Secrets of Science: Habits vs Behaviours

Written by Martin Lucas

Before we start this battle, it’s crucial to understand that there is a demonstrable difference between your behaviours and your habits. It starts by understanding the origin of each:


Do you recall how to tie your laces?

Left over right, over left… Good. Well, that is a habit; it is inherent knowledge which simply means you have repeated something enough times that you know how to do it without thinking. This is then sent to your unconscious mind and a habit is born. We all know that good and bad habits exist. Which side you categorise a habit into is your call; it’s your perception of said habits that matters. You like coffee? Then it’s a good habit. You don’t like coffee as you know it’s addictive? Then it’s a bad habit, each of us have million habits in our brain. ‘The Power of Habit’ by Pulitzer Prize Winner Charles Duhigg was a NY Times bestseller because it helped people understand how habits work:


I chose a positive example above, but the basis of even this running example is chemically based; the need for endorphins is the real cue, an unconscious cue which is sent to the mind and ‘suddenly’ you feel like running and you think about how you feel and off you go - the behaviours kick in. Like the unconscious mind, habits are the collective overlord of all your activities. I am big fan of Duhigg’s book because a lot of it focuses on mass audiences and how companies like Target have manipulated data in an attempt to change the habits of their customers. It’s an international bestseller for good reason, just like Simon’s ‘Creatures of Habit’ is a hit for the analysis and workshops he runs (side note: he runs Creative Thinking workshops for Creative Agencies; how cool is that? He’s like the Godfather of Creativity!).

Human habits sit preprogrammed into our unconscious mind: what you like, what you do, what you don’t do, how you do things, your movements, your abilities, your ability to read, to write, to talk, to dress. All of what you have learnt and understand about yourself makes up your habitual ways.

Now, we understand that how we behave is driven by how we are built and pre-programmed in our unconscious minds, and once you become aware of why a habit exists and what causes it -  this is called the cue -  then you can make a conscious effort to think and behave differently. You can unlock your ability to be more creative; you can change your habits (or not!). That is the power of habits which in turn causes our behaviours. Behaviours sit in the middle with your emotional intelligence and the subconscious, as your habits may be automated but how you feel about doing it has a direct cause and effect on your behaviours. For example, if you are in a bad mood and are asked to take out the garbage, you may deliver the habit with more exhaling and grumping than if you were feeling happier. A habit is a way to do something. A behaviour is what makes you execute it differently depending on how you feel.

The point of calling this a battle is that it’s only a battle if you choose it to be. The reason we humans (generally speaking) don’t like change is that our brains do not like changing the patterns of pretty much anything we do. Known as your cognitive pattern, the brain hates change. Your unconscious mind does not measure good or bad; it looks to maintain exactly the same way of doings. It literally resists change. That’s why humans dislike change; it’s a chemical balance of lazy efficiency.

Your cognitive pattern is what your brain knows as your usual way of doing things, your way of being, of talking, of moving, all of it; it is the combination of all those habits in one place and it’s the reason we don’t like change. Repetition? Yes, because I like to reinforce this point about our resistance to change. If you are looking to sell more products, grow a service or launch something new then you need to factor in for the type of change you are bringing. Is it a habit or is it a behaviour you are changing? One follows the other and vice versa but some are easier to change than others. Now, where is the garbage bag, it’s my turn but I can’t be bothered……..