Diluting the Power of Habit: A Quick Burst of Insight into the Making & Breaking of our Best and Worst Routines
Why Do We Do These Things Anyway?
I recently read Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” and recommend it enthusiastically. You can find it on Amazon or at your local library.
For those of us that wonder why we cant seem to accomplish the great feats we dream of at home or at work, or to avoid the not so great blunders we return to time and again, the book is a God send. Sure, it demystifies the task of accomplishment and avoidance. But more importantly, Duhigg provides a clear picture of how and why habits form, and an equally clear picture of how habits can be manipulated for transformative change.
Anatomy of Habit
Maybe it goes without saying: habits are our brain’s way of saving the effort of thinking. “Chunking” is the term that describes how the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine.
The sequence begins with a cue or a trigger, which, in turn, sets in motion a routine that yields an anticipated reward. The trigger sends your brain into auto mode, where it searches for an appropriate routine to employ. The routine can be a physical, mental or emotional activity. Emerging research shows a great deal of high level mental activity takes place below the level of our conscious awareness. So, much of this connectivity occurs without “thoughtful” input from us
Once the routine is triggered, a reward follows, forcing the brain to determine whether the routine is worth storing for future reference. Over time, the repetitive process of cue-routine-reward– becomes automatic, yielding an overpowering sense of anticipation. Duhigg tells us that our habits are encoded structures that never really disappear. And our brains don’t differentiate between good and bad habits. The bad ones, Duhigg cautions, are always there, waiting to be actuated by the right cue and reward.
Experience (and perhaps Aristotle) informs our understanding that habits form when we engage in an activity repetitively over time. This is as true of mental activities as it is of physical activities. Repetitive mental actions eventually yield hard wired mental habits. Repetitive thoughts become ingrained attitudes and beliefs. Attitudes and beliefs are repetitive mental habits “chunked” together, and over time influence our actions. We bring this process to bear in each circumstance of our daily lives.
Mind over Matter and Habit over Will
How often have we heard or said “this is how I am and I’m too old to change…” or “…old habits die hard…” ? Let me share an observational anecdote:
In my coaching and ministry activities, I often hear those in the 25 to 35 age group admit that change is possible, but unnecessary. “Yeah,” its proclaimed, “that’s an easy fix, but not one I need to make…” Conversely, among the 55-and-above set, I’ll hear just the opposite: that change is necessary, but no longer possible. “I’m just too old and set in my ways.”
The underlying malady in both groups is usually nothing more than a toxic dose of denial, aggravated by a chronic case of apathy: “I don’t need to; I’m too old to; I don’t care to. I’m fine.” At bottom, the paralyzing agent is almost always fear.
There is an obvious tension between our need for stability, sameness and consistency, and the reality and constancy of change, reorganization and regrouping in our lives. The implication is that many of us move through life blissfully convinced we are perfect just the way we are– until a major life event or circumstance forces us to soberly confront the need to adjust to a new reality.
In a world that demands success and emphasizes immediate gratification, we are paralyzed to inaction out of fear we’ll either fail entirely, progress too slowly, or come up short of what’s needed. So we fib. We tell ourselves we’re content to remain in our comfort zones. And we remain in place, neither particularly comfortable nor particularly content, until such circumstantial confrontation forces us to accept new possibilities for ourselves. It is these confrontations with life on its terms that we expand our respective reservoirs of ability, strength, trust, courage, honesty and humility.
When ultimately confronted by the need to change habitual behavior in a critical way, Duhigg’s book is a goldmine of encouragement. In fact, as noted in the book’s appendix, there isn’t a single formula for changing our habits; there are, Duhigg tells us, “thousands.“
Turning his attention to the 12-Step crowd, Duhigg notes that programs like AA work (perhaps he should say “when they work…”) because, although our triggers and rewards always remain intact, alcoholics achieve permanent change when they substitute new routines that draw on their existing cue and reward framework. Feeling lonely? Where you might have gone to a bar previously, now you go to a meeting. The reward of fellowship is found in the alternative routine, just as before. The formula here is not to rewire the cue and reward system, but to “keep the cue, provide the same reward [and] insert a new routine.” Eventually, a new “habit loop” is formed that incorporates a new, healthier routine.
Would thinking about the triggers that set certain routines in motion in your life be of value to you? What about taking a look at the “rewards” you get from falling into those routines in your home or workplace? Is there a habitual behavior that you would like to be rid of but don’t know how or where to begin?
Maybe a Coaching encounter can move you toward your goal? Duhigg offers a simple framework for modifying habits that provides a convenient jump off point for a coaching encounter:
1. Identify the routine
2. Experiment with rewards
3. Isolate the cue
4. Create a plan
Whether this, or any of the thousand transitional habit-changing frameworks is suited to your specific change agenda is something we can explore together. Why don’t you call me for a short phone conversation and let me know what you’d like to work on and when you’d like to make it happen!
A phone call is simple. Your first coaching session is always FREE and there is never any further obligation. I want to be your Coach. You really have nothing to lose. Call and tell me what you want to gain!