I should learn to live with it, but I don’t want to.
I’m addicted to you baby. You’re a hard habit to break.
~Chicago, Hard Habit To Break
My father, the boy’s soccer coach at GRC in the late 80’s, arranged a cultural exchange trip to Ecuador for the varsity team. My whole family planned to accompany him.
I packed my favorite denim jacket, two Swatch watches, and these mix-and-match neon pieces from Benetton where five pieces made nine different outfits. But my carry-on held the real treasure: my Sony Walkman, plenty of extra batteries, and my beloved cassette copy of Chicago’s legendary Chicago 17. I played it so much on the trip that the ribbon got stuck in the Walkman and one of the soccer players had to wind it back up into the cassette with a pencil. To this day, if Hard Habit to Break comes on the radio, I will start to tear up if I think too hard about how much the songwriter misses his lover. She left and his new reality is something he knows he should learn to live with, but he just really doesn’t want to. She’s his habit. And habits are hard to break.
Humans are habitual creatures. The majority of our days are spent in habitual patterns; neuroscience estimates that we spend more than half of our waking hours on autopilot. Think about when you learned to drive. It initially took enormous mental concentration and effort. You had to engage your prefrontal cortex (the brain’s thinking center) to process, plan, and execute the experience of driving a car. By now, driving has been relegated to background thinking. It no longer takes any real mental effort, freeing up the brain to carry on a conversation or sing along to the radio while your subconscious mind drives.
In this way, habits conserve brain energy; the brain never wants to work harder than it has to. This subconscious thinking is useful; can you imagine how tired your brain would be if you had to retrain it to drive every single day?
Remember how, in the song, he feels addicted to her? That’s because habits are firing in the part of the brain associated with cravings. The first few times we indulge in a behavior – say, eating cookies after a long day at work – we are rewarded with feel-good chemicals. That prompts us to repeat the behavior. Over time, eating cookies after work becomes a mindless habit.
There are three distinct parts of a habit chain: a trigger, the behavior itself, and the hormonal reward in our brain that reinforces that chain. For example, our phone dings (the trigger), we check our phone (the behavior), and we get a little shot of dopamine in our brain (the hormonal reward). Every time we act in the same way, a specific neural pattern is stimulated and becomes strengthened in our brain.
Simply put, habits are firing neurons that have gotten really good at firing in a certain way. Over time, we just mindlessly rely on those firing neurons, even when we no longer get the same reward for our behavior. It becomes our default setting, requiring no intentionality on our part.
Over time, you no longer have a habit. The habit has you.
I’ve gotten (back) into a bad habit of checking my phone too often throughout the day and I want to change it. Here’s what I learned about successfully breaking a habit:
Firstly, it’s extremely difficult to eliminate a habit completely. It’s better to replace it with a new habit. You need a plan ahead of time so that you can intentionally respond (with your new habit) instead of react (with the old habit). I decided I would replace my phone checking with ten deep breaths. Awareness of the triggers can interrupt the existing feedback chain that keeps a bad habit in place. So you also need to eliminate the triggers as much as possible. I normally leave my phone screen-side up on my desk, so I see alerts light up even from across the room. I went into my phone settings and deleted alerts and notifications. Then I started setting my phone screen-side down on the table. Lastly, I attached a sticker to the back that says, “Pause”. This sticker acts as a new trigger; it prompts me to take ten deep breaths and then decide if I want to check my phone or leave it.
While I haven’t kicked the habit completely, I‘ve certainly curbed it. As the song says, it is a hard habit to break. But I want my life to be as intentional as possible, which means showing up mentally on my part.