Leverage science and do more on default

How do certain habits become your default?

Have you ever taken a moment to ponder exactly how some things, like washing your face first thing in the morning happen on autopilot? Or how your defaults take a little while to adapt to your new and difficult circumstances?

Like when you programme the coffeemaker for an hour earlier than necessary. And then your daily dose of caffeine’s ready before you’re even out of bed, far too early to reflect on how your schedule (and so many other things) has changed.

We’ve been there, too.

And with the new ‘normal’ we’ve all had to adjust to, the autopilot setting is more confused than ever for all of us.

But what if we could harness the power of default to create healthy habits so embedded in our lifestyle that they occur automatically, without having to think about them?

As it turns out, with time, some rewards and a fair amount of patience, we can. But first, let’s talk about the differences between habitual behaviours and goal-directed behaviours.

Habits and tasks: what’s the difference?

To put it simply, habitual behaviours are actions we carry out automatically, aka, habits, good, bad and otherwise. These behaviours are especially noticeable when we do them out of context.

For example, if you typically use an English language keyboard and switch to Spanish, you might habitually hit the wrong keys, and end up with some strangely punctuated sentences because your fingers are automatically functioning on the basis that the keys are where they’ve always been, even though your mind is cognizant of the fact that things have changed.

Goal-directed behaviours, on the other hand, are those actions, commonly known as tasks that require conscious thought, effort, and a clear purpose.

It’s easy to identify them because you have to mentally tell yourself to do these things. You might brush your teeth every night before bed on autopilot.

But you probably don’t sit down to write an essay on how the precision required to fold an origami star keeps your mind occupied or create a presentation on how to master complicated steps in swing dancing on autopilot.

@mrthetrain via Unsplash

The role your brain plays

Habits and tasks are controlled by different regions of our brains. Habitual responses depend on subcortical regions of the brain, such as the basal ganglia, a group of very ancient brain nuclei that have evolved over millions of years. Among other things, they’re responsible for facilitating the automation of fluid movement aka, when your body coordinates many tiny movements to do something like walk or play video games.

Goal-directed behaviours, on the other hand, are mainly controlled by the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for reflection and planning that some neuroscientists regard as making us human.

There are two distinct systems that govern our habits and tasks. The first of the two systems, the habitual system, opts for actions based purely on what has been successful in the past—i.e., it worked before, why not do it again?

The second system, or the goal-directed system, selects actions based on a careful evaluation of which options will best achieve our goals, given our knowledge of the current task and environment.

While in principle, goal-directed selection seems like it should yield the best possible outcome (careful thought can’t be bad, right?), it has a couple of serious disadvantages: it’s thought-intensive and slow.

In contrast, habitual action selection bypasses the whole thinking-things-through part. It’s  straightforward and faster, but it comes with its own problems—it’s  inflexible, selecting the same actions over and over, even when those actions are no longer appropriate for the circumstances at hand.

These systems operate in parallel and compete for control of action selection. However, the exact nature of their competition and the details of how the transition from the goal-directed system to the habitual system occur remain unclear.

Making the switch

So what does all this mean for transforming goal-directed behaviours or tasks into regular habits that can happen on autopilot and (fingers crossed) make our lives easier?

Evidence from animal and human studies demonstrates that once tasks are systematically repeated over a sufficient period of time, in the same context, in response to specific environmental cues, and followed by a reward, they become habitual responses.

But despite the well-spread myth that it takes 30 days to build a new habit, the minimum amount of time needed varies widely—in a study at University College London, habit formation took anywhere from 18 to 254 days depending on the people and behaviours involved.

And surprisingly, reliable rewards may not be the best way to form a new habit. In fact, when actions receive intermittent and unpredictable rewards, they typically become a habit more quickly.

So for example, a straightforward way to build a new habit, such as stretching daily, would be to first schedule a regular time and place to do it. You can even pair it with another habit that you already have, such as making your bed in the morning.

On the days you get it done, reward yourself with a hot cup of tea or whatever makes you smile. Or, for a potentially more effective approach, recruit a friend or family member to deliver varying rewards when you stretch, aka, rewarding you only some of the time, in different ways on different occasions.

In short, repeating a task in the same place and at the same time and following up with rewards can help you develop a new habit that just happens, seemingly without effort, by default.

Current scientific research has demonstrated (more than once) that we, as human beings  have a vast capacity to automate our behaviours through habit formation. But in the end, it’s up to us.

What are some things you do on default? Let us know at hello@evermind.health.