Good habits lead to mastery. Bad habits are mindless routines that sabotage your life. How do you save yourself from being sabotaged by bad habits?
- How Are Habits Formed?
- The Habit Loop
- Keystone Habits
- The Golden Rule of Habit Change
- Takeaways- 14 Facts You Need To Know
- My 10 step Process to Better Habits
I am glad I paid Charles Duhigg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times, about $12.00. Or part thereof. I am sure there are upstream and downstream folks. Actually, I did not pay all of the $12.00. There was the 10% discount for being a member of the book store. I have a member’s card which allows them, according to the book he wrote, to know when I am pregnant, although it is not possible. I am thankful that my wife delivered to our three kids quota. She does not need further help. Thank you.
Not only does Duhigg deliver a sought after solution to an age old question, “How do you save yourself from bad habits?” his extensive research based tome yielded a mine of fascinating anecdotes. Eye opening snippets on why and how people can be manipulated. We seek to be predictable. To be trusted and deemed reliable. This predictableness makes us vulnerable.
A clever writer, Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit’ reads like a full blooded thriller. If not for the skull cracking problem at Rhode Island hospital, it would have been bloodless. He takes you through seemingly unrelated theaters of events to lead you to the premise of his finding. His style pulls me through the massive material from the mind labs with ease.
Duhigg takes you to the private home of ‘E.P.’’ the man who has no past. Part of his brain that enables recall of the past had been destroyed by a virus. Actually, the witty writer takes you on an impulse trip with a Lisa Allen first. This lady who was plump and failing, reignited her life at Cairo by replacing her craving for smoking. He then lets you in to Procter and Gamble where a promising career was nearly killed because a killer product failed to make the desired impact.
Then we rush down to the football field where Coach Tony Dungy is trying to make a bunch of losers into winners by applying ‘the Golden Rule of Habit Change.’ He sums up his strategy; “Champions don’t do extraordinary things.” The winner’s edge, Dungy believes, is to be able to do the ordinary things without thinking. The mindfully designed routine that gives his players the advantage of speed, a quality that makes or breaks a game on the football field. Intrigue is triggered when the crafty reporter links the winning strategy of Dungy, to a “dingy basement on the Lower East Side of New York City.” You would be taken back to 1934.
I have heard about Alcoholics Anonymous, “the largest, most well- known and successful habit changing organization in the world.” Now, I know that Bill Wilson is the toast of the world of sobriety. Duhigg’s ability to weave a rich tapestry of different scenarios and dimensions to illustrate the personal, economic and social powers of habit keeps you eager to grasp the whole picture.
Chapter 7, “HOW TARGET KNOWS WHAT YOU WANT BEFORE YOU DO- When Companies Predict (and Manipulate)” is discomforting reading. It makes you feel like you are always being tracked by a giant pervert. Like, it can undress you any time it fancies. Angie Bachmann’s struggle with Harrah’s is the clearest in driving home the point that the bad habit of sniffing for instant gratification can lead to destitution. You are also treated to the heroics of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr, Rick Warren and a horde of brain detectives.
However, the attributions to Paul O’Neil cross the borderline to mythical for me. By just focusing on safety accomplishments, a company can quintuple its revenue in 13 years later must be a stretch. There is no doubt in my mind that improving safety performance is critical to the positive motivation of employees. But. If it were that simple!
From experience, the leader’s one minded focus on a marquee indicator may spawn ethic issues. Taking safety as an example, crooked safety leads would compromise ethics by passing favored vendors in safety audits. Indicators would be dressed up to meet the CEO. It does not surprise me to read in the book that a plant manager was caught for not being forthright with the safety reporting. He was probably the unlucky one.
Right now, let’s deal with the business at hand. Saving yourself from the mindless routines that sabotage your life. Or, kicking bad habits.
How does a Habit get into us?
It starts with your brain being an efficiency freak. And it has become one because of you. Art Markman, PhD. explains it simply in his book, “Smart Change.” Regularly performed behaviors are stored as habits because the brain wants to favorably balance the time and energy spent doing them with the value derived. In other words, your brain wants you to do certain familiar actions without thinking. In Markham’s words, “Your brain wants to minimize the amount of time you spend thinking about anything to make sure the energy cost of thinking does not exceed the value of what you are thinking about.”
