WHY Habits form & HOW to build them

At my last company, there was a manager who usually got up at 4:30am, ran for 2 hours, and got.

At my last company, there was a manager who
usually got up at 4:30am, ran for 2 hours, and got to work before everyone else. He was always at the top for sales achievements
and worked pretty much like a robot. At first I just figured he was some sort of
superhero, “Batman??” “It’s not batman!” However, once I realized that he simply repeated
a set of actions over and over again until it became an automatic habit, it seemed doable
even for a mere human like myself. While difficult, he just needed to establish
the routine: Wake up early, resist urge the to go back to sleep, lace up his shoes instead
of checking email, get out the door and run, resist multiple urges to stop and rest, get
back home and take a shower. After a while, all these willpower expensive
actions melted down into a seamless habit. I have developed a habit too. One that I’ve been doing ever since I can remember in response to stress. Anytime I’m feeling anxious about something,
I unconsciously chew on one of my fingernails. …Of course this isn’t a habit I wanted
to develop or one that I want to keep. So what is it about habits that makes something
like biting your fingernails so hard to stop, while making something like running a couple
half marathons per week possible? There’s three things to know about why habits
develop whether you want them to or not. The average brain is made up of 40% gray matter
and 60% white matter. White matter lies under the gray matter and
is composed of long nerve fibers insulated by myelin sheaths. Myelin is the fatty tissue that makes white
matter white, and it’s one of the reasons people can get good at things. As you repeat an action, the neurons associated
with that action will have their axons wrapped in myelin. So every time you put in an hour of practice,
you earn yourself another wrap of myelin around the neurons used for that activity. More myelin means nerve impulses can travel
more quickly and efficiently across the axons. This means the action can be done more easily,
skillfully, and will require less concentration. A bare, un-myelinated neuron will have a signal
speed of 2 miles an hour. The signal speed of a fully myelinated neuron
is about 200 miles an hour. Practice makes perfect because practice makes
myelin and myelin makes perfect. This is one of the key principles in “The
Talent Code”. Author Daniel Coyle explains that most athletes,
singers, or musicians that we would normally refer to as “talented” are actually incredibly
diligent individuals. They have put in hours and hours of practice
until their brain was packed full of myelin associated with their craft. So in the same way that Alain Martel is very
good at billairds, I’ve unfortunately gotten really good at biting my fingernails to deal
with anxious feelings. It’s a bit of a stretch to compare the two,
but I’d argue that our brains are both generally trying to do the same thing: make things easier. When I was still a kid, my brain identified
biting fingernails as the easiest method for coping with daily stresses. Little by little the nerve impulses for the
neurons associated with chewing on my fingernails got so efficient, that the action
takes place without me putting any conscious thought into it. Alain Martel on the other hand, has put so
much concentration into perfecting certain billiard motions that his brain has dedicated
plenty of myelin to ensure this task could be done incredibly well. The second thing to know is about willpower. By the 1980s, the theory that willpower is
a learnable skill was generally accepted. It was understood as something that can be
taught the same way kids learn to do math and say “thank you.” In the power of Habit, Charles Duhigg talks
about how a group of PhD candidates totally changed our understanding of willpower. Mark Muraven and other psychology PhD candidates
at Case Western started asking questions about the existing view of willpower. After all, it didn’t make much sense: if
willpower is a learnable skill, how can we be super diligent some days and end up binge
watching a TV show for the majority of other days? That would be like forgetting how to ride
a bike every other day. Muraven conducted an experiment where they
set out two bowls in a room: One with freshly baked cookies, and one with radishes. One group of participants were told they could
eat as many cookies as they liked, and another group could eat the radishes but were told
they could not eat any of the cookies. Afterwards, they gave each group a very difficult
puzzle to try and solve. The group that got to eat cookies merrily
tried again and again at cracking the puzzle. On the other hand, the radish group muttered
to themselves and were visibly frustrated, saying they were “sick of this dumb experiment.” The conclusion was that the amount of willpower
you have is finite, and it’s more like a muscle: you can tire it out if you work it
too hard. Since the radish eating group expended willpower
by resisting the cookies, they had much less fuel left in their willpower tank to use on
solving the puzzle. Another experiment was conducted where participants
had to do a four-month money management program. This required them to keep detailed logs and
deny themselves luxuries like eating out or going to the movies. What they found was that “People’s finances
improved as they progressed through the program. More surprising, they also smoked fewer cigarettes
and drank less alcohol and caffeine… They ate less junk food and were more productive
at work and school. … As people strengthened their willpower
muscles in one part of their lives—in the gym, or a money management program—that
strength spilled over into what they ate or how hard they worked. Once willpower became stronger, it touched
everything.” The third thing to know is about your built
in autopilot. In the 1990’s a neurologist named Ann Graybiel
figured out a way to get sensors into rats skulls to measure what was going on inside. After she got over 100 sensors in their heads
she put the rats into a very simple T-Shaped maze. At the tip of the T was a rat, partitioned
off from the other side of the T which had a piece of chocolate. Along with an audible click, the partition
