious thoughts. We need conscious behavior to initiate, adjust, and stop the flow of our behavior. Conscious thought also occurs when the behavior that you expect deviates from the actual outcome. So if you grab socks in the morning, you don’t really initiate a strong conscious thought, but if the socks are (unexpectedly) not in your closet, your consciousness gets activated (strongly).

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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