Habit: On the One Hand…

In this series, we are looking at routine, ritual, and habit. If routine is the mid-point, habit and ritual are the end-points on a continuum. Routine is one or more actions taken as a matter of course, they are fairly automatic and can serve us if chosen purposefully. Today we are looking at habits. For a long-form treatment of habit, the book by Charles Duhigg is an excellent, easy read on how habits work and how you can establish new ones.

What makes a habit different from a routine? Habits live deep in the brainstem and become nearly as automatic as breathing. They are literally mindless. You can acquire habits without conscious thought, the involvement of active learning strategies or even memory structures. A habit has three parts.

  1. Cue. The cue starts the chain of events. Substance misuse counselors will talk about “people, places, and things” for cues for unwanted habits like alcohol use, smoking, or substance misuse. Waking up can be a cue to pick up your phone or to go sit and meditate. A feeling can be a cue. The story in Duhigg’s book everyone appreciates involves his afternoon cookie habit. Duhigg realizes he has put on weight by standing up in the middle of his afternoon at the office and going to the breakroom to eat a cookie every day. Was hunger the cue? Not at all.
  2. Routine. The middle part is the thing you do. Duhigg would stand up, go get a cookie from the breakroom and chat with his colleagues for a few minutes and then return to his desk.
  3. Reward. There are two kinds of “rewards” – positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement.
    1. A positive reinforcement is a good thing you get as the result of the action or activity in Step 2. This is what we usually think of when we think of rewards – work hard, get a raise or promotion, behave yourself during a meeting, get an ice cream. Do the action, get something good.
    2. The second kind of reward, negative reinforcement, is a bit more subtle and wickedly effective. Put on your seatbelt, make the stupid beeping/pinging/plonking sound stop. Eat a whole pizza, make the hole in your heart stop aching. Give in to your child’s whining about the candy bar, the whining stops. Do the action, make a bad thing stop. The reward is what sends us to the activity again and again, building up strong biological connections between the cue, activity, and reward.

Learning theory tells us habits are never “broken”, the biological connections always exist. Thus the biblical exhortation to “raise a child up in the way he should go“. Early learning theorists, before the age of fMRI and brain scans, estimated replacing an old learning/habit with a new learning/habit would take three times the initial effort to establish the old habit.

Let’s return to Duhigg and his cookie problem. He realizes the afternoon cookie is a problem, and also realizes the cookie is solving some other problem. The $1,000,000 question is – what problem? The cue is easy to identify, mid-afternoon at his desk. He tries substituting healthier snacks like apples or granola bars, but still ends up in the breakroom with a cookie more afternoons than not. Over a period of weeks, he comes to understand he isn’t hungry. What he wants is a break and a chance to chat with people for fifteen minutes, about the time it took to eat the cookie. By replacing the cookie action with something else, he is able to work within the established chain. The cue still sends him to the breakroom to talk with friends, the reward.

For example, my husband and I have very different habitual movement patterns when we first enter the house. This means vehicle keys are either in a “Dad place” or a “Mom place.” Neither place is bad and we don’t feel the need to establish a single place for keys to go, however it does mean when looking for keys you have to know who drove the vehicle last. In college, I knew people who only smoked when they drank beer from a bottle of a particular shape and were baffled by it. There are people who will immediately run through their mental to-do list if they find themselves with a few moments of ease.

If half of your life is by pseudo-choice, there are a series of cues for you and the beings you live with, do those habits serve you, or by solving one problem ineffectively, are those habits creating other problems?

To analyze a habit pattern, look for the three pieces.

  1. What started this?
  2. What action am I taking?
  3. What do I get out of it?

Remember the cookie problem? It isn’t about the cookie.

Here is Duhigg making an entertaining 15-minute presentation.

Habits establish themselves. The cure for maladaptive habits is mindfulness and intention. Next, we will talk about the ritual or supercharged mindfulness and intention.

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