Total cost of habit

Habits are integral part of our life and very often we can hardly escape them. They make our life work on autopilot. By engaging in them, we almost invisibly decrease our opportunities over time as we start to pay their cost. This is why it is important to be constantly aware in what kind of activities we engage and what else we wouldn’t be able to do because of that. If we spend our days in the same way, we can’t expect this to lead to different results.

Habits can be attached to people, objects and time. Any object we spend time with is an attachment candidate. The usage of that object can then become a habit over time. It doesn’t change, but our mindset about it does. For instance, if we play the piano sporadically, we may not find it engaging enough, but as we start to get better, we are suddenly attracted to its beautiful sound and the vast possibilities in which we can combine the notes. We have heard that “the appetite comes with the eating”, but that appetite may lead us into habits we are unaware of. Left uncontrolled, a habit can consume lots of our time and in some cases even ruin our life.

To think that changing habits is easy if we exert the necessary will is a mistake. A habit can’t be changed immediately; it doesn’t disappear when we wake up. Even the opposite, after we wake up, we have to remind ourselves of what we thought yesterday night. We may need lots of small wins in order to find the right path. If we want to develop a positive habit, we have to “eat” the negative one; by repeating the positive we “overwrite” the negative. A habit is developed over time by rewiring the brain in new ways through constantly engaging the same neurons until the axons between them get stronger. To understand why we engage in a certain habit, we need to examine why the brain operates in a certain way, by what exactly it is stimulated and which of its areas respond to these stimuli. Of course, this is something that only science can tell; gut feeling can’t help us here.

But how do we recognize when something has become a habit? Well, one way may be to check how often we do it, no matter how small the thing is. If we do something that takes 3 seconds 100 times in a day, we spend 5 minutes on it. Depending on how long we keep at it, the negligible 5 minutes can become 150 minutes in a month and 1800 minutes (30 hours!) in a year. On the other pole are things that take us a lot of time and that we do only few times in a day (some people watch TV only once, albeit for 4 hours). Because of that, we may not even be aware that the time is passing by without using any signaling tool. Working the whole day means that we lose sense of the time. And then constantly being “in the zone” becomes a habit, which will be seen as positive by our employer, but as negative by us when it leads to our full exhaustion. Burnout has a high health cost.

If habits can be costly, the question arises whether we can quantify this cost. Since we can have many habits at the same time, their costs will be added and the result can quickly become unpleasant. At one point of time habit A may be stronger than habit B, but then habit B may take precedence. While the balance between the two is kept, the costs in these cases may be very different. I have tried to create a calculator for the financial (only!) cost that most habits have on us. It doesn’t consider all habits, but has some of the most common ones and at the same time some of these we rarely seem to think about. It is fairly simplified, and may not be very accurate, since it tries to look at almost everything from a fixed cost perspective, but it may be still useful in some cases when we want to see the impact of what’s happening. The goal is to prevent the total cost of habit to lead to our long-term failure.