Habits aren’t destiny and what you and I can do about it
We resignedly accept out lot: our habits are our destiny—impossible to escape. As is the case with our genes, we believe we cannot divorce our habits. It’s part of our humanness, it’s engrained in our fiber. Our inner man, our fixed mindset, determines the single path our lives will follow—set immutably.
“Not so fast,” says Charles Duhigg, author of: The Power of Habit. Why we do what we do in life and in business. By understanding how it came that we stopped to consciously make choices, by understanding how our behaviours became automatic, we can rebuild those patterns in whichever way we choose.
Charles Duhigg, Pulitzer prize-winning reporter and New York Times senior editor, has woven together a work about habits—about routine behaviours. He explains the science behind why we have habits and that we can actually change them. Getting “rid” of bad habits isn’t the solution, but by identifying the cues that lead to the unwanted behaviours, and learning alternative routines that lead up to the reward, habits “can be kicked.”
A young woman, who transformed almost every aspect of her life, had become the favorite subject of researchers. By taking one crucial step, four years earlier, she had succeeded in turning her life around: she quit smoking, lost weight, became a fitness enthusiast and worked herself out of debt and held on to a stable job. For the first time in her life, she had found hope and purpose.
By focusing on one pattern:
- changing one habit
- known as the “keystone habit,”
- she had taught herself to transform the other routines in her life.
We give little thought to our daily activities: getting dressed, having breakfast, backing out of the garage. It is because these routines have all become engrained habits, they have moved to a subconscious level to a large extent. And, without us realizing it, these choices we make every day, affects our health, our productivity and our emotional and financial wellbeing. These routines occur by habit. Scientists say the brain is looking for ways to conserve energy.
This process in the brain consists of a three-step loop:
- First, is the cue, which tells the brain which habit to use and to go into automatic mode.
- Next is the routine, which can be physical, emotional or mental.
- Third, is the reward, which helps the brain decide whether this particular loop is worth remembering.
- Over time, this loop: cue—routine—reward, becomes more and more automatic.
Habits are powerful, but delicate. Bad habits can emerge without our conscious permission. Since we don’t recognize these habit loops, we become blind to our ability to control them.
Individuals, organizations and societies all have habits.
Habits are powerful:
- They create neurological cravings.
- Most often, the cravings develop so gradually that we aren’t even aware they exist.
- New habits are created by putting together a cue, a routine and a reward
In the early 1900s an advertising executive, Claude C. Hopkins, took an unknown toothpaste, “Pepsodent” and made it a household name, by creating a craving. He created a need, a craving for a beautiful shining teeth, the “Pepsodent smile.”
Particularly strong habits, produce addiction-like reactions, turning wanting into obsessive craving—as seen in alcoholics, smokers, gamblers and overeaters.
The golden rule of habit states that you cannot extinguish a bad habit:
- You can only change it
- You must keep the old cue
- Deliver the old or similar reward
- Insert a new routine.
- Almost any behavior can be altered if the cue and reward stay the same.
According to researchers, Alcoholics Anonymous, works because the program forces people to identify the cues and rewards that encourage their alcoholic habits, and then guide them in finding new behaviors. Alcoholics crave a drink not because they crave feeling drunk, but rather because it offers escape, relaxation and companionship. AA has built in a system of meetings and companionship
- Researchers also identified another essential ingredient in the success of AA members: belief.
- Members have to believe they could change.
- Belief is easier when it occurs in community, in a group.
- Your odds of success rise dramatically when you commit to changing as part of a group.
Some habits (keystone habits) have the power to start a chain reaction, changing other habits
The impact of exercise on daily routines is dramatic: once people start exercising more regularly, they unconsciously start changing other aspects of their lives as well. They start eating better, they become more focused at work, they smoke less and their behavior in general improve. For many individuals, EXERCISE is a keystone habit.
- “Exercise spills over,” according to James Prochaska.
- “There’s something about it that makes other good habits easier.”
Fitness gyms: Members may join initially for various reasons:
- The desire to become fit
- The attractiveness and availability and accessibility of the place
- But retention depends on EMOTIONAL factors. Members want the human connection.
- By teaching employees to give that to members, they help to retain them!
- The principle is the same: to sell a new habit—exercise—dress it up in a pattern that people already know and like: it’s a place where it’s easy to make friends.
Often, a crisis can force a company to rewrite outdated rules.
Large companies often aren’t one big happy family. Most workplaces are battlefields in civil war, where everyone competes for position and promotion and power. Yet, most function in spite of that, because they have habits, routines, that create truces that allow to set aside their rivalries in order to get the work done. But, leaders must have habits in place that create real and balanced peace. A truce cannot be one-sided.
The 1987 London Underground Station Fire, which left 31 people dead, forced the dysfunctional communication between the different departments who ran the station, to change. The bureaucratic ineptitude had to end—incompetence, thoughtlessness and neglect on all levels of management, as well as lack of communication, was no longer acceptable. The recommendation was that each employee would be empowered to be involved, and be responsible, for passenger safety.
In 1955 Rosa Parks made history, by refusing to give up her place on a city bus for a white passenger, in Montgomery, Alabama.
- That act of defiance, pivoted the civil rights movement
- The episode on the bus led to a bus boycott that crippled the bus line
- It introduced the country to a young pastor, Martin Luther King Jr.
- Due to the social habits of friendship and strong ties between close acquaintances, the arrest of Rosa Parks, who was deeply respected in the community, triggered a series of social habits. The protests grew, and people who hardly knew Rosa Parks participated because of social peer pressure.
The habit of peer pressure, often spread through weak-tie acquaintances. Weak-tie acquaintances can often be more influential than our close-tie friends.
- Habits are not as simple as they appear, but neither are they destiny.
- Hundreds of habits influence our days. Some are simple, some are more complex.
- But every habit, irrespective of how complex, is malleable.
- Every habit abides by a set of rules
- Once you understand how habit works: the cue, the reward and the routine—you gain power (influence) over them
- Simply knowing we need to change is often not enough.
- We often need something more—the right idea, hearing other’s stories that resonate with us.
- We need a certain kind of encouragement that makes taking the first step feel within reach.
- Achieve one small win at a time
- Some habits (keystone) have the ability to set chain reactions in motion that lead to other habits to change.
This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be. It is not destiny.
You can find Charles Duhigg’s book: The Power of Habit, here.
Question: What is a practical first step you can take to tackle one of your less desirable habit-loops?
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