The Power of Habit: A Review

In my current obsession of researching the research on habits, it was obvious to revisit Charles Duhigg’s book “The Power of Habit”.

Duhigg’s book is a delight to read (and reread). I like his vivid story telling, which almost has me forget I am learning. There is also a practical take-outs session at the end.

I must warn you there is very bad news in side. It turns out  our brain does not differentiate good habits from bad.

 

 

When habits form the brain stops fully participating in decision making’ . Argh. What does this mean to us mere mortals? Well it is bad news … unless you deliberately fight a habit and work hard to form new routines, the habit pattern will unfold automatically.

Horrible I know.

To start a new (good) habit:

First – choose  a simple cue e.g. leave your runners beside your bed at night, so they will be waiting eagerly for you in the morning.

Second – choose a clear reward.  The reward might be simply having done the habit.  Or maybe it’s more tangible.  Today after my power walk with my ‘motivational app’ my app said to me, (in sexy male voice): “Well done, you deserve to sit down and drink an entire bottle of wine, just kidding seriously??” I wish I was kidding, even my 11yo laughed.

But wait there is more …. only when your brain craves its reward will it settle into habity-ness.  So you have to stick with it or experiment until the craving process kicks in. I feel pretty confident if I took my apps advice I could get my walking habit nailed in a week.

My question is; how do I know if I have the reward wrong or I just have not reached my asymptote of automatically yet (what the? you ask – read about it here).

Curing a (bad) habit:

Now this baby is different, one needs to maximize their understanding of their unique habit loop (see image).

Loosely all good (and bad) habits have this same process operatiing, there is a cue, followed by a routine and the a reward.   What drives the loop to undold next time the cue appears is the craving of the reward.

So to transform a bad habit to a good one or benign one at least – the idea is to keep the same structure but change out key bits, namely the routine.  Swap the mid afternoon trip to the chocolate machine for a chat to your colleagues, or a brisk walk around the block.  What to successful ly “swap out” all depends on what you were actually craving: was it company or sugar, or just a break, that triggered your muffin habit? Our brains are so messed up we can’t just ask them, they don’t know … so it is trial and error.

I am at a bit of a loss, now that I  understand (thanks Duhigg) my habit loop around dry white wine in the evening (see image). What to swap out for a lovely crisp dry white wine, when the trigger pops up?  Seriously what on earth is going to give me more than one of these wonderful feelings? – Lowering my pain from my chronic illness, feeling happy and light and optimistic and carefree (which otherwise doesn’t happen with chronic illness).

I have spent a decade nailing the art of not (very often) drinking myself to an embarrassing stupor, so why the need to go further? Oh breast cancer and death and stuff …. dam.

Good news is Duhigg offers me a process to try:

  1. When the trigger, triggers, try a new behavior
  2. Once done set a timer for 15 minutes
  3. See if the craving is still there after that.

Interestingly I tried a bit of a (cop out) alternative this week and instead had a Gin & Tonic (well actually three) when the happy hour feelings arrived.  I note I didn’t get any of my usual happy stuff, I got a bit of gin gloom going on.  So does this mean it isn’t alcohol itself I am craving or that not all alcohol is equal?

I feel Duhiggs work has really added to my understanding of some of my habit behaviors, but that I  might need a bit more science (or professional help) to crack them.

Stay tuned for more reseasrch on us and our habits.

Footnotes/References

So what is the science behind Duhiggs stuff like?  Well he read very widely, interviewed many learned folks and referenced quite well – so I am going to move ahead assuming it is all good. But with a bit of a radar out of over the coming weeks as I read more of the (boring and less readable) academic papers on the topic.

Duhigg, C. (2013). The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do and how to change: Random House.

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