OPINION

Why humans like to be creatures of habit

Why humans like to be creatures of habit

I am a creature of habit. Most days I'll eat the same thing for breakfast. Going to work, I always drive the same route and park in the same area of the car park. I have my coffee at the same time each morning. I even use the same bathroom stall, and sit in the same place in the tearoom.

It's not just me though. People are, in general, creatures of habit.

But why are we so in love with our routines? It's probably because making decisions is hard work.

Think about all of the choices you have to make each day.

When to get up, what to eat, what exercise you might do, what clothes and shoes to wear, how to do your hair, what to pack for lunch ... and that's all before you've even left the house for the day.

Each and every one of these decisions requires brain power.

Making even the simplest decision, and acting on it, requires neurons in a number of different regions of your brain to take in sensory input, and work together to process that information and provide an output. And that takes energy.

Think of a time when you've been forced to make a lot of decisions in a short time.

It probably left you feeling exhausted. In fact, there is even a term for this - it's known as decision fatigue.

Routines and habits are a natural work around that allow us to reserve our cognitive energy for more important things.

Rather than having to make each and every decision fresh every time, we simply choose what we chose before.

What time should I get up? I'll just do what I did yesterday. What should I eat for breakfast? I'll just eat what I ate yesterday.

The predictability of these routines can both reduce stress and allow your brain more energy to then concentrate on other things.

The cognitive load of decision making can also be why it's hard to change our habits and routines.

Doing the same thing over and over again is easy.

But doing something new or different ... that takes energy.

It's also why we might be more likely to make poor decisions when we're already tired or stressed.

We simply don't have the energy to make smart choices.

If you're a creature of habit like me, it's not because you're boring or lacking creativity.

You're just saving your brain power for more important things.

Dr Mary McMillan is a senior lecturer at the School of Science and Technology, University of New England.

This story Why humans like to be creatures of habit first appeared on The Canberra Times.