Blog post written by Nabila Qureshi

This post is a summary of studies in and reflections upon ‘The Power of Habit’ by Charles Duhigg. For anyone who wants to understand the scientific process of habit formation as well as how this knowledge has been utilized to advance social change, to alter company behaviour, and much more, I would thoroughly recommend. 

When I ask myself to think of some of my habits, I would often start with the bad: waking up too late, not exercising regularly, swearing. And I would be correct – these absolutely are examples of habits: patterns of behaviour that I carry out regularly and find hard to give up. However, I have many more habits than just these, and lots of them are crucial to my life functioning normally. Habits such as putting the toothpaste on my brush before I brush my teeth or unlocking my phone before sending a text. Our habits are much more than just what we have developed ‘outside of the norm’ – they are subtle patterns in our behaviour that our brain generates from our routines to help reduce the mental effort it takes us to get through the day. 

The process by which our brains do this is known as ‘chunking’. It converts a sequence of actions into a routine which becomes stored in our basal ganglia, a primitive area at the centre of the brain. Once we are reliant on our basal ganglia to carry out a particular task, the level of overall activity required to carry out that task decreases. We are able to do it faster, quicker and more efficiently than before – all because we aren’t thinking much when we do it. 

Scientists have established a pattern which explains how most of our routines become a habit. This occurs through a ‘Habit Loop’ which, over time, becomes more automatic as our habits are strengthened. Here is an example of a habit created in a rat:

A rat was placed in a maze behind a door. As the door opened, it heard a ‘click’ – the cue. It ventured through the maze (routine), eventually finding chocolate to nibble on (reward). The first time the rats carried out this exercise, their brain activity levels were high, but this decreased as the more they carried out the task – it became a habit. 

Most habits we have follow the same pattern (to varying degrees of complexity). For example, I wake up late. My alarm goes off (cue), I feel tired and open Instagram (routine) and I am distracted and the blue light makes me feel a bit more awake (reward). The rewards can be varied, anything from food, drugs, to emotional feelings of satisfaction or achievement. 

These habits emerge because our brains stop participating in the decision making process, and so the patterns repeat and unfold automatically every time we encounter the same cue. Our brains can’t tell the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ habits – they are equally likely to reinforce something harmful as they are useful. 

However, habits are not set in stone. Some are stronger than others, but we can learn to rewire them. To do this, we need to do the following: 

  1. Understand what drives our loops
  2. Break down the components of our loops
  3. Create new routines. 

Cravings

I have a serious craving for chocolate. We use the term ‘craving’ as part of our everyday vocabulary, but in the context of habits, it has a very specific meaning – one illustrated beautifully by an experiment carried out by Wolfram Schultz and colleagues in the 1980s.

They placed a macaque (Julio) facing a screen and next to a lever. He was sitting on a chair  connected to a tube which could (when activated) pour blackberry juice onto Julio’s lips (his favourite). A series of images popped up on the screen and, if he pulled the level when a coloured shape was present, he would receive a drop of juice. After his first drop, Julio became intently focused on the screen and learnt exactly what images connected to the drop of juice.

Initially, analysis of his brain activity showed, unsurprisingly, that the activity level increased when he received the drop of juice. However, over time, as his habit loop became stronger, the spike in brain activity was seen when he saw the image, not when he actually received the juice. The cue, not the reward, was motivating Julio. This shift is the creation of a craving and is what drives the habit loop. 

Cravings are able to drive habit loops because they create the sensation of a reward when the reward hasn’t arrived. If the reward doesn’t arrive, an individual becomes irritated, angry, frustrated and confused. This was exactly what happened to Julio and other macaques when the juice was either diluted or removed. Even when offered a distraction, the macaques resolutely stayed in their chairs awaiting their reward. Cravings drive you to complete the habit loop and reach the reward upon seeing the cue alone

This craving is the same reason that Cinnabon place their stores away from other food stores (you smell the food and because your brain remembers the smell as the cue, you become determined to purchase a delicious sugary treat) or you itch to touch your phone when you hear it ping with a notification (your brain is craving the distraction). It is also why we cannot simply remove habit loops – they are driven by primitive forces which are so ingrained that they are nearly impossible to extinguish (no really, I’d love some chocolate).

What we are able to do, however, is change our loops. Use the same cue and the same reward: just change the routine. 

Habit reversal

I’m going to use an example of a habit which I had and wanted to change to help illustrate how ‘changing the routine’ can work. 

The first stage is to identify the components of your loop. For me, the habit I wanted to change was not sitting to make dua (supplication) after my salah (ritual prayer). I would finish with salams, get up and run onto the next thing. If I tried to think my way out of it (‘It doesn’t take that long, just say something, it will feel good) it worked maybe once or twice a week, but not consistently enough to make me feel as though I had been successful. 

Ask yourself the following:

  1. What are my cues? What do I feel right before I carry out the routine? 
  2. What is my routine? (Usually this is the ‘habit’ you want to correct) 
  3. How do I feel after I complete the routine (even if just for a millisecond)? How did I feel when I first started doing it? Why did I start? 

[If you have a habit you repeat constantly throughout the day, e.g. biting your nails, it can be really helpful at this stage to either carry around a card or note down on your phone every time you do it. You won’t catch all of them, and that’s okay, but note down as many as you can. It can help to notice triggers – time periods, emotions, events – and patterns in your behaviour].

My answers:

  1. Feeling the satisfaction of finishing my prayer after I give salaams. Thinking immediately about the 20 other jobs I have to do (particularly if I am at work). 
  2. Rush to put the prayer mat away and move on to my next task.
  3. Satisfaction at having ‘got on with my day’ and completed another task.

