Habits play important role in our lives. Knowing how to harness them can change your life.

Disclaimer

This is not a scientific article, nor does it pretend to be one. It is highly subjective, so if you are a scientist, read it at your own peril, or treat it like storytelling. ;)

TL;TR—some really boring stuff

Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state. We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone.
—William James The Laws of Habit

We are only a bunch of habits. Most people would argue that, you cannot teach an old dog new tricks. On the contrary, guys into life-hacking would reply that the old dog’s reply was merely an automatic response to some stimulus, that is a habit.

Everything you do, say, or react to, is only a response to the previously learnt pattern / behaviour. You may not be aware of that as you have acted the same way probably thousands of times. Before a change can take place, you have to be aware when a response is about to happen.

To support that let me quote Stephen R. Covey, the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. A few years ago this quote struck me.

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space, lies our power and our freedom to choose our response. In those choices, lie our growth and our happiness
–Stephen R. Covey

Takeaway

  • You can teach an old dog new tricks
  • Habit is a previously learnt behaviour
  • Awareness of bad habits is the 50% of the success when changing habits
  • Changing habits is nothing more than changing the response

Changing habits is not a piece of cake, but with some practice and observing yourself it is attainable.

Example of habits

This article is full of examples. I hope that some of them will help you realise how important role habits play in our lives.

Daily routines

Habits can be as simple as your daily routines.

  • Brushing your teeth
  • Making coffee in the morning
  • Checking Facebook every now and then

Responding to external circumstances

Habits can also concern your thinking.

  • Self-talk / inner-conversation
  • Interpreting circumstances

We live from the inside out — this means that how you think determines the notion of the world around you. Imagine this. Hot Summer. Two colleagues are taking a short break at work. One says:

Gee… it’s so hot in here… I can’t work!

The other one replies:

Look! The weather is perfect - I was raining for the last few days and today the sky’s clear!

The inner conversation embodies living from the inside out. The second guy interpreted the weather differently trying to look for something positive. Inner conversation does not mean talking out loud to yourself, but how you interpret the world around you.

Starting to be aware how you think can be a breakthrough for you. Metathinking (thinking about thinking) can help you find out deep down why you tend to interpret circumstances this or that way. It is not easy, though.

In the process you will surely have to face some kind of fear that may block you, lack of responsibility for something, open loops you did not close. In order to grow, however, you have to face them.

Responsibility, the ability to respond is being able to take control. Not blaming other people for something. Some bad things happen to all of us. You cannot control these circumstances. You can only respond to them. Response-ability is not a walk in the park. It is only up to you what you are going to do with your current situation. Fighting back or going around and blaming your family, your boss, the government for whatever reason is not a solution.

Takeaway

  • Habits can concern your thinking
  • Habits can be replaced with better behaviour
  • There is always freedom before you respond to something

Habits are effective!

- Habits?! Bullshit! It’s my conscious choice!
- Bullshit! Thinking and pondering is power-consuming!

Habits are your energy saver! Let me give you a few more examples.

Riding a bike an algorithm way

This example comes from Studying vs learning article by Luca Lampariello. Luca is a famous Italian polyglot, or rather, as media shouted him, a hyperpolyglot (one that speaks at least 10 languages). Though Luca gives this example to show the difference between studying and learning, it can also reflect that without habits our life would be a little constrained.

Now, let us suppose that my very enthusiastic father wanted to teach me how to
ride a bike by constantly giving me instructions on how to do it. Being proud of
his expertise in rational Bike dynamics, he thinks that his knowledge can be
helpful. He then says to me, his 6 year old son:

A bike remains upright when it is steered so that the ground reaction forces
exactly balance all the other internal and external forces it experiences, such
as gravitational if leaning, inertial or centrifugal if in a turn, gyroscopic if
being steered, and aerodynamic if in a crosswind. Steering may be supplied by
a rider or, under certain circumstances, by the bike itself. This self-stability
is generated by a combination of several effects that depend on the geometry,
mass distribution, and forward speed of the bike. Tires, suspension, steering
damping, and frame flex can also influence it, especially in motorcycles.

The rider applies torque to the handlebars in order to turn the front wheel and
so to control lean and maintain balance. At high speeds, small steering angles
quickly move the ground contact points laterally; at low speeds, larger steering
angles are required to achieve the same results in the same amount of time.
Because of this, it is usually easier to maintain balance at high speeds.

