Do you remember when you learned to drive? You probably fumbled for the controls, checked each mirror several times, made sure your foot was on the brake pedal, and then very slowly rolled your car forward.
Fast forward to now and you’re probably driving through places thinking, “how did I even get here?” I don’t remember the ride.” The task of driving, which used to take a lot of mental energy and concentration, has now become unconscious, automatic – a habit.
But how – and why – do you go from focusing on a task to automating it?
Habits are there to help us cope
We live in a vibrant, complex and transient world where we are constantly confronted with a barrage of information vying for our attention. For example, our eyes record more than one megabyte of data per second. That is equivalent to reading 500 pages of information or an entire encyclopedia per minute.
Just a touch of a familiar smell can recall a childhood memory in less than a millisecond, and our skin contains up to 4 million receptors that give us important information about temperature, pressure, texture and pain.
And if that wasn’t enough data to process, we make thousands of decisions every day. Many of them are unconscious and/or small, such as putting spices on your food, choosing a pair of shoes to wear, choosing which street to walk on, and so on.
Some people are neurodiverse, and the ways we perceive and process the world differ. But in general, because we just can’t handle it all incoming dataour brains create habits – automations of the behaviors and actions we often repeat.
Read more: Neurodiversity can be a force in the workplace, if we make room for it
Two brain systems
There are two forces that determine our behavior: intention and habit. Simply put, our brains have dual processing systemsa kind of computer with two processors.
Performing a behavior for the first time requires intention, attention, and planning – even if plans are made just before the action is performed.
This happens in our prefrontal cortex. More than any other part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for making informed and logical decisions. It is the key to reasoning, problem solving, understanding, impulse control and perseverance. It influences behavior through purposeful decisions.
You use your ‘reflective’ system (intention), for example, to go to bed on time because sleep is important, or to set your body in motion because you feel wonderful afterwards. When you are learning a new skill or acquiring new knowledge, you will be putting great demands on the reflective brain system to form new memory connections in the brain. This system requires mental energy and effort.
Read more: Here’s what happens in your brain when you try to make or break a habit
From impulse to habit
On the other hand, your “impulsive” (habit) system is in your brain basal ganglia, which plays a key role in the development of emotions, memories and pattern recognition. It is boisterous, spontaneous and fun-seeking.
For example, your impulsive system may influence you to grab greasy takeout on your way home from a hard day at work, even though a home-cooked meal is waiting for you. Or it may prompt you to spontaneously buy a new, expensive television. This system requires no energy or cognitive effort because it works reflexively, unconsciously and automatically.
When we repeat a behavior in a consistent context, our brain recognizes the patterns and shifts control of that behavior from intention to habit. A habit forms when your impulse to do something is automatically initiated because you encounter an environment where you have done the same thing in the past. For example, getting your favorite takeout because you pass the eatery every night on your way home from work – and it’s delicious every time and earns you a pleasant reward.
Shortcuts of the mind
Because habits are in the impulsive part of our brain, they do not require much cognitive input or mental energy to be carried out.
In other words, habits are the shortcuts of the mind that enable us to successfully go about our daily lives while reserving our reasoning and executive functions for other thoughts and actions.
Your brain remembers how to drive a car because you’ve done it before. Forming habits is therefore a natural process to which it contributes energy conservation.
That way your brain doesn’t have to consciously think about every move you make and is free to consider other things like what to eat or where to go on your next vacation.
Read more: ‘What shall we eat?’ Choice stress is a real problem, but these tips will make your life easier