I was reading an article a while back about some of the science behind the formation and maintenance of habits: “A dopamine-rich part of the brain named the striatum memorizes rituals and routines that are linked to getting a particular reward, explains NIDA’s Volkow*. Eventually, those environmental cues trigger the striatum to make some behaviors almost automatic.”
That makes sense from a functional point of view. If routine behavior becomes automatic, that leaves more of the brain to deal with the non-automatic, the dangerous and threatening, the creative and new. When the habits and routines function in the service of productive living, they let you get more done with less effort.
But what about bad habits? They keep us from getting things done. Shouldn’t the reward system guarantee that behavior like that doesn’t become entrenched? If I’d write when I sit down to write, if I’d work when I need to work, if I’d exercise when I said I’d exercise, I’d get things done, and I’d still have time to rest, relax my brain, enjoy spousal time, and watch the Red Sox.
But I don’t have those good habits. Instead I surf the web, play video games, and whine about how I’m not getting any writing done. The bad habits seem to be stronger than any benefit I’m getting.
Except — those habits must be giving me some benefit. What positive benefit am I getting from NOT writing, NOT exercising, NOT getting things done around the house? What does it think it’s protecting me from? If I start to be an efficient, competent, productive writer, and think of myself as an efficient, competent, productive writer, isn’t that better?
Well, maybe not. If I’m efficient, competent, and productive, I’ll make my friends who are struggling feel bad because they’re stuck and I’m not. If I’m efficient, competent, and productive this week, people will expect me to be like that all the time, and then they’ll push all the work on me, and I’ll be the responsible one in the kitchen working while everybody else plays, and I’ll never have any fun ever again. (There are family reasons why I think this; it’s not just random fear.) And since writing is part of the fun — it’s a cycle. If I write, I jeopardize my ability to write in the future.
The kicker is that the situation that causes me to feel this way has long since ceased to exist. Looking back on it with the eyes of an adult, I’m not sure it ever existed the way I perceived it. The differences I attributed to power and control were probably personality and preference. So I’m stuck in a defense that doesn’t work against an enemy that never existed, and still acting like everything in my life depends on maintaining that defense.
I think it’s going to take a long time to unwind that negative cycle. I’m going to have to start with small steps. If I get a little more done, I’ll feel a little better about myself, and if I feel a little better about myself and my situation, that will mean a positive reinforcement that contributes to the new habits. And so on.
It’s not the only issue going on, but at least now that I’ve recognized it, I can start to work on it.
* = Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and an authority on the brain’s pleasure pathway. Full article has aged out, but if you Google Volkow’s name you can find more of her research.
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