7 hypotheses on the erosion of habit

7 hypotheses on the erosion of habit

Treat habits like Pavlovian experiments. Put systems in place to form automatic cue-response relationships and let routine work its magic.

My strategy for forming new habits is fairly straightforward: I leverage current routines and insert new behaviors where fit.

For example, to form a meditation habit I leveraged my workout routine, setting a meditation reminder to go off around when I finish. Eventually, the reminder can be removed, and I am left with a new habit inserted into my routine.

Using this framework, forming good habits was never too difficult for me. Instead, the challenge I face is keeping them.

Let me explain.

Over the summer, one of my goals was to form a more consistent writing habit. I made it a point to write first thing every morning. I would wake up at 7:00 AM, rev up the Nespresso, and get to writing. It went well until about September, when I moved to a new apartment, daylight savings was ending, and winter was coming.

Moving was the first point of erosion. That didn't surprise me, so I didn't think much of it. My entire routine had been uplifted and rerooted. I expected a bit of a speed bump.

I assumed though, that I would be getting right back on track. It wasn't until November, when the clocks were set back, that erosion went into full effect.

All of a sudden, it was dark in the morning. Soon after, it got cold.

Finding the will to get out from under the warm covers amounted to an extreme sport. Before long, I wasn't getting out of bed until 8:30 AM.

Without those crucial hours, my writing habit had weathered down to to a sporadic, ad hoc, whenever I got a chance, behavior. It was no longer a habit at all.

It took me bit of research to understand why, but after some time, I came to understand that these changes in my environment resulted in the desired behavior losing its associated cue, effectively breaking the habit.

Though this example demonstrates one way that cues and responses drift, the mental processes that drive habitual behavior can be disoriented or even broken through a number of possible causes.

I call this phenomenon the erosion of habit.

In an effort to better understand it, I've developed 7 hypotheses that I believe can explain it:

Null Habit Hypothesis

People mistake long term actions for habits.

Science may not have reached an agreement on the definition of habit, but plenty of research highlights the importance of cue-response associations in habit formation.

Habits that lack a cue-response association may simply be long term actions.

Consider my meditation habit:

Since I go to the gym roughly the same time every day, I can set a reminder to go off within 15-20 minutes of finishing my workout. The reminder serves as a method for remembering to meditate, but eventually, I can turn the reminder off and remember to meditate solely through the cue-response association I developed between meditating and my workout.

In this example, meditation is the habit. But my workout, without a cue associated with it, was simply a long term action.

Similarly, you can play the guitar for 10 years straight, but unless you've associated it with some cue, you've never actually formed the habit.

Ensuring that your habits are tied to a cue makes them less susceptible to erosion.

The null habit hypothesis is less about the erosion of habit than it is about recognizing that the behavior itself was never really a habit at all.

Environment Cue-Response Drift Hypothesis

Changes in the environment are a risk factor for habit erosion.

In the earlier example about my morning writing habit, one of the factors that led to erosion was moving to a new apartment.

While pinpointing a single cue responsible for the habit was difficult in retrospect, it was clear to me that it had something to do with moving. Many aspects of my morning routine changed when I moved. In fact, in the first few weeks I didn't have much of a routine at all.

I realized that part of what was driving my writing habit may have been associated with where I was doing it and the feeling I got doing it there. But because my cue-response was tied to the environment, I put myself at risk for erosion when my environment changed.

This might be a good thing though. If you can change your environment, you may have some leverage over bad habits.

Dopamine Redundancy Hypothesis

Goal-driven habits must elicit a sufficient dopamine response or the habit will erode.

If we reject the idea that habits solely exist as cue-response associations, we may consider that goals can drive habit formation.

Subscribing to this model, the workout I previously mentioned becomes a habit after all. But instead of being driven by a cue-response relationship, it is driven by the same dopamine processes that drive us towards our goals.

Like with addiction, your brain naturally seeks a dopamine response from goal driven behaviors. The problem is that progress rarely follows a linear trend. When we hit plateaus the lack of progress makes us want to quit because, under the hood, our brain isn't getting the same dopamine response as before.

In these circumstances, it may be time for a challenge. Your brain loses interest in repeat behaviors without sustained dopamine release. Switching things up or challenging yourself is a great way to bring the excitement [i.e., the dopamine rush] right back into play.

However, depending on a dopamine kick to sustain your habit is not in itself, sustainable. Although it's a great way to keep you progressing, it is susceptible to a loss of interest due to lack of progress.

This is why cue-response relationships, for me, remain the best types of habits.

Automaticity Overclock Hypothesis

Significant jumps in brain processing load can weaken habit causal relationships.

