In some ways, I really hope you think this article is boring.
When I talk about habits, I usually dig into the science on cues and rewards. I might philosophize about which habits are the most important to work on.
But it can be difficult to appreciate exactly how the science affects everyday life. It’s one thing to know the definition of a habit; actually seeing the impact of habits on everyday life is more difficult.
So today I just have a few examples.
Unlike examples I’ve used in the past, these don’t show me or a client making a huge behavior change. They aren’t even explicitly related to fitness. They are just snapshots of habit psychology playing itself in everyday life.
If they seem boring, that’s because they are. I’m about to talk about running out of soap and turning on the lights.
But buried in those incredibly mundane everyday events is a point: habits are often small, but they affect everything you do.
This is what they look like.
Example One: Running Out of Soap
This week, I ran out of soap in my bathroom.
I usually keep a huge jug of soap under the sink, but this time, when I went to refill the soap dispenser, it was empty. Bummer.
Hardly the end of the world, right. There’s a Target literally a block and a half from my apartment, and I had some hand-friendly dish soap in the kitchen to use in the meantime.
What I think is interesting is what happened when I didn’t replace the soap. This was a busy week: I had a conference to go to, a farewell dinner for a coworker, and just stuff going on in general. So for a few days after using the bathroom, I would walk into the kitchen to wash my hands there instead.
And yet, every single time, I would try to use the sink in the bathroom first.
This happened pretty much without fail. Immediately after flushing, I would turn on the sink and reach for the soap dispenser. Sometimes I’d give it a couple of pumps before realizing it was empty and walking to the kitchen.
On several occasions, I would walk into the bathroom thinking “The soap dispenser is empty. Use the kitchen sink. You’re out of soap.” But somehow I would still wind up reaching for the faucet.
It’s a classic habit example. The action chain “close toilet, flush, turn on sink, add soap” is heavily ingrained in my mind. As it should be, because I use it multiple times a day.
But even when completing the chain is impossible (no soap), I would still try to do it. Flushing was the cue to trigger my next action: hand-washing.
Theoretically, this would change over time. Turning on the sink and discovering (for the thousandth time) that I was out of soap is punishing rather than rewarding, so the behavior should die down.
Eventually. But habits are often deeply ingrained. I’d completed my action chain hundreds or thousands of times, and it would take a similar number of failures for me to completely learn my lesson.
And yes, I did eventually go out to buy soap.
Example Two: Light Switches in a Power Outage
A little while back, my apartment lost power. It only lasted a couple of hours, but that was long enough to give an illuminating (get it?) example of habits.
Ever walk into a room during a power outage, flip the light switch, and immediately feel like an idiot?
Yeah, that happened to me a lot.
Similar to the soap example, flipping a light switch is an action cued by walking into a new room. Chances are you reach for the switches without even thinking about it.
In fact, the only reason I really noticed was because the lights didn’t turn on. Had the switch worked as expected, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought.
You almost certainly have habits similar to the light switch and the soap.
Another example: have you ever checked the time on your phone, put it away, then immediately checked it again? The first time was dictated by habit instead of conscious awareness.
Things like closing cabinet doors after opening them, locking your apartment on the way to work, or the spot you set down your coat are all habits.
They are small habits, for sure, but they illustrate the cue-action-reward process that applies to bigger habits like consistent exercise and nutrition.
Example Three: Being a Musician
I include this one last because it will not apply to everyone. But if you are a musician you are probably intimately familiar with the power of habits. My recent experience shows how.
When I was growing up, the electric piano in my family had three pre-recorded songs: Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude, Faure’s Après un Rêve, and a piece that I loved but couldn’t identify (until recently).
I had learned two of the pieces in the intervening years, but was still missing that final, unknown composition. After a few hours of Googling model numbers and checking their preset pieces (I couldn’t remember the model we had), I finally found it: Lake Louise.
Here’s where the habits come in. When you already know how to play a piece of music, you don’t really think about it much while playing; your hands just kind of know where to go because of muscle memory.
Things get a little tricky when a piece has sections that are musically similar but not exactly identical. As you learn the second section, you sometimes make mistakes by playing notes from the first section.
This happened to me several times today, as I was learning the end of Lake Louise. I had to very consciously and intentionally direct my fingers to transition into the second section, but (because I’m still learning) I definitely slipped up on more than one occasion.
In a sense, each note of a piece is the cue for the next note of the piece. When two sections are similar but not identical, mistakes happen because the musician confuses the cue from one section with the cue from another.
This is a small moment, but the idea can extend to other situations: be careful for similar (but not identical cues).
Where else does this apply? If I do go to a bar, I am usually friends, and I act in a particular way when I’m with my friends.
If I go out for drinks with coworkers, it takes conscious effort not to lapse into a much more familiar, potentially not-work-appropriate tone. For me, the bar environment cues a certain kind of behavior.
These examples are everywhere: you might get nervous before a thesis presentation because you are used to being nervous before presentations in general (even though you know your thesis material inside and out).
You might get nervous at the gym because you have friends or family who are very focused on appearance (even though, at the gym, probably no one is judging you).
Remember that cues can trigger multiple actions. Sometimes you need to consciously step in and choose the right one.
A final example familiar to musicians illustrates how hard it is to change habits.
As most of us know, changing a bad habit is as hard or much harder than creating new habits in general. When you learn a piece of music, it is so, so, so much easier to learn something new than to correct a mistake you made learning something the first time.
If you learned a piece wrong and consistently hit the wrong notes in the same places, it will take hours of painstaking, note-by-note work to stamp out that mistake. You need to rework the connection between the cue (the notes before) and the action (the note you are targeting), and you need to do it manually.
And it won’t happen overnight either. Long after you thought you had corrected it, the mistake will sneak back into the piece and require more attention.
The lesson from this example: habits are everywhere, and they are hard to change.
The above examples are as simple as they are illustrative. They could happen to basically anyone, and they do; you could come up with a dozen similar examples from your own life if you tried hard enough.
The key takeaway is that habits dictate a lot of your behavior. It would be too cognitively intensive to manage all of your actions all the time, so your brain goes on autopilot.
Analyzing these autopilot examples helps show the cue-action relationship more clearly. It shows that, by using automatic habits, you can facilitate a healthy lifestyle without micromanaging every aspect of your life.
How can you actually form those habits? You can learn more about that in my piece The Psychology of Habits: How to Form Habits (and Make Them Stick).