You think you have control over your actions.
You think you make decisions and exercise free will.
But you’re wrong. A huge portion of your daily activities are the not the result of conscious decisions, but unconscious habits.
Our habits define us in a big way. It may feel like we make decisions, but in reality, nearly half the time we’re simply robots, following a script. In his best selling book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains:
“Most of the choices we make each day may feel like the product of well-considered decision making, but they’re not. They’re habits. And though each habit means relatively little on its own, over time, the meals we order, what we say to our kids each night, whether we save or spend, how often we exercise, and the way we organize our thoughts and work routines have enormous impacts on our health, productivity, financial security, and happiness. One paper published by a Duke University researcher in 2006 found that more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits.”
It may not seem like it, but this is good news, especially for the chronically ill. When you understand the way habits work, you can intervene. You can avoid bad habits while introducing healthy ones. You can leverage your habits to make your life easier.
First off, it’s important to understand that habits, defined by Duhigg as, “the choices that all of us deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about but continue doing, often every day,” are a way for our brains to conserve energy. Without habits, we would be overwhelmed with information at all times. It would paralyze us.
Fortunately, our brains have a way to reduce the cognitive impact of a complicated task. Duhigg explains:
“This process—in which the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine—is known as “chunking,” and it’s at the root of how habits form. There are dozens—if not hundreds—of behavioral chunks that we rely on every day. Some are simple: You automatically put toothpaste on your toothbrush before sticking it in your mouth. Some, such as getting dressed or making the kids’ lunch, are a little more complex. Others are so complicated that it’s remarkable a small bit of tissue that evolved millions of years ago can turn them into habits at all.”
Take driving for instance. Imagine if you had to consciously make a decision for every single action you need to take while you drive. It would be impossible to drive safely, and it’s why new drivers are required to complete not only driving school but in-car training as well. The basics need to be chunked into habits.
Think about everything you need to do just to park your car. First, you have to look for traffic. Then, you have to turn on your blinker, turn the wheel, gently press the accelerator, straighten out the wheel, hit the break, put the car in park and turn off the car. But by compressing this complex sequence of actions into a single automatic routine, we free our brains to focus on the things that matter. In the end, you don’t have to process the sequence of actions, you simply park the car.
Understanding this is important because by building healthy routines and adopting good habits, you can drastically reduce brain fog and improve your wellbeing.
The Importance of Routines:
Following fixed daily routines can help you deal with chronic illness and brain fog in several important ways. Remember, habits are a way for our brains to conserve energy. So it makes sense that the more helpful habits you have as a part of your routine, the more energy you will have available for everything else in your life.
Change of any kind is never simple. But when trying to develop new habits, it’s much less stressful to have a routine to follow. In the early days of my Meniere’s disease diagnosis, my daily routine made everything so much simpler for me. It took away the need to make constant decisions, saving my brain’s precious resources. And decision making, it turns out, is not an infinite resource.
In reality, we have only a fixed amount of energy available to make decisions during the day. The more energy we waste making small, insignificant choices, the less we have available to make important ones. This phenomenon is commonly known as Decision Fatigue, and as a consequence, our ability to make good decisions deteriorates as we make decisions throughout the day.
In a New York Times article titled “Do You Suffer from Decision Fatigue,” journalist John Tierney explains:
“No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain…”
It’s a better choice to automate as much of your life as possible by following a fixed routine, rather than having to make continuous decisions throughout the day. It will allow you to have more energy available, more of the time.
Healthy Habits for a Better Routine:
My routine certainly didn’t develop all at once. As I discovered things that helped my symptoms, it slowly evolved. It started with sleep. When I got enough sleep, I felt considerably better, so I went to bed and woke up at the same time every day. I still do. Next, when I discovered how much exercise seemed to help, I added it to the routine, as well. I went to the gym at the same time every day. As I cleaned up my diet, I would eat my meals and snacks at the same time every day, too. Anytime I discovered anything that reduced my brain fog and other symptoms or helped to increase my well-being, I added it into my routine.
Having a fixed morning routine can be a big help, too, and made a huge difference in my productivity. When the first hour of my day is the same, every day, by the time I need to get to work and be productive, I usually haven’t had to make any decisions or waste any energy. My morning routine may not improve my brain fog directly, but having to make many small decisions first thing in the morning definitely makes it worse. It’s about removing obstacles and simplifying your life.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle
And don’t be afraid to get your loved ones involved. I’ve asked my fiancée Megan to hold off on asking me questions, or adding tasks to the first hour of my day. She was happy to oblige and it made a big difference for me. Your loved ones want to help you. This is a very real and simple way that they can aid in your overall wellbeing.
For anyone dealing with brain fog and a chronic illness or health condition, you can use all of this to your advantage. If you follow a fixed daily routine, over time you will have more and more mental energy available to put toward the things you need to accomplish.
Your routine can also be used as a powerful way to introduce new habits that might otherwise be difficult to adopt. But first you need to understand the way habits work. Recently, it was discovered that the process by which habits develop occurs as a three-step loop. Again, Duhigg explains:
“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 … the reason the discovery of the habit loop is so important is that it reveals a basic truth: When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the pattern will unfold automatically.”
Every single one of your habits is triggered by a specific cue, though you likely are not aware of most of them. Remember it all happens automatically; there’s no thinking involved. So if you want to break a bad habit, you first have to find and understand the cue. But because habits never really go away, to change a habit, you have to change the routine that follows the cue.
However, when you want to introduce a new habit, you can use your fixed daily routine as the cue, enabling one healthy habit to trigger the next. This is commonly known as “habit stacking”. For example, when I wanted to start flossing every day, I made a conscious effort to floss every single time I brushed my teeth. Pretty quickly, it became a habit. Now every time I brush my teeth, I grab the floss without thinking.
You can use habit stacking to add any new healthy habit to your daily routine. Want to start reading more? Maybe you want to start exercising every day or going for walks. Maybe you want to start writing or a creativity practice. Whatever it is you want to do, you can use habit stacking to make it easier.
It’s weird to think that we live out so much of our lives on autopilot, but it makes sense. And though our habits define us, we are not held prisoner. We have the power to break bad habits, build healthy new habits, and live a healthier lifestyle. Living with a chronic illness is difficult, but we can make our lives easier by understanding habits and making them work for us.