The process of converting a sequence of actions into an automatic routine is called “chunking,” Duhigg reveals. Concurring with Markham, Duhigg reports that scientists say that habits are formed because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. It’s academic, but the part of the brain that stores all your habits in the basal ganglia. Although, we struggle a lot with bad habits, the ability to chunk certain behaviors into routines is critical to our survival. Without the ability to form habits, we will be overwhelmed by the multitude of choices we have to make every moment. Duhigg says that, left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit.
This saves us time and energy; and also frees up our brain to focus on the new, innovative and more advanced stuff. Basic functions such as walking, brushing your teeth and choosing what to eat becomes automatic routines. Besides enabling us to perform them efficiently, converting basic routines into habits also frees up our brain to pursue other thoughts.
The brain capacity can be redirected to address our other challenges and creative pursuits. Imagine, without the capability to chunk behaviors and store them as routines, we have to relearn how to drive all over again every day! You may even need the operations manual every time you do your laundry.
Here’s the Catch
Your brain cannot tell the difference between good and bad habits. So, if you succumb to some triggers and snack mindlessly, it will become a habit. So will gluing yourself to the TV, or sleeping late.
Other than smoking or substance abuse, speeding and texting while driving can be life threatening habits, but your brain will not make the decisions for you. Once your behavior becomes a routine and it gets stored in the basal ganglia, it becomes a habit. We will be doing the things without thinking or realizing the process.
Take note about texting behind the wheels. It has been estimated that road accident fatalities caused by texting have surpassed those caused by drunk driving.
But, you cannot kill a bad habit. You cannot eliminate it and wipe it off your basal ganglia. You cannot evict it from your brain. You have to replace it with a new one. You have to respond to familiar triggers with new routines. Yes, you can only replace a bad habit with a good one.
Like Duhigg’s Lisa Allen story, you can push the bad tendencies into the background. However, habits do not dissipate or disappear. Once you revert to the old routine in response to the usual set of triggers, the old habits may arise and take hold of you again. So, the “stickability” of your new routines is key to suppressing the habits you are trying to replace.
We all know that certain habits can be bad for your health. The big issue is that when the triggers appear, we would be driven by the brain, mindlessly, to act out a habit, even if it is a dangerous one. It’s not that we are stupid, but we cannot help it. Habits are said to be below our conscious radar.
Experiments with mice reveal that they will rush for the food at risks of being poisoned and electrocuted, despite knowing the perils by experience.
But, Habits are not Destiny!
Habits aren’t destiny. This is the most energizing statement from “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg. Duhigg deserves his due for dismantling the habit forming process into three component steps, allowing us to pinpoint the specific drivers. He calls the formation process,” the Habit Loop.
The first step of the habit loop involves a trigger that starts your brain on an automatic mode as it pulls a habit out of the magic hat, the basal ganglia. This is the cue step. The cue will kick start a routine, which may be a series of actions, thoughts or feelings. The reward from that routine will be the motive your brain decides to lock it as a habit.
Many other discussions on habit change focus on understanding, and correcting the rationale underpinning the routine. However, Duhigg thinks that the golden rule of habit change lies in changing the routine whilst keeping the cue and reward intact. We’ll see how that works out.
As a simple example, Duhigg explains why cue and reward drive us to the mindless routine at Mc Donald’s. Although we are frequently reminded of the hazards that come with this habit. It seems that the company deliberately standardizes its stores, the architecture (the look and feel, the colors, the collaterals) and what employees say to customers as the cue. The consistent reward is to hit you fast with the grease and salt, lighting up all your pleasure centers and locking the routine in your brain. The good news from the author is that a slightest change can end the pattern. (For me, a Mc D collateral triggers a craving for the sweet chili sauce that gies with the greasy, salty French fries.)
The central idea driving the “golden rule of habit change” is to focus on replacing the routine. Duhigg believes that almost any behavior can be changed if we change the routine.
I also think it is more efficient to focus on changing the routine than trying to change the cue. Simply, because if we put focus to it, we can change our routines, behaviors or actions. Most of the time, the cues are beyond us. We cannot change McD’s architecture, avoid being hit by the billboards or the sneaky ads that pop up everywhere. However, we can consciously choose to acquire our gratification from a healthier place or stall a bit for your thinking mind to take over with a rational decision. You can lean more about the System 1 and System 2 of our mind from Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow.”
In his “ Happiness by Design,” Paul Dolan, Ph.D says that we are all creatures of our environment ( bursting with habit cues). He quotes data that show obesity rate amongst children increases by 5 percent if there is a fast food restaurant within one tenth of a mile from school. Pregnant women can gain as much as forty pounds if there is a fast food restaurant within half mile of their house. He hits it on the head when he observes, “Gaining weight has a lot to do with the opportunity to do so.”