would be pulled away and the rat was allowed to go searching for the chocolate. On the first couple times through the maze,
the rat moved very slowly, scratching at the walls, sniffing around, until it found the
piece of chocolate. After running through the maze many many times
however, the rat would immediately go down the T, turn left and get the chocolate. Here’s what brain activity looks like for
the first time, and here’s what it looks like the 150th time. The first time shows the brain lighting up
when the rat scratches or sniffs at something. After having repeated the “get chocolate”
cycle multiple times however, the rat’s brain nearly falls asleep while looking for
the chocolate and then wakes up when it gets it. What Graybiel demonstrated was that “a task-bracket
or “chunking” pattern of neuronal activity emerges when a habit is formed, wherein neurons
activate when a habitual task is initiated, show little activity during the task, and
reactivate when the task is completed.” What this means is that your brain is taking
series of actions and grouping them down into a single task, making the process require
much less conscious effort. The part of the brain responsible for this
is the basal ganglia. It was really interesting to read about this
while watching my niece try to walk. She deliberately puts her arms in the air
to balance herself as she stands up, slowly lifts one knee up while shifting her weight,
puts her foot down a little bit in front of her, then repeats with the other leg. It’s all done with very careful deliberation. Obviously for us there’s absolutely no thought
put into walking. My niece still has to concentrate to perform
such a basic task because her basal ganglia is still working on “chunking” that action. This can apply to much more complex things
like the entire set of actions that make your commute to work possible. Everything from putting your foot in your
shoes and tying them to getting in your car, putting your seatbelt on and so forth until
you’re actually sitting in your office chair. Chunking can make all the actions leading
to completing a workout at the gym easier to do, but it can also apply to all the actions
associated with putting yourself on the couch with netflix and beer. The other part of Graybiel’s discovery is
that habits need a cue to kick your brain into autopiloting the task. For the rat, its cue was the click sound it
heard as the partition opened up. For my diligent colleague who ran every morning,
the cue was probably his alarm going off. When I’m writing, I have a habit of suddenly
opening up a new tab and typing in reddit.com . It happens so fast now that the page has
already loaded by the time I think “Hey wait this isn’t what I wanted to do…” The cue for this particular behavior is finding
myself stuck on the phrasing for a sentence. Habit cues can be pretty much anything from
feeling bored or irritated to the clock striking 3:00. So that’s the behind the scenes on building
habits, but now what? How do you actually build the habit? You can probably find all kinds of tools and
tricks, but for me at least, they usually just get in the way. I tried a bunch of habit tracking apps until
I realized it was just making the process harder as I had to also make the new habit
of remembering to track my other habits. Utilizing cues however, has proven to be very
important. You can use new cues to create new habits,
or use old cues replace bad habits with good ones. For example: New Habit – Meditating for 20
minutes. Cue – finishing brushing my teeth. OR Bad Habit – Wasting time on reddit. Cue – feeling “stuck” on my writing. So I keep the cue but replace the bad habit
with standing up and walking around for 2 minutes. If you have a bad habit of say buying a cookie
every time you finish lunch, replace the action with buying a cup of tea instead. If you want to make the new habit of studying
every night, make sure it comes right after something, like finishing dinner or finishing
showering Being consistent with your cue is particularly
important. A little while ago, I decided I was going
to write at least 2000 words every day, but I never got it done consistently because I
just worked on it whenever I had extra time. Then, I finally paired writing 1000 words
with the cue of finishing my morning exercise and the other 1000 words with the cue of finishing
my afternoon meal. Once the cue is set, just… do it. And then do it again. All you really need is the right cue and the
right mindset when building the habit. Carol Dweck, professor of Psychology at Stanford,
analyzed 2 groups of kids struggling with their grades. One group was taught that every time they
“push out of their comfort zone to learn something new and difficult, the neurons in
their brain [would] form new, stronger connections, and over time they [would] get smarter.” The kids who were not taught this growth mindset
lesson “continued to show declining grades, but those who were taught this lesson showed
a sharp rebound in their grades.” Carol says this kind of improvement has been
shown with thousands and thousands of kids, especially struggling students.” Once I adopted this kind of growth mindset
towards building habits, habit building started to actually feel …fun. As Carol puts it, I used to be “gripped
in the tyranny of now,” and not able to appreciate the “power of yet.” Once I understood why and how habits form,
I gained the confidence that things would get easier if I persisted. This confidence made it easy to consistently
get a workout done first thing in the morning – a habit I had been meaning to make since
forever. Every morning, it became a little bit easier
to get out of my warm bed and lace up my shoes rather than scrolling around on my phone. Of course when I was actually running, my
legs would still hurt and I would have the urge stop and take a rest, but the next time
always took a little bit less willpower to keep going. So while you’re going about your day, just
remember that whatever you’re doing -whether it’s watching cat videos or learning guitar,
your brain is making it just a little bit easier for to keep doing that. I wanna say thanks to Mark Mortensen for the
support and for getting me to explore this topic. If you like this, make sure to check out my
other videos and stick around because I’ll have more out soon.