Now imagine yourself replaying those instructions every time you go on a ride! You do not have to as the skill seems to be inherent, as if it always existed. Believe it or not, you had to put a lot of effort to learn how to ride a bike. If you had a chance to wear some MRI scanner, you could see that this effort would be reflected with a burst of neurons.

It is said that practice makes perfect. Practice, training also makes any habit stronger. Your brain starts to develop more connections between neurons, meaning that less and less energy has to be spent. Finally you become proficient, skilled and the things you worried about at the beginning are now a thing of the past.

The knowledge how we work lets you understand why humans are so resistent to change. On the other side when you are determined, persistent, patient you can harness the possible ability to change in order for you to win.

Teaching English the 19th century way

I am not sure if learning a language is valid in the context of habits. The idea is to show that when you learn a foreign language, especially your first one, you are trying to think and to analyze too much. Slowly, you develop a confidence and fluency and do not care about mistakes.

Why 19th century? You may be surprised but this is not a sarcasm. Most educational systems all over the world work the way that was suitable for industrial revolution: to onboard you in the factory. Since that time world has changed and those who posess knowledge, or the ability to learn fast win—not the ones who own factories. The system did not change so my my favourite example how English is taught is still valid in most countries around the world.

My peers, and me were taught English as if learning grammar and passing tests were the only way to learn the language. The ones that could say something more than I go to school every day (me excluded) were said to have talents1

Let’s see some examples

  • I go to school every day
  • She goes to school every day
  • Does he go to school every day?

Wa… wait! Passive English language is simpler than active one. Speaking is more difficult, though. At the very beginning most of us were asking these questions

  • Should I use does or do?
  • What is the order?
  • With or without the -s?

After a failure to guess we were all ashamed that we would not learn the language, we did not have talents for languages… The list of excuses went on and on.
Unfortunately we were not taught how to learn which is not taught at schools at all.

Learning a language is all about communication, immersing yourself in the language by reading, listening, watching, playing games, or even using English as a default language in your operating system (Windows, Linux, OS X).

By the way you did not learn Polish, Italian, Ukrainian, Russian, English, etc. by studying grammar! As a child you were actively looking around, observing and mimicking your parents, and people you had contact with. No grammar books!

Believe me or not, today I would not pass any Polish exam on grammar, and I can live with it.

Caveman vs. saber-tooth tiger

Long time ago when a caveman was looking for a dinner, every once in a while he met a saber-tooth tiger2. The caveman did not have a smartphone so his number of choices was downsized to two options:

  • Fight, or
  • Flight

Programmers would commit and push code before escaping, but that’s another story. ;)

This primitive boolean logic was rooted in, as scientist call it, the old brain, that existed since yesteryears, that is, always.

This helped to choose the best option without giving it a forethought. In case of danger would you even analyse what to do? This kind of behaviour that actually saves our life is called the fight-or-flight response.

Fight-or-flight response is… well, so rooted in our brains that we might not fully understand why we behaved this or that way in some situation. Actually we could not understand at that time. On the biological level before our brain was able to process consciously the situation, our emotional brain took over the thinker and triggered either a fight or a flight response. It might sound crazy epecially that there are no more saber-tooth tigers. Yet, the old brain is still active even though since that time our brain developed new tiers.

There may be times when the fight-or-flight instinct will hijack the thinker (front lobe) making you wonder after that, why the heck I did that!. It happens as before you can logically process the situation, emotional brain (the old brain) already decided to fight or flight.

Unfortunately caves became passe 3 and our lives became a bit complicated. In the Internet era we are bombarded with thousands stimuli that are trying to catch our attention. This comes at a price. Stimuli overload exploits our cognition and prevents us from seeing patterns that we would like to change. A change cannot take place in the chaos. You might already noticed that the more connected people are, the more devices we may buy and wear, the more work-life balance we look after. Compare the number of runners you might see each day with previous years. Some paradigm shift emerges which is very positive. Sport in any form is a key habit that entails other positive changes like healty diet, better sleep, and the high chance to make other good habits stick.

Summary

I hope that I did not scare you and instead of what the… you are pondering about your daily routines and planning to screw up your courage to replace old habits with new ones. If you are curious how the internet changed our brains watch What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Epipheo.

We are not living in caves anymore, but our brains work exactly the same way: habits allow us to do things faster, without wasting too much energy.

