VIDEOCAST: Habits are energy savers for the brain

What do habits have to do with laziness? Why is it that a renowned musician feels fully relaxed only after playing a piece 1,500 times?

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In the first episode of “Wellbeing Summit”,Jarosław Kuźniar talked with Dr Ewa Hartman about habit formation and brain hygiene. Right at the outset of the conversation, the name of Daniel Kahneman, a very important figure in the field, came up. Kahneman, a psychologist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, is also the author of the concept of dual-system of thinking.

Fast and slow thinking

System 1 thinking refers to the fast, instinctive, emotional, automatic way of forming thoughts. It’s an implicit system, grounded in the subconscious and stereotypes, which relies on intuition. It doesn’t demand excessive intellectual effort but can be used for specific tasks.

Thanks to System 1 thinking, you can – for example – add 2 and 2 together without much deliberation; or you instantly know that you should run away when you see a dangerous animal running towards you. System 1 thinking is instantaneous, and happens without a conscious effort. It’s involved in the tasks with which you are very familiar, and which have become automated.

System 2 is completely different. It comprises conscious, logical thinking which is associated with the execution of complex tasks and requires focused attention. Consequently, System 2 thinking is much slower.

Why do our brains like habits?

“The brain seeks to develop as many routines as possible because they help our brains conserve energy,” says Dr Ewa Hartman. “The brain is wired to create habits, but at a basic level. So, in the context of guitar playing, it won’t be at the level of Jimi Hendrix – who was a master guitarist – but rather playing the guitar around a campfire. The human brain is not inherently inclined to perfect skills to a mastery level.”

Which is not to say that masters don’t build their success on habits as well. Quite the contrary! “Here’s something that Stanisław Soyka once told me: ‘Are you asking me about lightness and improvisation? Well, I improvise after I’ve played a piece 1,500 times. Because only then do I feel confident about improvising’,” recalls Jarosław Kuźniar.

Creating habits is one thing. It provides an opportunity to transfer a task to System 1, allowing the brain to rest. And your brain definitely deserves a rest. It needs appropriate hygiene as well. What are the ways to improve your mental hygiene?

Give your brain a gift! Close your eyes! Yes, just closing your eyes while resting is a great gift for the brain! Why? As much as 50 per cent of the information your brain processes comes through sight. By closing your eyes, you cut off half of the stimuli, giving your mind a good dose of relaxation.

Prioritize sleep! Before bedtime, opt for a glass of water instead of a glass of alcohol. Even one glass of champagne can be enough to disrupt the depth of your sleep. As a result, your brain fails to recover properly.

Get some physical activity! Engaging in physical activity stimulates the mitochondria, which serve as the ‘powerhouse’ of the cells. So, when working at your desk, it’s a good idea to take short breaks and do some exercise because your energy comes from physical activity rather than intellectual effort.

Dr Ewa Hartman

Coach, MBA lecturer, head of the award-winning Neuro-leadership postgraduate programme at Lazarski University in Warsaw. She trains major multinational corporations, including EY’s entire CESA region, which includes 30 countries in Europe and Asia. In addition, she regularly works with companies such as Google, HP, HPE, Cisco, KPMG, GE Healthcare, Pepsico, Veolia, PZU, Ikea Industry, Avon, Mahle, K2 Holding, FIS Technologies, ABB, JLL, AXA, Securitas and more. Her articles can be found in Forbes, Wysokie Obcasy, SENS, Focus, Nowy Marketing and Manager + magazines. In her personal life, she is a wife and mother of two sons.