Friday, September 14, 2012

Force of Habit

I've been reading Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.  It's extremely interesting and engaging reading for anyone who has ever wondered why they do the things they do and can't seem to stop doing them, even though they may know full well that those things are not good or useful--even if they're not particularly "bad," per se.

Duhigg's book examines the latest research on the function and formation of habits and explores a wide range of examples from business, athletics and everyday life.

How come some people can suddenly decide to lose 30 lbs, quit smoking and radically change their lives, while others can't resist a chocolate chip cookie for more than 30 seconds?


Most of what we do, we do without thinking.  (That includes those of us who dub ourselves "the thinker.")  As Duhigg observes, a 2006 study "found that more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren't actual decisions, but habits." 

Habits serve a cognitive purpose.  The brain can't function efficiently unless it does something called "chunking"--it converts specific sequences of actions into automatic routines so that you don't have to think about them every single time you do them (Duhigg uses the example of backing your car out of the driveway).

At the same time, however, there are definitely times when it's in our best interests to pay attention, so the brain has that contingency covered as well.  When mentally surveying any activity, the brain looks for a "cue" to indicate that it's okay to switch on the auto-pilot and resort to a habitual pattern.

The result, Duhigg argues, is "the habit loop": an initial "cue" triggers an automatic response or "routine" which results in a "reward."  The "reward" is what alerts your brain that this pattern is worth remembering and making into a habit.  As Duhigg observes, "Over time, this loop--cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward--becomes more and more automatic.  The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges."
So, in order to stop doing something we wish we didn't do, we first have to notice that we're doing it and then figure out why exactly we're doing it.  We need to isolate the "cue," identify the "routine," and consider the "reward."

But awareness is only step 1.

As numerous brain scans have shown, habits never disappear.  The automatic patterns are always there, lying in wait in your brain.  This is why habits are so hard to break, why addictions are so devastatingly durable, and why change is so difficult.

The good news is, habits can be overwritten--and overridden-- by new neurological patterns.  People can stop biting their nails, addicts can quit, and everyone can change.  But first they need to know how.

This is the substance of Duhigg's book: he examines the way in which habit functions in order to suggest what works--and doesn't work--in the making and breaking of habitual behaviors.  (On his website, Duhigg offers a flowchart for "How to Change a Habit.)

Some habits, for example, are more potent.  Known as "keystone habits," these behaviors "start a process that, over time, transforms everything"--as Duhigg notes, "The habits that matter most are the ones that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns."

As Duhigg points out, "Keystone habits offer what is known within academic literature as 'small wins.'  They help other habits to flourish by creating new structures, and they establish cultures where change becomes contagious."

Keystone habits help to explain why productive and successful people are often productive and successful in many ways.  Simply put, they have a few good habits, and those habits set the stage for other good habits.

For example, if you make your bed in the morning, research shows that you are more likely to exhibit "better productivity, a greater sense of well-being, and stronger skills at sticking with a budget."  There's no big "win" or "reward" that comes along with making your bed, obviously, but for some reason, "those initial shifts start chain reactions that help other good habits take hold."

As Duhigg observes, "Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach."  Ultimately, "small wins have enormous power, an influence disproportionate to the accomplishments of the victories themselves."

Speaking as someone who always makes her bed within 10-15 minutes of leaving it, I can't even imagine not making my bed.  It's a habit.  Not doing it would feel extremely uncomfortable.

The notion of keystone habits explains why, in so many cases, when people do change their lives, they ultimately--and seemingly systematically--change a lot.  In many cases, they suddenly begin doing things they never seemed to be able to do before, leaving the rest of us to wonder, how did they suddenly acquire all of that wonderful willpower?

As Duhigg points out, studies have shown that, contrary to popular belief, willpower isn't a skill--instead, it's more like a "muscle."  You have to exercise it regularly, but if you overdo it, your willpower, like your muscles, will get tired and give out.  Ask, tell or otherwise try to compel someone to exert their willpower for long enough, and eventually, they'll collapse and give in to temptation.

Unless they have a plan.

As it turns out, people who are self-disciplined, who always appear to exert a strong sense of willpower, have actually made willpower a habit.  One way of doing this, Duhigg notes, is to prepare for "inflection points," or moments when the greatest willpower will be required.  You prepare for these moments by figuring out ahead of time what you'll do when you reach them.  By crafting a plan of action, you prepare for potential vulnerability by shoring up your willpower ahead of time.

That doesn't mean it's easy, of course.  Telling yourself, "When I want to eat that cookie, I'm going to take a nice long walk instead!" is all well and good, but the fact that so many of us will still find ourselves and our good intentions slumped on the couch, littered with cookie crumbs, is testimony to the force of habit.

Duhigg notes that there are two additional components that become extremely helpful in the formation of good habits: belief and support.  Going it alone is tough, but finding a community of others who either possess or are striving to possess the habits you'd like to call your own, can be extremely helpful.

And in the end, belief is key.  Interestingly enough, studies have shown that it doesn't even matter if the belief is necessarily valid or accurate.  Duhigg cites the example of a woman who decided she was going to take a trip across the Egyptian desert.  She believed she needed to quit smoking and lose weight in order to do so, so that's what she did.

The fact that she eventually crossed the desert "in an air-conditioned and motorized tour," equipped with every amenity, made no difference: her initial belief fueled the changes in her habits.

As Duhigg points out, researchers studying the techniques used by Alcoholics Anonymous were initially frustrated by the fact that recovering addicts who maintain years of sobriety repeatedly testify that their success ultimately hinges on a belief in God or some other form of spirituality.  When they attempted recovery without that belief, they asserted, they relapsed into addiction.

What researchers eventually discovered was, "[i]t wasn't God that mattered... It was belief itself that made a difference."  Quite a few members of Alcoholics Anonymous are agnostics or even atheists, but the acknowledgement of the presence of some form of higher power in their lives seemed to correlate with a better ability to maintain sobriety under situations of extreme life stress.  At those times, habit replacement alone--the recognition of "cues" and "triggers" and the substitution of new "routines" and "rewards"--simply wasn't sufficient to override previous neurological patterns of addiction.

As one researcher put it, "You don't have to believe in God, but you do need the capacity to believe that things will get better. ...What can make a difference is believing that they can cope with that stress without alcohol."  The support of the group obviously works to reinforce that belief, at the same time that it works on habit replacement.

The flip side of all of this, of course, is the fact that companies looking to sell a product can use human habits to turn a tidy profit.  There's a reason every McDonalds looks almost exactly the same.  There's a reason Cinnabon isn't usually located in the food court--the (unimpeded) smell of cinnamon is a powerful sensory trigger.  And there's a reason Starbucks baristas are so polite and engaging.

They're tapping into the force of habit and, if you're not aware of it, it'll get you coming and going.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."