The part about keeping the reward is to understand the real reward you are seeking. Are you snacking because you are hungry or is it because you are bored? Maybe, you need to be engaged in a community activity or walk down the hall to chat with a colleague.
If you are a TV junkie, understand the hazards associated with being a couch potato. Learn all about how type 2 diabetes can grow on you and will yourself to change your routine. The keywords here are “will yourself.” There are people who try to equalize by exercising during the TV fix, according to reports. You can force a very selective TV schedule. Force your selection against a very demanding set of benefits criteria and rate each program you viewed. Drop subpar programs. The keyword here is “Force.”
Alcoholics, it is found, are not craving for intoxication. They are seeking for satisfying an emotional need whether it is for companionship or to forget their worries. In fact, alcoholics list getting drunk as the least rewarding part of their mindless routine.
There is no quick and easy walk around to changing your routine. I watched Daniel Goleman talked about his latest work, “Focus” on You Tube the other day. He said, that to adopt a good habit, you have to practice, practice and practice. And, I agree. There is no silver bullet. The simplest is to put in the hard work. Goleman, a psychologist is the famous author of “Emotional Intelligence.”
Alcoholics, instead of hitting the bars must put in the effort to go to the AA meetings. There, they learn to relax and talk through their real issues and anxieties. Mandy the nail biter replaced her unsightly habit with doing something else with her hands when the urge arose; such as putting them in the pockets, under her legs or getting hold of a pencil, Duhigg writes.
Another psychologist, advices gorgers to eat with their non- dominant hand so that they are mindful of their unhealthy eating habit. All these treatments require intentional and consistent effort. The magic is “work on the intention with full will.”
The foundation of sustaining the change is belief. You must believe that it is possible. The odds improve considerably when you are engaged with a community of believers. Alcoholics have the AA. Smokers need a support group. Weight loss goals are more achievable when working with like minded people.
Whether it is with two or twenty, your crusade for a habit change will be more successful if you work at it with a group of believers. The keyword is “work,” not “silver bullet.”
Finding the Lynchpin Habit
Besides the habit loop, Duhigg’s work also presents to us the concept of “keystone habits.” These are habits that can start a chain reaction of change. Duhigg says that “keystone habits can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend and communicate. Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transform everything.” In other words, if you identify the keystone habits and make the change, they can be a powerful levers to positively impact the other areas of your life.
Sleeping late screws up my morning plans. I have had to forego exercise, tending to my bonsai and scouring the morning market for fresh produce for lunch, because I hit the snooze button, a capital crime, if you read Mel Robbins. This reminds me.
If you do not like to read a book on habits, you can learn some good strategies on breaking bad habits from Chapter 3 of her, “ Stop Saying You’re Fine.” Such as, living your second childhood. Start wondering like a kid, looking for something to discover, something new. She suggests that you guess the kind of underwear anyone who passes you by is wearing or how much gasoline is in the tank of each car you encounter. Just random wondering to break the routine. I think, “breaking the mission mindset” is great advice. As an example, when you surf the web, don’t just focus on what you want to find, appreciate the available. Consciously take notice of what you normally miss, such as banner ads. Another strategy, commonly recommended is try to do routines “wrong.” Use the “wrong” hand to brush your teeth or button your clothes; take a “wrong” route to work. You can substitute “wrong” with “different.”
Back to my late night problem, even if I snoozed another hour or two, I still wake up drowsy and feeling depressed. Keeping me stressed with the lack of sleep is the handy digital tablet. Catch up reading which leads to being sucked, like a speck of dirt by a vacuum cleaner, into the borderless, bottomless cyberspace.
Nowadays, I have one “reading slow” book by the bed, a research based book that forces me to re-track every once in a while. The mental energy needed to devour the packed small prints and the focus needed to comprehend is the sedation I needed.
Everything seems to be moving in the right direction with the mornings. It takes discipline and work. My tablet is incarcerated in another room for the night. I have to walk to the alarm panel, switch off the security screamer, go down a flight of stairs, unlock the door to the room, to kill the tablet crave. Then it is a repeat of the process in reverse to get to back.
