Habits Need to Fit into Muscle Memory

We know what we should do. We sit down to think about it and no, we should not open the fridge door 20 times a day. Then the time comes, and we find ourselves doing it anyway. Why? My guess is that it has something to do with memory.

Memory is layered. On the top layer, we have a large amount of cheap, long-term storage. The bulk of what we call our “knowledge” is here. It takes effort to retrieve this information, it’s not instantaneous. But that’s the tradeoff for the sheer quantity of stuff you can store.

Down a couple of layers, we have our short-term memory. I am using it to type this very sentence, so that I don’t forget how I started it. You’re using it too to parse these paragraphs. This memory pool is small, but access to is is fast.

At the bare bones, we have what some call “muscle memory,” or “instincts.” I’ll call it Layer 0. This is where your operating system resides. Retrieving from this layer takes no effort at all, in fact, you don’t need to “retrieve” anything from it, the information is just “there.”

Layer 0 is what people refer to as “you”. Your actions, reactions, behaviours. When you say you “turn off your brain,” this is the layer you are using. Here, it’s not even fair to call it “memory”, it’s more like the “code” that runs you.

Whenever you see something, you have an instinctive reaction. That’s Layer 0. Your upper layers then kick into gear and form an idea about it, then store it. But you always start from 0. We love layer 0, because it doesn’t take any effort to use it.

The reason why what we do is different from what we think we should do is because these two pieces of information reside in different layers of memory.

What we “should” do is in layer 3 or 4, while what we actually do is always down to layer 0. Retrieving info from the top layers is expensive, so if there is a suitable alternative closer to the core, we do it.

When we are solving a complex problem, there is no layer 0 alternative. We are forced to wire stuff down from the top. But when we need to choose what to do after getting up from the chair, the choice is easy: your “reaction” to walk up to the fridge in layer 0 versus your “knowledge” of restraining yourself on layer 3.

And it’s not just that retrieving “knowledge” is expensive, it’s that Layer 0 is extremely small. If our upper layers are the surface of the Earth, our Layer 0 is the size of a stamp. This is why we rely heavily on abstractions to make sense of the world around us. We just can’t process and store it all at once. This is also why many habit gurus on the Internet recommend you start small.

You’re successful at creating a habit when you can bring it down to layer 0. Real estate in this layer is at a premium, but once something is there, it’s there for good. Because a habit is just that: something that feels natural to you. Something effortless.

Everything I have ever said so far about habits, such as making them small, treating them like meetings, shaping your environment, and others can all boil to this same one thing: making habits a part of ourselves. A part of Layer 0.