Habits - Are they a help or a Hindrance?

“Be careful of your thoughts, for your thoughts become your words.
Be careful of your words, for your words become your actions.
Be careful of your actions, for your actions become your habits.
Be careful of your habits, for your habits become your character.
Be careful of your character, for your character becomes your destiny.”
— Chinese proverb, author unknown

Biological Survival Mechanisms

Our brains are designed to ensure our survival. There is no adaption for success, happiness or well being. Our biology only wants to continue. Therefore, once we do something that allows us to be successful at living, our brain wants us to repeat that action ad infinitum. We trim neurons and form new pathways to achieve this. This habit formation happens with many attributes of our lives. These patterns sculpt our existence.

What are habits you might ask? It is a cycle that contains a cue, routine and reward. [1] A cue is a situation that makes us think about taking some action. Perhaps when we are bored, we like to watch Netflix. Boredom is the cue, and watching television is the action. Now the first time that we watch a program when we are bored, we get a positive response. This response is the reward. This reward forms a positive memory and becomes ingraining feedback for future thoughts and actions.

The next time we become bored, we are likely to again reach for the remote. This action comes with an expected reward. The last time that we were bored, and we watched television, we received positive feedback. Once this becomes a habit, we tend to do this with patterns whether they are providing us with the reward that we are seeking or not. Now, why would we do such a thing, especially when it becomes something destructive like drinking, overeating or smoking?

The first time that we decided to embark on something like watching Netflix, smoking, drinking, or overeating, it was an attempt for us to instill a bit of order. Most of the time when we turn to these vices life is too chaotic. So we turn to something more benign like watching Netflix, drinking or smoking. This action gives us a small semblance of control. The first occurrence could have been during our childhood. However, this pattern could have changed from being something positive then (gave a tiny bit of order in an out of control situation) to something that is now wholly self-defeating. Trying to attain this small semblance of order is a survival mechanism. Chaos is dangerous for human biology.

There is a company that has achieved wild success due to the systemization of transforming chaos into order. Much of Starbucks success is due to the mastery of habit formation. A large part of their training program is to give their employees ways to confront chaotic situations systematically. They then practice these methods until they become automatic. That way, when they face chaos (a screaming customer), they can act out of instinct. With this set of rules, they can re-establish order and receive a reward (a happy customer) for doing so. [1] This notion goes back to the beginning of time as humans primary role is to turn chaos into order. What is it that drives us so strongly toward trying to attain order in our lives?

Fear As A Driver

To paraphrase this following work would be to do it an injustice, a disservice. So, albeit a very long quote, it is an excellent explanation of what drives us to stick with self-defeating patterns.

“It’s a strange thing about the human mind that, despite its capacity and its abundant freedom, its default is to function in a repeating pattern...Its thoughts go in loops, repeating patterns established so long ago we often can’t remember their origin, or why they ever made sense to us. And even when these loops fail over and over again to bring us to a desirable place, even while they entrap us, and make us feel anciently tired of ourselves, and we sense that sticking to their well-worn path means we’ll miss contact with the truth every single time, we still find it nearly impossible to resist them. We call these patterns of thought our “nature” and resign ourselves to being governed by them as if they are the result of a force outside of us, the way that the seas are governed — rather absurdly when one thinks about it — by a distant and otherwise irrelevant moon.

And yet it is unquestionably within our power to break the loop; to “violate” what presents itself as our nature by choosing to think — and to see, and act — in a different way. It may require enormous effort and focus. And yet, for the most part, it isn’t laziness that stops us from breaking these loops, it’s fear. In a sense, one could say that fear is the otherwise irrelevant moon that we allow to govern the far larger nature of our minds.

