My newspaper was free when I was a twenty-something reporter. It arrived in the early hours, the dog ran to the gate to fetch it, and I took it back to bed with my morning cereal and a cuppa to ingest all the news, opinions, advertising offers and current shock-horrors I needed to set me up for the day.
And right there, I’d formed three old habits that have refused to die: cereal for breakfast pretty much every day accompanied by a good strong cup of tea and a short wallow back under the warmth of the duvet right until the very last minute before getting ready for work.
Forty years later, same old same old. Even the dog fetching the paper remained a given – a succession of fawning, cute, greedy and occasionally snappy golden cocker spaniels trained in the art of fetching each with their own very bad habits.
Apparently, we form habits over several years (although some researchers say a very simple habit can form in just 21 days) on a dopamine-reward system. We feel good about something (like the security and comfort of a warm bed with a tasty breakfast), we remember how good it felt, so we want to do it again. It becomes habitual, automatic, an unthinking response to a time of day when there are thousands of other more pressing things than breakfast on our mind.
Some might call a habit an addiction. If it’s feeling good about wine, or meth, or cigarettes, we’re in trouble. But if it’s going back to bed with the paper or checking Facebook, we’re just forming habits that become increasingly hard to break.
Social media like Facebook and Twitter have become a time-consuming habit for millions. It’s so easy to check on what your friends and family are doing and saying and, before you know it, you’re reading lengthy articles in The New York Times or watching cute cat and dog videos.
Breaking our habits – online or in person – gets harder the longer we have them, because our brains put up a lot of resistance to us trying to change a pattern that has become automatic, our default behaviour. Like wanting to eat that cream doughnut when we should be reaching for a lettuce leaf; or tapping the Facebook app when we should be getting on with our work – our brain chemistry is crying out for that dopamine charge, that fleeting feeling of joy when we reward it with the habitual response it craves.
It takes a conscious effort to say no to the temptation and we don’t always succeed, such is the pulling power of our brain.
I’ve been lucky to escape the most common habits people have, such as nail biting, playing with our hair, using “Ummm” and “Like” at lot, but I expect I have others I’m not even aware of.
I do admit to a clockwork routine for double-shot coffee at 10am, strong tea at 3pm, and a standard sandwich and Coke Zero for lunch at one. Researchers call this a habit loop – I’ve gone into automatic mode, triggered usually by the time of day and the remembrance of how pleasant and familiar it felt the same time yesterday and the day before that.
Some would say I’ve become stuck in my ways. They’d be right. But once you get to a certain age, you’re less likely to care.
“We first make our habits and then our habits make us,” someone once said sagely. Another sage said: “Habit is either the best of servants or the worst of masters”.
Apparently, going on holiday can help break habitual patterns of behaviour because we’re in a different environment with different cues and triggers. It’s our chance to create new patterns that can last if we let them.
Similarly, it’s never too late to set up good habits – like smiling, saying something nice to three people every day, prioritising your to-do list, making time for family time, for music, for reading, for tidying up. But watch it! Tidying up can become a bad habit too. Have you ever struck someone who whips away your tea cup before you’ve finished, pops it in the dishwasher and wipes the bench clean, even when it’s already spotless? Or who claims to vacuum every morning before coming to work?
That’s a habit I’m never likely to adopt.
Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to adopt the exercise habit, or the getting-up-early habit. The two probably go well together, but they’ve never pushed through the back-to-bed-with-the-paper habit. Old habits might die hard, but some old habits will probably die with me.
Felicity Price ONZM is an ex-journalist who now writes bestselling books – funny, fast-paced romance-suspense for the over 50s. Read more on www.felicityprice.com.