Like a computer, your brain has limited processing power.

Repeat behaviors strengthen the relationships between neurons firing to execute them. Over time, your brain learns to fire those neurons more efficiently. Thus, reducing processing power requirements, thanks to neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity plays a significant role in our brain's ability to learn and form new connections. By challenging ourselves, we increase the likelihood of achieving greater neuroplasticity. However, too much effort might be detrimental. Particularly, in the early stages of habit formation.

Consider someone who regularly meditates for 10 minutes at a time. Without building up to it, they suddenly decide they will meditate for 60 minutes at a time.

Attempting such a large increase in processing load may take away from the brain's ability to deepen neural pathways, in turn, making it more difficult to execute the behavior automatically.

Willpower Threshold Hypothesis

High stressor variety weakens habit causal relationships.

If the effort needed to execute a behavior is analogous to processing power, then willpower is analogous to RAM.

That is to say, your brain can only handle so many things at once.

Throughout my life, I've always kept a healthy exercise habit. Like anyone, I've had my downtimes, but from high school through undergrad, I never took more than a month or so off at a time.

Until grad school.

Where, from 9 to 5, I worked a full-time job and from 6 to 8 I went to class. Usually, I wasn't getting home until 9. A 12 hour days was normal.

Within the first couple of weeks, I was already skipping the gym. Little did I know, I would be skipping the gym for the next two years.

My willpower was depleted and my mental capacity to maintain any sort of habit was entirely diminished. Once I was done with the day's work, my mind sought out its most primitive desires and impulses [e.g., high carb foods and sleep]. The thought of doing anything productive other than what I already had on my plate was exhausting in itself.

Burnout will break anyone. Even habits with strong cue-response relationships can erode when willpower is weak.

Relative Charge Hypothesis

Sleep has a positive relationship with habit formation.

There is a reason my brain turned to its primitive desires for food and sleep as soon as I was done with my responsibilities for the day: low battery.

Executing our daily activities consumes energy. To recharge, we need sustenance and rest. When it comes to neuroplasticity, the latter is particularly important.

Therefore, sleep is likely to be an essential factor in habit formation. Conversely, a lack of sleep has a negative impact on one's ability to maintain a habit.

Although cue-response behaviors should become autonomous with well-defined habits, not having the energy to perform the habit can easily lead to erosion.

Circadian Fluctuation Hypothesis

Changes in circadian rhythm affect habit formation processes.

Circadian rhythms are responsible for a variety of important functions, including memory and mood. Disruptions in circadian rhythms may have a negative impact on a person's ability to sleep and function properly.

Living in a four seasons state, I've seen how my behavior shifts from summer to winter. When daylight savings ended this year, I instantly felt the effect on my morning writing habit.

The phase shift hypothesis says that changes in circadian rhythms can lead to seasonal affective disorder [SAD], a type of depressive episode that persists through the winter months. In a similar fashion to burnout, depression negatively affects neuroplasticity and motivation, which is bad news for habits.

While not everyone slips into a depressive episode during the winter months, the impact of changing seasons on your circadian rhythm is apparent. At the least, it is likely to impact sleep, in turn, affecting your habits.

If you are the type of person who feels more down in the dumps during the winter months, this is something to watch out for.

Overcoming Habit Erosion

Habits have a surprising amount of complexity to them. If you struggle with maintaining good habits, consider the above hypotheses. Habit erosion can often be circumstantial and difficult to navigate, but by being aware of what is causing erosion, we can begin to work against it.

To recap, here are a few simple strategies for avoiding habit erosion:

  • Turn long term actions into habits by forming cue-response relationships.
  • Be aware of how changes in your environment can affect cues.
  • If the habit is a skill you are trying to perfect, be sure to keep challenging yourself, but be careful not to overdue it.
  • When changing things up, avoid changes to associated cues.
  • Try not to take on too much at once. Overworking your brain can lead to burnout which is bad for habits.
  • To optimize for habit formation, optimize for sleep.
  • Be wary of how circadian rhythms influence behavior. Avoid associating habits with seasonal activities that can be easily disrupted.

If you came here because you wanted to learn how to form better habits, I hope you still learned something. Although this essay on habits rings an atypical tune, I will offer this piece of advice on habit formation:

Treat habits like Pavlovian experiments. Put systems in place to form automatic cue-response relationships and let routine work its magic.

Said differently, don't just do something over and over again. Do it methodologically; intentionally creating the cue-response relationships you seek by choosing robust cues and easy to implement procedures.

Avoid these common pitfalls of habit erosion.

And make sure it feels natural. The strongest habits are the ones you don't even have to think about.

Thanks for reading!
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