Relying on habits too much means that you forgo a lot of that active thinking which can help the brain thrive and stay healthy over the long term.Credit:iStock
https://www.smh.com.au-By Caroline Zielinski
We are often told that developing good habits is key to leading a successful life. Many an article and book (remember cult classics such as The Power of Habit, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People or Tiny Habits?) has been written extolling the virtues of developing and maintaining a morning, afternoon, evening, daily, monthly — anything — habit, and we lap it up, eager to hack our way into a more productive and efficient existence.
Yet living your life according to habits can come at the expense of creativity, some experts say, as doing something repeatedly won’t necessarily increase the quality of what you’re doing.
While much of the published advice on habits is sound and backed by good research, some experts fear we are reaching a point where all this focus on habits may not be so good for our brains.
“Habits in many cases, such as getting fit or committing to eating healthier, are a good thing; they are comforting, they can help us stress less and don’t require a huge amount of focus,” says Dr Steve Kassem, a senior postdoctoral fellow at Neuroscience Research Australia. “But relying on them too much can actually make the brain stale.”
Kassem explains that the brain has two different modes of agency: habits and goal-directed action. Habits are something you’ve done many times before, which the brain eventually turns into a “shortcut”.
This is distinct from goal-oriented action, by which we (and other animals) learn that our actions have valuable consequences, and which helps us develop knowledge of specific outcomes and motivates us to do certain things to achieve the goals we set.
“When it comes to fulfilling a goal, any goal, you’re constantly thinking, ‘I want to do something’ and devising ways of how to do it,” Kassem explains.
“You get to choose what you want to do, think about it, exercise agency, gather data from thousands of memory points and put it together into a mosaic that allows you to accomplish your goal.”
Relying on habits too much, on the other hand, means that you forgo a lot of that active thinking which can help the brain thrive and stay healthy over the long term. People who engage in meaningful activities, such as volunteering or hobbies, say they feel happier and healthier, and research shows that learning new skills may also improve your thinking ability.
And while engaging in artistic activities such as music, theatre, dance and creative writing may also have some benefits, there is still much research to be done when it comes to fully understanding the significance of active thinking in brain health relative to other factors such as physical health, staying connected and social, managing stress and eating well.
The head of the University of New South Wales’ Decisions Neuroscience Lab, Professor Bernard Balleine, says the key to functioning well depends on our ability to switch between habit and goal-oriented modes.
“It’s habits that allow us to produce what we do on a daily basis in a repetitive fashion that also saves our brains energy,” he says.
“We need to be able to relegate boring things such as walking, switching on the light switch etc to practice and habits to be more efficient, but we also need to flick back to a more flexible approach, which means doing something differently to explore other options and results.”
Balleine points out that productivity culture and a preoccupation with life hacking have led us to obsess over good working habits, often at the expense of creativity, and that in recent years there “has been an overdevelopment of the idea that habits should be encouraged in everything”.
“No adaptive animal actually maintains a single way of responding — they’re always exploring alternatives. We try things all the time, and while sometimes it’s to our loss, it’s the way our understanding of the world develops.”
He also points out that in our habit-driven world, skills and habits are increasingly confused.
“There are habits that start off as strategies that we acquire that work, and then there are skills that we can only acquire by practise,” Balleine says.
“The habit that begins as a deliberate behaviour to learn something complex, such as drawing or painting, which eventually becomes habitual is much different from developing a habit to wake up at 6am every day.”
So as with most things in life, living a life that benefits our time and brain health means living a life in balance. For Kassem, keeping track of how much we rely on habits means avoiding operating on autopilot.
“At the end of the day, habits are so easy to fall into because they are effectively cheats,” he says. “The brain does everything in its power to restrict energy and earn more energy from sugars and fats, and habits are a representation of that — they are shortening the way to achieve a goal.
“With a goal, you can do anything; with habits, you can only do what you’ve been conditioned to do.”
Caroline is a contributing writer to The Age and Sydney Morning Herald