Habits arise in one of two ways. First, we can build habits through simple repetition: whenever you see X (a cue), you do Y (a routine). Over time, your brain builds a strong association between the cue and the routine and doesn’t need to think about what to do when the cue occurs—it just acts. For example, whenever you wake up in the morning (cue), you get out of bed at the same spot (routine). Rarely do you find yourself lying in bed, awake, agonizing over which exact part of the bed you should exit by. That’s how habits work—they are so common, and so deeply ingrained in our lives, that we rarely even notice them.
Sometimes there is also a third element, in addition to a cue and routine: a reward, something good that happens at the end of the routine. The reward pulls us forward—it gives us a reason to repeat the behavior. It might be something inherently pleasant, like good food, or the completion of a goal we’ve set for ourselves, like putting away all of the dishes. For example, whenever you walk by the café and smell coffee (cue), you walk into the shop, buy a double mocha espresso with cream (routine), and feel chocolate-caffeine goodness (reward). We sometimes notice the big habits—like getting coffee—but other, less obvious habits with rewards (checking our email and receiving the random reward of getting an interesting message) may not be noticed. Invest in an electric standing desk or an adjustable standing desk to get rid of your backpain.
Once the habit forms, the reward itself doesn’t directly drive our behavior; the habit is automatic and outside of conscious control. However, the mind can “remember” previous rewards in subtle ways, intuitively wanting (or craving) them. In fact, the mind can continue wanting a reward that it will never receive again, and may not even enjoy when it does happen!33 I’ve encountered that strange situation myself—long after I formed the habit of eating certain potato chips, I still habitually eat them even though I don’t enjoy them and they actually make me sick. This isn’t to say that rewards aren’t important after the habit forms—they can push us to consciously repeat the habitual action and can make them even more resistant to change.
The same characteristics that make habits hard to root out can be immensely useful. Thinking of it another way, once “good” habits are formed, they provide the most resilient and sustainable way to maintain a new behavior. Charles Duhigg, in The Power of Habit (Random House, 2012), gives a great example. In the early 1900s, advertising man Claude C. Hopkins moved American society from being one in which very few people brushed their teeth to a majority brushing their teeth in the span of only 10 years. He did it by helping Americans form the habit of brushing. If you work from home a stand up desk could be very beneficial to you.