The Remarkable Power of Habits
“The only difference between those who have failed and those who have succeeded lies in the difference of their habits. Good habits are the key to all success. Bad habits are the unlocked door to failure. I will form good habits and become their slave.” (Og Mandino)
For adults, the argument between nature vs. nurture has some sense of fait accompli. What we inherited from our parents has long since been determined, and as we age, our environment would seem to make only minor alterations to the tapestry of our lives. However, there’s a layer between “who we are” and “what we are,” namely, habits. “Habits are so strong that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense.” What seems like free will, of making carefully considered decisions, is in fact nothing more than acting out our predetermined rituals. In other words, habits govern decision making, and decision making governs our lives. If our life is a tapestry, in each of us resides a tailor.
The noted American psychologist William James developed a lifelong passion for understanding habits. “Begin to be now what you will be hereafter.” James believed that what we are comes from what we do, that what we do is based on habits, and that habits are based on attitude. However, while various psychologists over the years have taken a variety of approaches to changing habits, it’s only now with sophisticated brain imaging that we are starting to see the neurological impacts of habits, giving us new clues into how to identify and change them. While the formula still eludes us (you can only learn so much from shocking rats and stuffing them with chocolate), Charles Duhigg has brought us a few steps forward in his book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.
According to one Duke study, over 40% of our day is done on autopilot, like getting dressed, commuting, even our relationships. While autopilot is the brain’s way of conserving energy, it tends to shut out the present moment and all that it may contain: dangers, opportunities, insights, connections, warnings, and solutions. Yet we know that neuroplasticity remains with us through our adult years. Which begs the question: If our brains can change, then why is it so hard to erase bad habits?
Duhigg draws on the research from a variety of areas – advertising, sports, addiction, religion and others – to show how habits are created and endure. We learn about the three-step “habit loop” and how our brain looks for ways to save effort by first looking for “cues” or triggers, followed by a “routine” to follow that is physical, mental or emotional and finally a “reward” that determines if the loop is memorable enough to become a habit. Duhigg does a fine job of explaining habits, how they work and indeed how to change them.
The more we do something, the less thinking we do – it becomes hard wired into our brains. Which means using willpower will be insufficient, we’re literally fighting our brain. To change the behavior, we have to establish a new rut, until it becomes hard wired. That’s the good news: Once something becomes hard wired, it’s very hard to change, even if you want to. The key is doing the thing enough times that it becomes a habit, has created its own rut. This is called “chunking” – the brain converting a sequence of actions into a routine.
Some habits are incredibly powerful – Duhigg calls them keystone habits – because they seem to trigger a cascade of other habits, which, taken together, can quite literally change everything. For instance, studies show that families that practice the habit of eating together instill between homework and academic habits in the children. These key habits are different for everyone, but Duhigg offers guidance for how you can find yours.
The book isn’t perfect. Duhigg points to habits as the underlying cause for everything from successful marketing campaigns to Super Bowl victories. While it’s possible that the Indianapolis Colts won the Super Bowl because of habits, a simpler explanation might be that a historically great quarterback was steering the ship. This isn’t to say that the examples aren’t compelling, just that they should be taken with a grain of salt.
For people looking for a formula to changing your life, this isn’t the book for you. Says Duhigg, “This book doesn’t contain one prescription. Rather, I hoped to deliver a framework for understanding how habits work and a guide to experimenting with how they might change.” So read this book as a way to glean insights into your own life. And be grateful that, unlike a laboratory rat, you control if your life is filled with sweets or shocks.