Once I wrote this down, it became clear that my problem was that a) I didn’t see dua as part of my prayer and b) I needed to feel like I was ‘getting things done’. The next stage of reversal was to find a replacement routine. 

Knowing that I needed to feel like I was ‘doing something’ I decided to employ the help of a free Habit tracking app I downloaded onto my phone. I added in 5 tasks – ‘Dua after Fajr, Zuhr, Asr, Maghrib and Isha’. Then the job was simple: after I prayed, I made dua and checked it off on my phone. 

Turned out to be more of a journey – starting with all 5 prayers was a hard task. So I began with the simplest, where I had the fewest subsequent tasks to do: Isha. Once I checked off Isha every day for a week I slowly added in dua after more prayers and it became such a special part of my prayers. Making dua a ‘task’ turned out to be the secret to employing it as part of my routine – and I wouldn’t have realised that unless I had taken the time to break down my habit loop.

What you do as the replacement will depend completely on what the cue and rewards you identify are, and you won’t always get it right the first time. Understanding these hard-wired processes is a tall order, it takes time and patience and lots of trial and error but when you get there, it is completely worth it. 

Times of stress

The process above is very similar to ones employed by organisations around the world who work with individuals and their habits, including Alcoholics Anonymous. But as many of us know, whilst so many individuals are successful on programmes such as these, many are not. Often people ‘fall off the wagon’ during times of stress, where these new routines aren’t strong enough to cut through our old habits.

Research conducted on those who were successful at battling their habits, even in times of stress, found 3 common factors behind their motivation: 

  1. They had either experienced or had someone close to them experience a personal tragedy which inspired their change
  2. They were embedded in a community which gave them the potential to believe in the change
  3. They had a belief in something greater.

Many of us have had experiences with the first, where something momentous in our lives pivots everything we know and almost necessitates a change in behaviour. However, this was the driving factor for only a minority of those interviewed – the second and third were much more significant in allowing individuals to make their new habit loop into a permanent behaviour. 

The second – community – is a huge reason why I wanted to write this and why I felt it belonged somewhere like RMC. Having a motivated community around us that shares our goals, understands our concerns and helps to drive us to change is crucial in helping us to see that the change we want to see can, and will, become real in our own lives. Tom Hatherton, one of the researchers involved in the study, summarised it beautifully as he said: ‘Change occurs among other people’. You are not in this fight alone. Change is not always about seminal moments that change our lives, it is often communities, working to help support each other a moment at time. 

The final necessary aspect of change is belief. I remember reading this chapter for the first time and breathing a sign of relief and gratitude at the blessing of faith. We are entering into a blessed time where our belief envelops us at all moments of the day. Every Ramadan starts with the first few autopilot walks to the kitchen then – ‘ah, no, fasting!’ – a moment of God-consciousness which we would not be blessed with otherwise. These are the moments we can use to give meaning to the habits we mean to change. Keeping up with dua on the busiest and most tiring days was possible because the stress was overridden by a desire to be close to Allah – by the ease I felt in those moments and the calm in my heart when I rose from my mat. 

The end of Ramadan often brings the creation of a long list of habits to change and patterns to adjust and sustain, but I hope that, with the help of this community, and conviction in why we are changing, we will be able to see and implement the change we desire and that these changes serve only to increase our awareness of God, our closeness to His Messenger (SAW) and our faith in the power of the communities we create. 

References:

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg: https://blackwells.co.uk/bookshop/product/The-Power-of-Habit-by-Charles-Duhigg-author/9781847946249

App used: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.habitnow&hl=en_GB (5 habits free, annual fee for unlimited) 

Basal Ganglia: 

B. Bendriem et al, ‘Quantitation of the Human Basal Ganglia with Positron Emission Tomography: A Phantom Study of the Effect of Contrast and Axial Positioning’ IEEE Transactions on Medical Imaging 10, no 2 (1991): 216-22. 

Rat in maze with chocolate (and other experiments): 

Ann M. Graybiel, ‘Overview at Habits, Rituals and the Evaluative Brain,’ Annual Review of Neuroscience 31 (2008): 359-87.

Ann M. Graybiel, ‘The Basal Ganglia: Learning New Tricks and Loving It,’ Current Opinion in Neurobiology 15 (2005): 638-44.

Chunking: 

Ann M Graybiel, ‘The Basal Ganglia and Chunking of Action Repertoires’ Neurobiology of Learning and Memory 70 (1998): 119-36. 

Julio:

Summary of Wolfram Schultz’s research can be found in: Behavioural Theories and the Neurophysiology of Reward, Annual Review of Psychology 57 (2006): 87-115

Cravings/cinnabon: 

Brian Wansink, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think (New York: Bantam, 2006)

Habit reversal

N.H.Azrin and R.G. Nunn, ‘Habit-Reversal: A Method of eliminating Nervous Habits and Tics’ Behaviour Research and Therapy 11, no. 4 (1973) 

B. A. Dufrene, Steuart Watson, and J.S. Kazmerski, ‘Functional Analysis and Treatment of Nail Biting,’ Behaviour Modification 32 (2008): 913-27.

Alcoholics Anonymous: 

G. J. Conners et al, ‘Measure of Religious Background and Behaviour for Use in Behaviour Change Research’ Psychology of Addictive Behaviours 10, no. 2 (June 1996): 90-96.

Todd F. Heatheron and Patricia A. Nichols, ‘Personal Accounts of Successful Versus Failed Attempts at Life Change,’ Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 20, no. 6 (1994): 664-75.

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