Old Habits Die Hard (With a Vengeance)

The Power of Habit book jacketEvery January 1st, most of us set out to make behavioral changes — often with humbling results. For many, an annual list of resolutions can look more like a pie-in-the-sky bucket list, with no identified means of successfully reaching our goals. I’ve written about this before.

Of course, it’s one thing to map out very thoughtful, specific lifestyle changes we need to make… and altogether another to make them. Why is breaking bad habits, and picking up good ones, so difficult?

The answer may lie in the book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg. It turns out even the most introspective, well-intentioned and strong-willed among us are going about this self-improvement business all wrong.

Extensive research into the physiology behind human behavior has proved that habit forming is one of the most primal brain functions of men – and mice. Once patterns associated with habits develop in our basal ganglia, they are there to stay.

For example, a mouse can be trained to run a maze each day with greater and greater speed and efficiency, to reach a piece of cheese. If researchers move the cheese, the mouse will learn the new path to it – in other words, form new habits. (It may also ask its mouse buddies, “Who moved my cheese?”.) But if the cheese is later returned to its original location, the mouse will quickly resume its old route through the maze, without having to “relearn” it. The habits associated with the original route were only displaced – not replaced — by later ones.

So if we can’t erase bad habits – if they are always lurking somewhere deep in our brains – what’s a body to do?

Duhigg defines habits as being composed of four elements that are closely interwoven:

  • Cues
  • Routine behavior
  • Rewards
  • Cravings

Cues are signs we may not even be aware of that provoke specific, habitual behavior. An example from the book: Duhigg developed a habit of stopping by his workplace cafeteria for a cookie break each day at about 3 p.m. Time of day was the cue.

The habit loop, from The Power of HabitHere’s where it gets tricky: The routine wasn’t just eating and the reward wasn’t simply the cookie. WHEN and WHERE did he eat it, and what else was he doing while he ate it? If he always had his snack while chatting with his friends, maybe the reward was camaraderie and not the cookie itself?

All Duhigg knew was, whenever he tried to skip his cafeteria run he suffered cravings, ostensibly for a sweet treat, that hindered his ability to kick the cookie habit.

At the risk of oversimplifying, Duhigg contends that the key to changing a negative behavior is recognizing what triggers it and the need it is really meeting, and finding a more constructive routine that will meet that need and extinguish the craving.

Naturally, I wasn’t able to finish the book before I began analyzing my own habits, and I had a few epiphanies. For example, throughout my adult life I’ve always been very motivated and disciplined about exercise. I had an ingrained morning workout habit, the cornerstone of which was running. Then, two years ago, I injured my knee. X-rays showed I had worn out the cartilage, and unless I wanted to hasten a knee replacement I needed to find a new form of exercise.

I loved running for several reasons. For starters, I could do it anywhere – outdoors, or on a treadmill. I would just slip on my headphones, and get lost in the rhythm of my feet and the music. By the time I’d finished, I had sustained a heart rate of 160 beats per minute for some time, and the endorphins had kicked in.

Since my diagnosis, I have struggled mightily to maintain a gym regimen. My workout mojo has made a run for it, so to speak. I wondered how a 30-year exercise habit could desert me, just like that?

Feet running on a treadmillNow I get it; working out wasn’t my habit. RUNNING was my habit, and the zoning out and endorphins were my rewards. Unfortunately, there’s not a spin class in existence that can deliver anything similar – especially a good zone out, what with the teacher barking out instructions to pedal faster, visualize a big hill up ahead and so on. So my mission is to get on track with a new low impact, high-intensity workout regimen, that also helps clear my head.

Another important ingredient to adjusting old habits, and building new ones, is simple on its surface: support from others. Whether you are in Alcoholics Anonymous or Weight Watchers, access to cheerleaders who reinforce the belief that “you can do it” can determine success or failure. This brought about another light bulb moment for me. While some of my friends freely share their personal goals such as weight loss, even going so far as to discuss their starting weight and pounds to lose with others, I’ve always kept the details of my resolutions private. Perhaps I’d be more successful with the really sticky ones – the ones that stump me year after year – if I enlisted support from my friends or other connections. No man (or woman) is an island, am I right?

The Power of Habit goes beyond personal tendencies, to address workplace habits that collectively make up corporate cultures – for better or worse. Every firm has them. For example, I once worked on a team where “busy” was the default answer to the question, “How are you?” Why couldn’t anyone ever respond with, “I’m great, how are you?” It drove me nuts! The cue was the question, obviously, but what was the reward? Sympathy? Perceived credibility and value? A lighter workload in the future? Stay tuned, I’m still working through that one.

Duhigg can at times extend the definition of habit so far, he loses me. I am still skeptical about his theories on the role habit can play in civil unrest and political movements. Still, there’s enough food for thought in The Power of Habit to keep me in a state of self-analysis for weeks or months to come.

Could greater awareness of my habits, become a habit in itself?

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