100 thoughts on “WHY Habits form & HOW to build them”

  1. Ego depletion has since been discredited and that experiment was flawed but this video was still excellent and i love the use of personally shot video here.

  2. I am always jaw-droppingly amazed at the persistent top-quality of your videos.
    The amount of effort put into editing, subtitles, research, phrasing so everything is easily understandable… is remarquable.

  3. This channel learned me so much. Everyone who wants to improve himself. Don't just watch this channel bur study it and look how you can adept it in your own life. Things will improve 😉

  4. If anyone is here interested, I would request you to please study about Neuroplasticity. Yes it can get boring but please do read, you will never regret it. Neuroscience approved!

  5. I usually get distarcted every other minute while watching vids of similar content, but with you.. it just flows. Straight to the point.. and the information is always ON point. Thanks :))

  6. *I found that if you find the reason why you want to build a particular habit it is lot easier to build it. From June 2017 to may 2018 I used to wake up dialy at 4:00am with nearly 95 to 97% consistency
    But now my work is over I am waking at 7:00 7:30 daily even though I want to wake up at 4 I couldn't make it*

  7. I'd like to personally thank… Every single mice and rat used in scientific experiments for the betterment of humanity and living beings as a whole. Your sacrifices are greatly appreciated

  8. I think the habit tracking thing may not work for everybody but honestly it feels so rewarding to so my chart up on my wall with a streak of x's. 7 days in a row of meditating, woohoo!! And when i break the streak it makes me sad, I love seeing that card as filled out as possible.

  9. Really glad I just found this channel – I like your style! I definitely think breaking the habit down into an extremely achievable daily task is the way to go, as you can then track your progress and keep up the momentum (e.g. with calendar streaks and by getting someone else to hold you accountable). Looking forward to going through more of your videos. 🙂

  10. I realized I've been being watching your videos from last 2 days and I just can't stop , they're so helpful and addictive no knowledge oriented buddy can resist

  11. Careful what you believe. Since the replication crisis many of these theories are seriously under question, including 'Ego Depletion' – specifically the 'depletion' aspect. Some experiments demonstrate that believing you have unlimited willpower erases the depletion aspect and people can stay in control indefinitely.

