Habit: Why do we do the things we do?

Habit is an interesting topic for a designer and can be an indicator to inform the way a designer approaches a new concept. Human behavior is full various habits with varying degrees of complexity. Brushing your teeth is a simple task that is made up of a series of steps but most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about all of the individual steps involved in the process. This is because it task has become habit. But some of the habits we have can be undesirable and difficult to break. It is important for a designer to understand habits in order to reinforce or break them with a concept.

Some people may think of a habit as a bad routine that needs to be broken but habits are an important part of our ability to function. Making our lunch, taking a shower, brushing our teeth, driving to work; these all include a series of steps that need to be fulfilled in order to perform a task successfully. In order for us to cary out these tasks more easily, and reduce our cognitive load, our brain naturally “chunks” these processes. Instead of thinking about driving to work by thinking about all of the individual steps (picking up our keys, unlocking the car, getting in, closing the door, putting the key in the ignition, etc.) we simply just think of it as “driving to work.” If people didn’t naturally chunk their routines, we would be mentally exhausted by the time we showed up to work.

This chunking not only allows people to perform habits more easily but it also physically moves where this information is stored in the brain. While performing or learning new routines, thought process is occurring in an area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. Neurologist believe this area was developed late in human evolution and when processing information here, the brain is under a large cognitive load. Habits are maintained in a part of the brain called the basal ganglia. This part of the brain is much older (in terms of the evolution of the brain) and contains our instinctual behaviors. While performing functions using this part of the brain, our brain is under a small cognitive load. As new behaviors become habits the brain physically changes where it is storing and referencing information, shifting the thought process from the prefrontal cortex to the basal ganglia. This reduces the cognitive load needed to perform a task or routine that has now become familiar. This is what makes it so easy for us to brush our teeth everyday without thinking about it.

There are three components to every habit: the cue, the routine, and the reward. The cue is the thing that triggers the habit. An example of a cue could be a sign to your favorite coffee house. This cue then triggers the routine of going to buy coffee. Once the transaction is complete, the reward is a fresh, hot cup of coffee. This example is extremely simplified as each one of these components can have varying levels of complexity. The reward of the coffee is really a complex package containing everything from the coffee in the cup to the environment of the coffee house. While it may be easy to identify the routine, it can be difficult to pinpoint the cues and rewards.

Good designs help reduce cognitive load which, in-turn makes it easy to adopt new habits. Every design either builds off of an existing habit (a new tooth brush that maintains the traditional design) or attempts to create a new habit (a fancy electric tooth brush). Understanding how habits are created and maintained is important for designers to consider as a reinforcement tool for successful designs.


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