No pain, no gain

Unfortunately getting out of bad habits or developing new ones take time and lots of energy, but it is worth it, right?

Takeaway

  • Habits are energy saver
  • The old brain may wreak havoc when emotions hijack the thinker
  • Changing habits is hard, but it is worth it!

Can a habit be rooted out?

Let me conduct a simple experiment.4 You are sitting on the couch and watching some comedy. Suddenly the president of ruling party shows up.

Try to imagine him as closely as possible as you might have seen him thousands of time on the media, but with a small difference: he giggles just after reading some joke. This is not what you have had expected to see.

I am 100% sure that even without using his name your face expression and a train of thoughts were exactly the same as you always have. This was of course, a cognitive dissonance plus reaction that could be compared with famous Ivan Pavlov’s dog experiment.

OK, that is enough. The point was to show how emotions can affect our logical thinking and why arguments over politics is pointless when the other person responds emotionally.

For those unbiased, read on!

Can I? No!

Actually you cannot root out a bad habit, you can only override it with new behaviour.

Changing habits from my experience and observations

Unfortunately the examples below are not that fancy as before (could not meet a saber-tooth tiger…), rather down-to-earth ones.

Grandpa’s smoking habit

My grandpa, now 86-year old, often tells a story that he stopped smoking more than 40 years ago, but every once and a while he still feels an urge to smoke. It is interesting how he decided to quit smoking. One day, well, he decided to quit. Just did it, without any supporting drugs, pills and other fancy stuff that are advertised on the TV. Anyway you could not buy them at that time.

40 years is quite a lot. Do not underestimate the fact that you have old brain that was developed more than 40 years ago. I believe that quiting smoking is not that easy, yet, as you might read, with some training and observing yourself you can do it! For example every time you feel an urge to smoke, jot it down or mark that moment with some mark, tick or whatever you feel like. In order to replace the bad habit with a better one, after small win (by not lighting the cigarette), reward yourself. It can be some healthy snack, for instance. You can read more about that technique in the The Power of Habit book.

Faster saving files in Vim

I use MacVim. To save changes in the vanilla Vim you have to use :w command. In MacVim as in other OS X applications you can just press ⌘+ s that is more useful and a bit faster.

When I realized that I could use the latter version, I asked myself if it would take 3 weeks to replaced the habit. It did! It was roughly 21 days, but with each day the error rate was getting smaller and smaller.

This might sound strange to you, but if you realise that these small improvements make you more productive in the long run, you will try to find more shortcuts. A colleague from Selleo during one of our pair programming session told that (with new shortcuts) he achieved a new level of lazyness. If you think of laziness from the performance or innovation standpoint you will discover that many things that in the past took days now can be done much faster.

Please note that I am not going to go into the topic if all discoveries or innovations are ethical. Many of them are not, but this is beyond the scope of this article.

Faster git with g alias

Szymon (@simon2k) told me that I could replace git command with Zsh g alias. Again I asked myself the same question how much time it would take me to change that behaviour. As expected, after roughly 21 days git was a thing of the past and g was easier accessible in the neurons pathways (or via muscle memory). ;) Here is the proof.

Takeaway

  • Habits cannot be rooted out, they can be overridden
  • Good habits are indispensable in becoming more productive
  • Do not discuss politics when the other person responds emotionally ;)

Last but not least

Changing habits take time, discipline, energy and ability to introspect
yourself. To think about your thoughts and thinking. If you think that

  • You cannot do that
  • you are not good enough
  • Your not skilled
  • You do not have this or that talent

Well… change the habit how you think of yourself and your capability as this is necessary for you to grow as a person.

In this article I covered lots of topics and examples. I hope that at least some of them will help you to grow, progress, or change. Do not hesitate to share your opinion, experience—just drop a comment in the comments section.

Resources

I was kind of surprised that I could not find English translation of So lernt man lernen by Sebastian Leitner. In the Polish version, Naucz się uczyć I read that only after 40 years after the original was published, the book was translated into Polish. I stronly recommend that book.

  1. If you happen to think this way, you are cheating yourself, seriously. Instead of finding any possible excuse, ask them how much time and effort the put to have those talents

  2. As popular example as my favourite Pareto principle ;) 

  3. The hipsters era can still change that! 

  4. The same pattern apply all over the world