Medications don’t have side-effects.

If you’ve ever seen drug commercials, you know the phrase “side-effects may include…” is generally followed by a list of symptoms that make the cure sound worse than the disease.

Except medications don’t have side-effects. They have effects. Some effects are desirable; they’re the reason we take the drug. Some effects are just effects we don’t want. They take our health in the wrong direction.

Habits are the same way. They’re neither good nor bad, just effective or not effective.

We develop habits because we’re trying to meet a need. We feel thirsty. We imagine how refreshing a drink would be. We reach for our water bottle and take a drink. We feel refreshed. Our need is met. The behavior is reinforced. Pretty soon, our basal ganglia can take the wheel and reach for a glass of water when we feel thirsty.

Water isn’t the only thing that could satisfy our thirst. How about an ice-cold, Coca-cola™?

That Coke may be refreshing, but if your basal ganglia learns to quench your thirst by reaching for a Coke, you’re going to become familiar with it’s other effects: it will disrupt your sleep, raise your blood sugar levels, and familiarize you with your dentist.

(Aside: this is where moderation comes in to play. A occasional Coke can help with your Need for Variety—and, if their marketers are right, Society—without affecting your Need for Survival.)

When we’re thirsty, which beverage meets our need better? Water. The Coke will do the trick, but it has additional effects we don’t want. This sideways energy is just wasteful.

What about those other Needs, though? The Need for Variety? And Society? And what if you’re safer to drink the Coke instead of the water? Doesn’t your Need for Safety and Survival help make the Coke the better choice?

This was the simplest example I could think of, and it’s already pretty complicated. Any time you’re analyzing Needs, it’s a multi-dimensional problem. This is why any discussion of health and health-related habits is also complicated. There are best practices, but few one-size-fits-all solutions. When you change one variable, other variables can change in response to offset, invert, or amplify the change.

Is it any wonder our basal ganglia can get confused at the feedback? It’s constantly monitoring inputs and outputs, seeing which solutions we attempt best meet our needs. Those are the solutions to remember for next time.

Except we’re limited in our ability observe all the inputs, correctly quantify the outputs, and assess our current needs. One morning, we were thirsty and a little tired, so we felt refreshed and more awake after the Coke. Or we were at a party and now we associate Coke with pizza and good times. When we’re feeling thirsty and a little lonely, we’re going to reach for the Coke, even if the water would slake our thirst just fine.

Habits are the solutions our basal ganglia has memorized to solve our problems. Some solutions are effective at solving the right problems without creating more problems. Some solutions just trade one problem for another.

The trick is figuring out which habits are which. Which ones are most effective at helping us become the person we’re trying to be? And which ones are wasting our time with sideways energy we can’t afford?

Sometimes the “side-effects” to get the effect we want just aren’t worth it.

Question: What habit would you like to refine to be more effective? Share your thoughts in the comments, on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.