  12. I wanna say thanks for making such beautiful videos. Works best for my new habit of asking my self " what have I learned today" ?

  13. Whenever I tried to push out of my comfort zone, my brain would tell me : Just DO IT !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! tomorrow

  14. I started sleeping after I masturbate. Now I fall asleep instantly afterwards. I think I finally got the hang of it

  15. Best example to describe habits would be a road. First you have to walk through tall grass, which will become a dirt road. Dirt road becomes a stone road. Stone road becomes a highway. This proces also happens in our brains when we repeat certain actions. The highway makes it easier and faster to perform certain actions than a dirt road.
    When we dont use the highway for a long time, it will not require maintenance anymore. There will be cracks in the asphalt where grass will grow.

  16. This channel deserves much more attention than it is currently getting. I hope this channel grows exponentially.

  17. No double-blinded studies on the depletion of will power have confirmed those effects. Most even included participants that were fully aware of the hypothesis and believed the effects to be true creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  18. Great video as always, my only point of contention however is that will power is somewhat of a myth. There is work being done that challenges the ego depletion theory and asserts instead that it is your belief or framing of the subject, in this case will power, that has the strongest effect on one's ability. You even mention the growth mindset lesson and how that framing allows for a reorientation in someone's relationship to their grades.

  19. What if the cookies made the participants happier and gave them a burst of energy to complete the puzzles?

  20. Video was great until the end. Throwing the ducks at the cat was kinda mean….so I won’t be watching any more of your videos.

  21. PLEASE make a video on microdosing & the short term effects on productivity!! I have stumbled upon your channel and I am so very glad I did! I am 1 week in to a no sugar challenge and it couldn't have come at a better time. Thank you!!!!! Words cannot express how grateful I am!!

  22. Call me ignorant but will power is overrated not everything needs will power to complete u know.

  23. Now this is a good video. Although you took a very long time to explain a very simple process called automation to anyone who knows basic cognitive psychology the applications of that is actually well explain.

  24. you are awesome…
    You lit up my morning with immense knowledge and helped me to schedule myself and guide myself the way I cherished. Thank you so much… <3
    May this channel keep uploading evidence-based life-changing facts… for forever…….

  25. You just blew my world apart. I've been waiting for this…. funny how we wait for things that we can start so easily on our own. I'm signing up for the office gym tomorrow morning.

  26. Hi WIL, I really enjoy your content on Youtube. I really like the focus on wellness and health through broad spectrum research. Question..you often refer to 'flow' the state of hyper focus often achievable when a deadline looms. Do you have a perspective on why 'flow' is easier achieved through music? I dont listen to music much (in favor of audiobooks, etc) but when i do listen to music i find it easier to hit 'flow' state in both exercise/chores/programming/work. Appreciate your time and dedication to this channel.

  27. Hey, the experimental underpinning for ego-depletion/ willpower you highlighted is a quite controversial one. Some attempts to reproduce it have failed as well as the design and assumptions can be criticised.
    One aspect i want to mention is, that the mere look and smell of cookies causes secretion of insulin, which in turn lowers the bodies bloodsugar homeostasis, which in turn affects the endurance of the participants. How valid and sharp are the conclusions of that experiment then? Another question is how willpower is being operationalised. Is willpower to be reduced to endurance when it comes to pointless puzzles? Throughout the video you portrayed willpower as being connected to something motivating that people want to achieve where the path is somewhat clear. It is hard to draw a coherent conclusion for me.
    Other than that it is a very nice video of a very relatable channel.

  28. Great video. Will look for the cues. FYI I believe it's better to save exercise of this nature for later in the day. That it's a strain to be doing such activity within the first 3 hours of waking.

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