Changing to the new routine and keeping to it takes willpower. Duhigg reports that dozens of studies show that willpower is the single most important keystone for individual success. It is found that willpower is more important than IQ in academic achievements. Willpower seemingly helped students do better with apparent ease, and Starbucks to win at customer service.
Through his cookie and radish experiment, researcher Muraven found that willpower can be learned. However, just like a muscle, it can get tired if you work it hard enough.
The power to exercise your will weakens with stress. Interestingly, the premise has been used to explain why successful people have extramarital affairs. It seems that their willpower are used up at work and they will succumb to late night temptations. Essentially, the unfaithful successful are victims of hard work.
How do you build will power? By belief and practice. Towards the later part of the book, Duhigg writes about the struggle of William James with the belief he needed to change himself. The belief that he had the free will to change. Duhigg quoted James, “I will assume for the present-until next year- that it is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.”
If you are interested in harnessing your willpower to achieve success, you might want to read Kelly McGonigal’s “The Willpower Instinct.” It is an extensively researched book on the power of your will and how to harness it for your benefit.
However, “The Power of Habit” has all the prescriptions you need to switch to better habits. But what is the most important mindset you need to get on successfully with the change? Intention.
“However, to modify a habit, you must decide to change it. You must consciously accept the hard work of identifying the cues and the rewards that drive the habits’ routines, and find alternatives. You must know that you have control and be self-conscious enough to use it-and every chapter in this book is devoted to illustrating a different aspect of why that control is real,” Duhigg writes.
Hard work. William James toiled for a year to make it work. “Over the next year, he practices every day.”
I echo “The Economist”. This is a first rate book. With serious research, practical advice and chock-full of amazing anecdotes that open our eyes and our mind. Although this post is focused on individual habits, the book also covers organizational and social habits.
This is an excellent book to have on the shelf. You will frequently pull it out to guide us through your journey of change. Saving yourself from mindless routines that sabotage your life.
Takeaways: 14 Facts You Need To Know
- -More than 40% of the actions people performed each day weren’t action decisions but habits. Once lodged in the brain, habits influence how we act-often without our realization.
- -Routines are triggered by cues and anticipation of rewards. The three steps form the habit loop which is stored in a part of the brain called basal ganglia.
- -Habits are important to our survival. They prevent the brain from being overwhelmed. It is the efficiency that the brain seeks. Without habits, you will have to relearn common tasks.
- -Habits free up your brain to pursue other thoughts and agenda, driving innovations and creations. They optimize the energy consumption of your brain, balancing cost and value.
- -Habits create cravings and cravings drive habits. Unsatisfied cravings transform into negative emotions such as anger or depression.
- -Your brain cannot distinguish between bad and good habits, or even dangerous habits. The trick is to identify the bad or detrimental habits and work on them. Identifying these require conscious decision making.
- -Habits are not destiny. Habits can be changed if we understand how they work. By breaking habits into components (cues, routines, rewards), you can fiddle the gears.
- -Habits cannot be eliminated. They can be pushed to the background and be replaced by habits.
- -Keystone habits can start a reaction of change. Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transform everything, including how you work, eat, play, live, spend and communicate. In other words, if you identify the keystone habits and make the change, they can be a powerful levers to positively impact the other areas of your life.
- -It takes deliberate actions to change habits. The golden rule is to consciously change the routine. However, even if the cues are tweaked, habits will fall apart.
- -It takes work to replace habits. First, you must decide that you want to change. Then, you must believe that you can change and take the necessary actions to redesign the routines that will help you create the new habits.
- -Willpower is needed to sustain the change. Willpower can be learned but it can be weakened through stress and use.
- -Having a community with the same change agenda and belief will reinforce the will to sustain the change, and thus increase the chances of success.
- -Once you understand that habits can be rebuilt, the power of habit becomes easier to grasp, and the only option left is to get to WORK.
My 10 Step Process to Better Habits
- –List the habits you want to change. What are those that are sabotaging your success, happiness and wellbeing?
- –Work on keystone habits if identified. Start with one.
- -Identify the cues, describe the routines and analyze for the real anticipated rewards.
- -Try to influence the cues.
- -Script the better habit routines.
- -Share your improvement plan with a group of rooters or join a community with the same agenda.
- -Start with simple steps.
- -Track your progress.
- -Be kind on yourself. Accommodate and recommit if you deviate from plan.
- -Review your accomplishments at a set period and celebrate. Recognize yourself for taking over control of your destiny.
Let’s do it!
What’s your experience? How do you get rid of bad habits which sabotage your life?