Sunday, January 12, 2014 ~ The Power of Habits
They mostly operate below the level of consciousness, but everyday habits and routines govern a surprisingly large portion of our behavior, according to Charles DuHigg, author of The Power of Habit. Many such habits are healthy or innocuous — like eating oatmeal for breakfast or vacuuming on Sundays — but some come with life-threatening consequences. And changing them, as anyone who has tried to diet or quit smoking knows, can be torturous.
In his book, DuHigg, a New York Times reporter by day, provides fascinating insight into the nuts and bolts of habit formation — and change. Healthland spoke with him about how to better understand and take control of these routines.
How much of our habitual behavior is actually unconscious?
We know two things from studies done by a woman named Wendy Wood. She monitored people’s daily behavior and found that 45% of the decisions we make are actually habits. They’re not really decisions and from that, we know that every habit happens at a kind of border: It’s a decision we made at some point but then stopped making and continued acting on.
How long does it take to create a habit?
It differs from pattern to pattern. If it’s something like eating chocolate, you can probably develop one in 5 to 7 minutes. Things we really enjoy are usually easy to establish as habits, whereas exercising takes a bit longer. There’s no hard and fast rule. But there is one rule: a habit has to deliver a reward that you actually enjoy.
We know from studies that the best way to develop an exercise habit is during the first week or two, give yourself a piece of chocolate or some other treat that you really enjoy right afterwards because you have to teach your brain to enjoy exercise for exercise’s sake.
What is the ‘habit loop’?
It has three stages: the cue, which is the trigger that causes the habit to occur in the first place; the routine, which is the behavior itself; and then there’s the reward, [which] is really how the brain learns to save the habit and encode it for future use.
That’s particularly interesting because people tend to think habitual behaviors like addiction can be stopped through punishment, when they’re really driven by reward.
Positive reinforcement works much better than negative in almost every situation.
So how do you get rid of a bad habit?
What we know is that you can’t eradicate a habit, you can only change it. Once you’ve established that neurology, it’s there essentially forever so you have to change the routine.
The golden rule of habit change is that it’s easiest to change when you keep the same cue and reward and change the behavior. AA basically does this. It says, O.K., it used to be that the cue was that you feel stressed out and go to bar and have a drink. You see your friends and the reward was socializing and a chance to lessen your anxiety.
What AA says is that you can keep the same cue and reward, but when you’re stressed out, instead of going to the bar, go to a meeting. We’re providing you with companionship and that emotional [support]. AA is this almost unwitting embodiment of this golden rule of habit change.
How does stress itself influence your ability to change habits?
Tony Dungy [the first black head coach to win the Super Bowl] would teach his players new habits, but at moments of intense stress the new habits seemed to break down.
So, they would “relapse”?
Yes. And what he did is figure out that the key to avoiding relapse — and we know this from addiction as well — was to essentially get people to believe that their change was permanent. The number one way to do that is in a social setting.
There’s a dynamic when you sit in a group and you look across the room and see Jim, who’s been sober for five years, and think, He’s an idiot so if he can do it, I can. Other people encourage us to believe that we have that capacity. Even if we’re very self-confident, at some point we all falter in our belief in ourselves and it’s important to have others around to help remind us of what we can do.
When AA works, it usually works because of the social [support] and when people recover [without AA or treatment], they tend to embed themselves in a socially supportive environment where people support that recovery… (continues)
TIME MAGAZINE: The Science of Building Willpower