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What is a habit, and why do we form habits?

A habit is a behavior that is repeated again and again. Based on the type of consequences that we face, habits are of two types- good habits and bad habits. Good habits that have positive effects on our lives and bad habits that negatively impact our lives. Human beings are creatures of habit.

Our habits determine the bulk of the actions that we do and therefore how our life turns out is largely the reflection of the habits that we develop.

But why do habits get formed in the first place?

Almost all the actions that we do are learned behaviors. When we are learning a new behavior, it requires conscious effort and expenditure of energy. Once we successfully learn the behavior and repeat it, the degree of conscious effort required decreases and the behavior becomes an automatic subconscious response.

It would be a tremendous waste of mental effort and energy constantly having to learn everything all over again, every time we need to repeat an already-learned activity. So our conscious mind decides to hand down tasks to the subconscious mind in which patterns of behavior get ingrained that are triggered automatically. That’s the reason we feel habits are automatic and that we have little or no control over them.

When we learn to do a task it gets stored in our subconscious memory database so that we don’t have to learn it all over again every time we need to do it. This is the very mechanics of habits. First, you learn to do something, then when you repeat the activity enough number of times, your conscious mind decides to not bother about the task anymore and hand it over to your subconscious mind so that it becomes an automatic behavioral response.

Imagine how burdened your mind would become if, one day, you woke up and realized that you've lost your automatic behavioral responses. You go to the washroom only to find that you have to learn washing your face and brushing your teeth again. When you have breakfast you realize that you can’t really talk to anyone or think about anything without forgetting to swallow your food!

While dressing up for the office, you find that you have to struggle for at least 20 minutes to button your shirt…..and so on. You can imagine what kind of a horrible and stressful day it will turn out to be. But, thankfully it isn't so. Providence has bestowed upon you the gift of habit so that you only have to learn things once.

boy showing what is a habit

Habits always start consciously

No matter how automatic your current habits might have become, initially it was your conscious mind that learned the behavior and then decided to transfer it to the subconscious mind when it was required to be done again and again. If a pattern of behavior can be learned consciously, it can be unlearned consciously too.

Any pattern of behavior strengthens if we repeat it and weakens if we don’t repeat it. Repetition is food for the habits.

When you repeat a habit, you are convincing your subconscious mind that the habit is a beneficial behavioral response and should be triggered as automatically as possible. However, when you cease to repeat behavior, your mind comes to think that it is no longer needed. It’s worthwhile here to mention that research has confirmed the fact that when our habits change, our neural networks also change.

The point I’m trying to make is that habits are not rigid behavioral patterns that you can’t change. Though habits have a sticky nature, we are not stuck with our habits. They can be changed but first, you need to convince your mind that they are not needed. Habits always serve a need even if the need was not so apparent.

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