Ninety-five percent of our brain activity isn’t conscious. Our unconscious brain controls a lot of things we think we are in conscious control of, like the food we stuff in our mouths or the emails we check compulsively during a meeting. Sometimes we do have conscious control of these things, but often we do not.
Once we start doing something (like flossing our teeth, or checking Facebook at work when we get bored) we eventually don’t have to think about it anymore. Our basal ganglia take over. It’s easy to see that sometimes this automatic action is a good thing (such as doing our yoga first thing in the morning) but often it is not (like biting our nails). Good or bad, we can manipulate these habits into being.
In The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt used the metaphor of an elephant (the automatic process – our habits) with a tiny rider atop (the controlled processor – our willpower). As much as we might want the rider to direct the elephant, the rider is only the elephant’s guide. The elephant is in charge and pretty much goes where it is used to going, stopping for things that pack a reward (like food or love) and running from things that signal danger or discomfort. The rider can provide direction, but only when the elephant doesn’t have conflicting desires of its own.
The emotionally intelligent person, according to Haidt, has a skilled rider who knows how to distract and coax the elephant without having to engage in a direct contest of wills. And even when the rider is able to change the elephant’s behavior, it requires a big investment of energy.
If we want to live with the greatest ease and power, we need to invest in training the elephant, not convincing the rider. This does not mean that we give over the best parts of ourselves by focusing on unconscious habits. Your rider can do incredibly complicated, beautiful, sensitive things that habit can never replicate. But the rider is easily tired and fuel inefficient. It doesn’t have the same stamina to make decisions all day long. Moreover, the rider (conscious thought) is slow, processing about 50 bits of information per second. In contrast, the elephant (our unconscious brain) processes about 11 million bits per second.
Your brain, unlike your mother, does not distinguish between good and bad habits. Once we form a habit, the neural pathway that controls that habit exists in our brain forever. Although it is nearly impossible to eliminate a bad habit, you can conform it into a good habit.
There are three essential components of a habit. The first is the trigger – these can be emotions, times of day, sounds, smells.The next component is behavior. This is the path the elephant walks down. For instance, when you finish your breakfast (trigger), you brush your teeth (the behaviour, or the elephant’s “path”). The last component is the reward. Reward is what determines if a routine is worth remembering or repeating in the future. The rewards needs not be complicated or external, like money or food. In fact, internal and non material rewards are easier to tie to the routine and tend to be immediate, for instance, the endorphin rush after exercise.
Knowing this makes it easier to start to craft your life to build better habits. Start ridiculously small and, when you are ready to invest more time and effort into a major habits overhaul, do so. A good book to help you is Christine Carter’s The Sweet Spot.