Cues, Chunking, and Neural Pathways: The Science of How Habits Are Formed

How are habits formed? Science is beginning to tell us the answer.

What’s clear is that more of our lives are ruled by habits than you might think.

How Are Habits Formed? Neural Pathways of the Brain

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.


Prolific author and writing teacher Dean Wesley Smith reminds us that summer is when many writers let their writing habits slip (emphasis added):

We are in the “writers forget” days. This period of time is when many, many writers let their writing slide, let learning slide, lose focus on goals and dreams. Most writers tend to come back (I call it wake up) around August (Although many don’t come back until the end of the year because they feel they have failed.) But the ones that return in August wonder why they didn’t get much writing done in the last three months. There are lots of reasons for this, of course, and all valid to each writer. Mostly, the writer just forgets to make the time to write a little each day, or learn a little each week.

As a writer myself, I can understand what Smith is talking about. The months he is referring to here mean summer in the northern hemisphere. The summer months are a bane of productivity. The weather’s nicer, the social calendar fills up, and the heat breeds lethargy.

Willpower is a finite resource. You get a set amount each day to achieve what you want to achieve. Expending willpower to beat the heat and refrain from social activities leads to sagging motivation at the keyboard.

But what if there was a way to not expend willpower to write? What if sitting at the computer and getting started happened automatically, without your consciously forcing yourself to do it?

Welcome to the world of habit formation.

“The Effortless Custody of Automatism”

William JamesMason Currey writes about the work habits of famous authors, artists, and composers on his blog and in his book, Daily Rituals.

One of Currey’s subjects is the American philosopher and psychologist, William James. Here’s James talking about the benefits of habit formation (emphasis added):

The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation

What’s funny is William James himself was a chronic procrastinator. He could never keep to a schedule and led a disorderly, chaotic life. In his advice as a lecturer, he was diagnosing a problem within himself.

Recognizing the dangers of not having any kind of routine, James advocated the benefits of productive work habits to his younger colleagues and his students.

But James is essentially correct. Imagine if you had to use “express volitional deliberation” AKA willpower to do everything. Brush your teeth, make your coffee, start your car. Your life would be a living hell. You’d be mentally exhausted 45 minutes after waking up.

Your life doesn’t look like that because you’re able to form habits. Those habits fade into the background processing of your mind, freeing your conscious mind to expend brainpower on problems that really matter.

But in order to get those habits to work for you (instead of against you), you have to build specific triggers. Those specific triggers are called cues.

Cue and Response: Habit Triggering 101

Habits are triggered by specific cues. When a person says “Thank you” we are cued to respond with “You’re welcome.” When we wake up in the morning, most of us are cued to immediately brush our teeth.

In a 2010 study published by Health Psychology, researchers Sheina Orbell and Bas Verplanken demonstrated that automated habits can last long after the initial need that gave rise to them has gone away. The author Caroline L. Arnold, in her 2014 book Small Move, Big Change, cites the following from the Orbell and Verplanken paper:

[A] person’s initial decision to eat a cookie when drinking a cup of tea might be guided by an active goal state (e.g., feeling hungry). However, over time the goal becomes less necessary as cookie eating is repeated and becomes integrated with the act of drinking tea so that it can be triggered by the cue alone.

Later in the study, the researchers describe an experiment where the benefits of dental floss are related to volunteers and given a package of dental floss.

One group was told to write down where they intended to floss for the next four weeks. The other group was told nothing.

When they tracked the results, the first group of volunteers had flossed significantly more than the second group. The first group had created a cue for the flossing habit.

You don’t need a research scientist to prompt you to create these cues. You can do it yourself.

Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and author Charles Duhigg writes about the science of habit formation in his 2014 book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Duhigg describes how habits are formed in the following passage:

First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.

Becoming aware of this process lets you build better habits. Critically, you can also learn to avoid creating bad habits (like overspending). So long as you encounter consistent cues and receive consistent rewards, certain routines can “lock in.” That’s how an afternoon treat turns into 5 pounds of belly fat.

But on some level, these are the “easy” problems. Tying shoes, brushing teeth, and refraining from eating candy bars hardly compare to the level of thorny problems that we’re asked to deal with day-in and day-out.

How are habits formed when they involve more complicated tasks? Can we use the science of habit formation to get better at our jobs or do more cognitively and creatively demanding work?

Chunking and Carved Neural Pathways: How Complex Habits Are Formed

How Habits Are Formed in Chess: Working Memory and Carved Neural Pathways

Photo Credit: practicalowl via Compfight cc

In The Art of Learning, author and national chess champion Josh Waitzkin talks about chunking, a concept that is critical to learning complex skills:

Chunking relates to the mind’s ability to assimilate large amounts of information into a cluster that is bound together by certain patterns or principles particular to a given discipline.

Waitzkin cites the work of Dutch psychologist Adriaan de Groot (1965) and William Simon and Herbert Chase (1973). The psychologists studied chess players of varying degrees of skill. The chess players were asked to look at various chess positions and game states and told to reproduce them on an empty board.

The stronger players demonstrated better memory when they were asked to replicate the game states of other strong players.

Waitzkin says, “they re-created the positions by taking parts of the board (say five or six pieces) and chunking (merging) them in the mind by their interrelationships. The stronger the player, the more sophisticated was his or her ability to quickly discover connecting logical patterns between the pieces (attack, defense, tension, pawn chains, etc.) …”

What’s interesting is that this “chess memory” went away when the chess positions were random or the board represented nonsensical states. If the stronger chess players’ superior performance in the study were solely about working memory, then they would have been equally adept at memorizing “good” and “bad” games of chess.

But they weren’t.

In Waitzkin’s formulation, carved neural pathways are the navigation system between chunks. He likens it to carving a path through dense jungle. Clearing a path could take days. But once it’s cleared, you can move quickly through the pathway.

If you built a road, it would become faster still.

The strong chess players were stumped by nonsensical board states because they didn’t possess the carved neural pathways for them.

The pathways between chunks of information allow you to create meta-habits, like tackling complex problems or making decisions under uncertain conditions.

These carved neural pathways are created by repetition and deliberate practice. The more chunks of knowledge and experience you connect, the more the adjacent possibilities open up to you and the more you improve at your craft.

Building Your Trigger: Routines Become Cues

In The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin also describes helping a man named Dennis build a routine for relaxation:

  • Eat a light consistent snack for 10 minutes
  • 15 minutes of meditation
  • 10 minutes of stretching
  • 10 minutes of listening to Bob Dylan
  • Play catch with his son

After he fully internalized the routine, Waitzkin suggested to Dennis that he perform the routine the morning before an important meeting.

“He did so an came back raving that he found himself in a totally serene state in what was normally a stressful environment,” Waitzkin reports. He now had a method to put himself into a good frame of mind before any high-leverage situation, like a critical business negotiation.

Over time, Dennis can iteratively change the routine so that it takes less time and becomes more “portable” without sacrificing its effectiveness.

Fifteen minutes for meditation becomes twelve minutes. Ten minutes of stretching becomes eight. Bob Dylan turns into one song. Playing catch with his son becomes a chat on the drive to school. And so on.

In time, the routine will become so compact that it itself becomes a cue. A cue to enter into a more relaxed mental state. Better communication becomes the new routine, and the reward is the satisfaction from more productive and effective meetings.

How can you build a cue for better habits today?

Top Photo Credit: illuminaut via Compfight cc

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