And so before we can arrive at the act of breaking, we first have to confront our fear. The fear that the blank canvas and the blank side of life reflect back to us, which is so paralyzing...and seem to tell us that we can’t do anything.” It’s an abstract fear, though it finds a way to take on endless shapes. Today it may be the fear of failure, but tomorrow it will be the fear of what others will think of us, and at a different time it will be fear of discovering that the worst things we suspect about ourselves are true.” - Nicole Krauss

The fear of the unknown stems from our biological need to survive. When we break a habit or pattern, this is facing the unknown. By meeting the unknown, there is a potential threat to our biological well being. This preservation was of paramount importance when we were nomadic people continually facing outside threats. This constant chaos has primarily passed us (not entirely). Now we must realize this notion and what the brain is trying to do. It is trying to continue our biological lineage, not ensure that we lead the most fulfilling and happy life.

Habit and Addiction

A critical attribute of habit formation is that it is nearly indistinguishable from addiction. This unclear separation is because often, the chemical dependency on the drug is only a small part of the addiction itself. Take for instance nicotine; it stays in the blood for about 100 hours after the last cigarette is smoked. [1] However, it is the habit that was formed around the process of smoking that we tend to crave later on. This cycle ranges from the rush of the nicotine when we inhale the smoke, to going out for a smoke break with other people. These folks become our friends, and we start to enjoy this process.

“Attacking the behaviors we think of as addictions by modifying the habits surrounding them has been shown, in clinical studies, to be one of the most effective modes of treatment.” [1]

Small Changes, Big Results

If we bring about a realization of these habits that we form, we can change our lives dramatically. From this realization, we can create new routines that improve us instead of keeping us at a flatline. Even if we grew by 5% per month, imagine where we would be in a decade or two? Imagine if we formed these new patterns and they became effortless after some time (which they will as with any habit!).

Imagine if we examined our lives and figured out all of the patterns that we are letting play out, without control. Then from those habits, we consider the ones that are not helping, serving or making us feel good. From there, we could systematically start to dismantle those things that make us feel bad. It is essential, during this process to be ready to fill the void of the old habit with that of a new, and healthier one.

“It is important to note that though the process of habit change is easily described, it does not necessarily follow that it is easily accomplished. It is facile to imply that smoking, alcoholism, overeating, or other ingrained patterns can be upended without real effort. Genuine change requires work and self-understanding of the craving driving behaviors. Changing any habit requires determination.” [1]


The paramount thing to realize is these patterns that get repeated daily, or weekly become our lives. We live on a one-way arrow of time, and we become what we repeatedly do. When we think of the great geniuses of our time, Edison, Tesla, or even Steve Jobs, they did not one-day magically appear. It may have seemed this way. However, they worked under the radar for years or decades before becoming mainstream. Mastery takes decades of consistent and dedicated effort toward some goal with often obsessive tendencies.

What is important to realize is that many small actions and habits form a substantial and compelling force in our lives. Think of a snowball. At first, it starts very small. After some time it becomes larger and larger until eventually, it is rolling down a hill under its force. We can also think about how to move a mountain. It must be done one stone at a time. This notion is much the same with our lives and the habits that we choose to form.


Now, we can think, if forming habits is such an important notion, what is the best pattern that we can implement? Interestingly enough, there have been many studies conducted around this with the finding that willpower or self-discipline is the most significant marker for success. In other words, the most critical indicator of future success is the ability for us to delay gratification. By delaying gratification, we can aim at arduous goals and slowly work our way toward them. By breaking these goals into small, bite-sized chunks, the obstacles can be overcome. This consistent effort is from where real and long-term fulfillment grow. Les Brown said it very well: “If you do what is hard, life will be easy, if you do what is easy, life will be hard.”


This far, we can see that fear-driven habits guide most people. The most important thing we as human beings can do is to face our fears. These exist internally. An African proverb says, "If you conquer the enemy within, the enemy without can do you no harm." It is far less traumatic to recognize fear and to face it, then to let it drag us through life kicking and screaming. We can use the power of habit formation and self-discipline to face these fears and to shine a light inside of us where there is currently darkness. However, as Jocko Willink so rightly puts it, how do we start facing our fears? “We step” We must take that first step, and then continue to step down that path for the entirety of our lives.

[1] C. Duhigg, The Power of Habit. 2012.