The mechanics of habit formation

Habits are routine behaviors that we do without much conscious thought. In this article, we’ll be exploring the anatomy of a habit. Thankfully, neurological research over the past couple of decades has reached very conclusive results about how habits work in the brain.

Once you understand the mechanics of habit formation, you can then fiddle with the gears the way you want.

TRR- Trigger, Routine, and Reward

Habit is essentially a three-step process. First, there is an external trigger which reminds you of the habit you have associated with that trigger. That trigger instantly activates your subconscious behavioral pattern meaning that from now on your subconscious mind takes charge of your behaviour.

The external trigger is like a button the pressing of which sets the whole pattern of behavior into action. That pattern of behavior is what we call routine, the second step in the habit process.

This routine can be physical or mental, which means that it can either be some sort of an action that you do or just some kind of a thinking pattern that you engage in. Thinking, after all, is also a type of action. 

Finally, the routine always leads to some reward- the third step in the habit process. I’ve repeatedly said here on Psych-Mechanics that behind every human action there is a reward, conscious or unconscious. If you remember just this one fact, you’ll gain tremendous insight into human behavior.

Anyway, that’s the mechanics of habit formation- trigger, routine, and reward. The more you do the habit, the more intertwined trigger and reward become and you just seem to glide through the routine subconsciously. So when you encounter a trigger, your subconscious mind is like 


“I know what to do to get the reward this trigger can give you. Don’t bother thinking about it, pal! The reward is there, I’m sure of it, I’ve been there many times and now I’m taking you to it”
And before you know it, you already have arrived at the reward, wondering (if you’re anything like me) who was controlling you up until now.

The reward motivates your mind to repeat the routine more and more automatically the next time you encounter the trigger. This happens because your mind becomes surer and surer of the reward every time you do the habit since a habit always leads to a reward. That’s why doing the habit again and again only solidifies it and doing it less often tends to weaken it.


An example

Let’s say that you developed a habit of checking your mail or instant messages first thing in the morning. So, when you wake up you find yourself reaching for the phone and checking it pretty much automatically. In this case, the phone (trigger) reminds you of the fact that there might be some unread messages (reward) to check and so you engage in the behavior of checking your phone (routine) every morning.

habit formation
Habits don’t go away

Once a habit pattern is encoded in your mind, it stays there forever. Everything that we do forms its own specific neural network in the brain. This network strengthens when you repeat the activity and weakens if you discontinue the activity but it never really disappears.

That’s why people who had given up their bad habits for a long time thinking that they’ve overcome them find themselves returning to those habits whenever the external triggers overpower them. The only way to change habits is to form new habits and make them strong enough so that they can override the previous habit patterns.

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