Our Habits Are Powerful

During the last 9 weeks in quarantine, I have had a lot more time to think about life. I examined what I took for granted pre-COVID-19, and what I want out of the next 43 or so years. I’ve spent time examining my routines and some of the habits that aren’t serving me during this time home. Taking the time to examine my existing thoughts and behaviors helped me to identify new habits that will help me to reach my goals. It turns out that our habits are powerful!

The biggest challenge we all face when analyzing our habits is the fact that many of them happen when we are on “autopilot”. We have to intentionally bring into focus our thoughts and actions – even the ones we do without thinking about them. A habit defined is an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary. It is a regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.

“All our life so far as it has definite form is but a mass of habits – practical, emotional, and intellectual – systematically organized for our weal (what is best) or woe (great sorrow or distress), and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny.”

William James

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg discusses habits from the perspective of how the brain is wired to function. He shares how habits work (we go into more detail in this blog along with how willpower plays a role), how to create new habits and how to change our existing habits (I go into more detail in my next blog post). 

How Do Habits Work?

He starts by defining the anatomy of a habit as a Cue + Response = Reward. Cues are combinations of stimuli (our senses – sight, smell, taste, touch, sound, and thought). Responses are chains of thoughts and/or actions. Rewards are increases and decreases in pleasant and unpleasant sensations, emotions or thoughts. We practice the response until it becomes an automatic and reliable habit. The repetition triggers some long-term changes to the brain’s structure (learning). This becomes independent of conscious decision making. It literally becomes automatic without conscious thought! It is WILD to me that we do so much on “autopilot”. 

According to Duhigg, over time the brain starts to expect and now crave a reward as soon as the cue comes into play. The cravings show up even before the habitual response happens. These cravings begin to drive responses that deliver the reward. Our cravings are strong enough to override basic survival instincts. The physical cravings are short-lived but the mental cravings are much more powerful. Our habits are powerful and some examples of bad habits are smoking, sleeping late, and nail-biting. Good habits set clear goals and rules for reward and punishment. Examples are brushing your teeth, showering, drinking half your body weight in ounces of water daily, exercising, getting at least 8 hours of sleep, and taking your Juice Plus daily. 

Duhigg says the role of habits is to free up our limited conscious attention and working memory. Because there are thousands of stimuli each day, we manage them by delegating responses to the subconscious mind. Habits can not be erased but instead must be replaced. They result from structural changes in the brain, but the good news is that they can be overridden with conscious willpower or a deeper new habit. We were designed with the ability to CHOOSE how we will respond! This is fantastic news! We can break bad habits and create new ones! If we keep the same cue and the same reward, a new routine can be inserted.


Unfortunately, willpower is limited in capacity and endurance but it is like a muscle and can be strengthened through practice. We can train our brains to get better at controlling our behavior. Kelly McGonigal wrote in The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why it Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It, that willpower comes in three shapes and sizes. First is the “I won’t” power, this is when you resist something like fast food on the way home. Then there is the “I will” power. This is the force that helps you do what’s comfortable but important to reach your goals. This willpower allows you to delay gratification now in order to reap the rewards later. Finally is the “I want” power. This is the force that allows you to remember your long-term goals. The “I want” power is the most powerful because it is not so much about the goal itself, but more about having a strong and clear why for delaying gratification now to succeed in the long term. 

Pause-and-Plan Response

We already learned about our fight-or-flight response in my blog titled, Why Is It Easier to Think Negative Thoughts? and how it is triggered by stress. McGonigal says this response destroys willpower because it triggers impulsive reactions to everyday conditions. On the other hand, the “pause-and-plan response” method teaches us to notice our habitual reactions and consciously choose a more empowered one.

McGonigal recommends we take a deep breath. She says, “Slow your breathing down to four to six breaths per minute. That’s 10 to 15 seconds per breath — slower than you normally breathe, but not difficult with a little bit of practice and patience. Slowing the breath down activates the prefrontal cortex and increases heart-rate variability, which helps shift the brain and body from a state of stress to self-control mode. A few minutes of this technique will make you feel calm, in control, and capable of handling cravings or challenges.” You can set a timer on your phone and measure how many breaths you are taking per minute. Focus on slowing it down and remember not to hold your breath because this just increases the stress. For example, take a 5 second inhale and a 6 second exhale. 

McGonigal writes, “Your brain needs to bring the body on board with your goals and put the brakes on your impulses. To do this, your prefrontal cortex will communicate the need for self-control to lower brain regions that regulate your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and other automatic functions. The “pause-and-plan’ response drives you in the opposite direction of the fight-or-flight response. Instead of speeding up, your heart slows down, and your blood pressure stays normal. Instead of hyperventilating like a madman, you take a deep breath. Instead of tensing muscles to prime them for action, your body relaxes a little.”

She also recommends mediation to improve willpower. “One study found that just three hours of meditation practice led to improved attention and self-control,” McGonigal notes. “After 11 hours, researchers could see those changes in the brain. The new meditators had increased neural connections between regions of the brain important for staying focused, ignoring distractions, and controlling impulses. Another study found that eight weeks of daily meditation practice led to increased self-awareness in everyday life, as well as increased gray matter in corresponding areas of the brain. It may seem incredible that our brains can reshape themselves so quickly, but meditation increases blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, in much the same way that lifting weights increases blood flow to your muscles. The brain appears to adapt to exercise in the same way that muscles do, getting both bigger and faster in order to get better at what you ask of it.”

The final suggestion she makes is to get your body moving. It turns out that exercise is another powerful way to amplify your willpower. “When neuroscientists have peered inside the brains of new exercisers, they have seen increases in both gray matter — brain cells — and white matter, the insulation on brain cells that helps them communicate quickly and efficiently with each other,” McGonigal writes.

Charles Duhigg says, “Willpower is the single most important keystone habit for individual success.” He defines keystone habits as foundational behaviors that you can build on to create a cluster of good habits. When you change a keystone habit it can have a cascading effect on other habits down the line and cause changes across many different areas. Not all habits are keystone habits. An example of keystone habits is exercise. When you exercise it creates a desire to make other positive changes like eating better, smoking less, and feeling less stressed. When we feel good, we want to make decisions that keep us feeling good. 

I know this can seem like a lot to take in and it definitely is work to be aware of our thoughts and actions. Don’t all things worthwhile take effort? Who better to take care of yourself than you? I think it’s exciting and fun to think about all the wonderful changes we can CHOOSE to make to our current habits! Once we examine our goals, then it makes the most sense to be sure our actions are leading us toward reaching them instead of pushing us away from them. As stated earlier, in the next blog we will discuss how to create new habits and how to change our existing habits.r, smoking less, and feeling less stressed. When we feel good, we want to make decisions that keep us feeling good.