The Power of Habit

Why do we actually do what we do? Forty percent of our daily actions are not based on conscious decisions, but on habits. We acquire such habits over the course of our lives. We also get rid of some of them. Some have become dear to us, others annoy us - or our fellow human beings. Do you know your own habits?

As banal as this question may sound, a concrete answer is usually not as easy as you might first think.


Elephant and Rider

This is because we are completely unaware of a great number of our habits. We have internalised them as routines to the point that they have become predictable behaviour. The unconscious is powerful.

Someone once compared it to an elephant on which the conscious sits like a person who thinks they are in charge of the elephant and can steer it when they ride it. But in fact the balance of power is the exact opposite. The elephant will only do what the human wants when he himself also wants to do it.

Therefore the question of whether we have our habits under control or whether our habits have us under control is a very interesting and vital one. It leads straight to the issue of whether or to what extent we are capable of changing our habits. This question is so fascinating and important because habits can make our lives easier, yet they can also make them difficult and may even harm us. The fight against bad habits that lead to addiction is by no means hopeless but it is very demanding. Breaking out of this prison of physical or psychological dependency is a feat that many people can’t manage at all and most people can’t manage without help.


Collective Standstill

What applies to individuals also applies to interpersonal relationships, to companies and organisations of all kinds and also to whole societies and cultures. There too habits play a role in everyday life that should not be underestimated. Like all customs, practices and traditions they create a feeling of community and belonging and thus a certain security in a world beset by uncertainty and risk. Good habits hold a society together, bad ones do the opposite.

Adapting to the habits of a group is an ambivalent process. As soon as it happens due to social pressure, it usually does one’s self no good. If due to the power relations in an organisation or society, it becomes a collective habit that existing norms, procedures and decisions may not be interrogated, there is a threat of development standstill. “We’ve always done it like this” and “We’ve never done this before” are two variants of one and the same killer argument against even the smallest move to change. Such organisations lose their ability to change and thus their ability to develop and improve because this is only possible when criticism is allowed. Otherwise mistakes are swept under the carpet, dangerous weaknesses remain undetected, and conformity and opportunism take hold. And this can have drastic consequences – from material damage to human catastrophes.

Vivid examples of this can be found in the findings of various studies of the still young discipline of habit research. Charles Duhigg, business editor of the New York Times and investigative journalist, has compiled many of them, based on findings from brain research and behavioural psychology, in his highly readable book “The Power of Habit“.


Space for the New

Let there be no misunderstanding: habits are basically a very good thing when they relate to the right kind of actions. They take the strain off the brain. What still requires the utmost attention and effort from a small child, such as walking or eating with a knife and fork, runs automatically as soon as it has been practiced. We then don’t need to spend another thought on such habits. The same applies to everything else we take up and learn later in life – from playing an instrument to driving a car – if we practice intensely. As soon as something is practised and becomes a habit, our brains no longer need to make such an effort. It saves energy which we have  for other creative or difficult tasks.

It’s simply a matter of developing and maintaining the right habits and, if necessary, saying goodbye to wrong or bad habits. Anyone who has ever tried to give up something that is obviously unhealthy or anyone trying to get into the habit of something healthy will know that this is easier said than done. Winston Churchill solved the problem for himself by declaring his unhealthy habits a personal lifestyle. That was his conscious decision.


Another Way

Habits can be changed, even from one day to the next, if you first understand how they function and if there’s a sufficiently strong incentive to change them. Individually the incentive might come from an “aha” moment, a completely new realisation or insight, coupled with the ambition to prove to oneself – and sometimes to others –that things can be done differently. In other cases it’s being confronted with a medical diagnosis or the wish of somebody that you love or respect a lot.

Sometimes social events, economic or political crises, and in the worst case even natural catastrophes or wars force us to give up what we were used to. Then nothing is the way it used to be – an existential challenge. The spread of the corona virus pandemic is one such challenge. It has led to restrictions not seen in this country for more than seventy years, with serious economic, social and, not least, socio-psychological consequences. Isolation in quarantine and the prohibition of all kinds of communal live cultural events in the lockdown also take their toll.

These negative consequences must be taken seriously. In particular with a view to their long-term effects and the weak points in our country that existed long before but which have now become so blatantly evident as a result of the crisis that they can now no longer be overlooked. Not the least of such deficiencies is the country’s bloated bureaucracy that impedes swift pragmatic action and sometimes makes it even impossible.

Many things will return to normal once the pandemic has subsided. Will this be an unthinking return to a previous normality or will it be a different new normality with new habits? I hope that we will not let the opportunity to learn from last year’s experiences pass us by. Because experiences and opportunities of this kind do not come often.

More Dagmar Woyde-Koehler