What is a habit?

What is a habit?

Habits are reliable solutions

In 2017, I defined a habit as a reliable solution to a recurring problem in our environment.

As I wrote on Twitter: “Habits are, simply, reliable solutions to recurring problems in our environment.”

This definition was adopted by James Clear and used as the definition of habit in his book, Atomic Habits.

Since that time, new research and insights have made me modify my definition.

Today, I define a habit as: a reliable solution to a recurring problem in our environment that we also find easy, compelling, and enjoyable.

What about exercising? That’s not easy.

If a regular behavior is not easy, then it is not a habit. It’s a routine.

Habits are supposed to be subconscious. They’re supposed to be automatic.

However, any behavior that requires thinking (cognitive effort) or is strenuous enough to require willpower cannot be subconscious or automatic. Thus, many behaviors, like learning new things or vigorous exercise cannot, technically, be habits.

Behaviors that occur regularly but not subconsciously or automatically are routines. Most self-help behaviors fall into this category.

What about bad habits?

You may be thinking: I have plenty of habits that aren’t compelling or enjoyable… and they create problems in my life–they don’t solve them.

However, if you carefully analyze each of those habits, I think you’ll find that all of them solve a problem–at least from your brain’s perspective. For example, you may be frustrated by how much time you’re spending on social media. You have a “bad social media habit”. However, some introspection and analysis may uncover that you’re spending time on Facebook, Instagram, etc. to increase your connection with others, gain status, and potentially even find a mate. From this problem-focused angle, social media use is a means of solving multiple important life issues. Every bad habit (outside of drug addiction*, which is an example of what I call Neural Hijacking), is really just a way for us to solve a problem that our brain thinks we have.

This even extends into some health related behaviors like overeating. We may be frustrated by our eating habits and not understand why we eat so much sugar, baked goods, or fast food, but these habits formed because they solve core problems–at least from our brain’s perspective. For example, you may eat fast food because you generally wait too long to eat and find yourself starving at the end of each day. You’re so hungry, and want something filling as soon as possible. Or you may end up eating too much because your body’s satiety mechanism is broken from hormonal or neurological dysregulation, in which case your brain is not getting the signal that you’ve consumed enough.

In all of these cases, the bad habits are prompted by the perception of a real problem. If we take this problem-focused perspective seriously, it allows us to understand and troubleshoot the bad habits in our lives. We can find more positive ways of solving the same problems, and thus can excise these bad patterns. This is the way to break bad habits and replace them with healthy habits.

What about good habits? What are they?

Good habits are those that help us accomplish our goals.

If our goal is to lose weight, a good habit will be one that allows us to consistently burn more, or consumer fewer, calories.

If our goal is to make more money, a good habit will be one that allows us to develop monetizable skills or produce products/services people will pay for.

Why is it so hard to get rid of old habits?

Old habits die hard.

Based on my research and experience, it’s my belief that old habits are hard to break for two main reasons:

  1. They solve a real problem that we may not be aware of.
  2. We don’t have enough energy to break them.

They solve a real problem that we may not be aware of

Our brains are built to do things that enhance our survival and reproductive opportunities. Many seemingly “bad” habits are actually solving a survival or reproduction related problem that we may be unaware of. For example, our excessive use of social media may actually be our brain’s way of gaining social status and connections that can be used to improve our career/earning potential, access to desirable social gatherings, and so on. In order to break a social media habit that solves these problems, we would need to find another behavior (or set of behaviors) that fulfills the same needs. Our brain will not easily let go of an adaptive behavior without an adequate alternative.

We don’t have enough energy to break them

Breaking bad habits requires a good deal of energy. However, if we’re stressed, sleep deprived, or otherwise indisposed, we won’t have enough energy to break and remake our mental patterns. This is why solving health issues is the first priority for anyone who’s looking to break negative habits or form positive ones. Without enough energy, habit modification becomes a great, sometimes insurmountable, struggle.

Interested in learning more?

If you’re interested in learning more about habits, you can check out my quarterly course on building habit forming products. You can also check out my various articles on habit formation:

I hope you can see how my definition of habit is much more useful than the standard dictionary definition: “An acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary (source)”.

*A drug habit is an example of what I call Neural Hijacking. This is when a stimulus or chemical is able to directly stimulate pleasure centers in the brain, tricking our minds into thinking the stimulus/chemical (and any associated behaviors) are valuable for our well-being and survival.