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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Trust

School is over. The first powerlifting competition is in two weeks. What next?

I have a good relationship with my coach, so I let him choose. If you don’t have the kind of coach you could trust with your body, find a new one. Seriously. He’s certified, degree’d, and committed to holistic well-being. We’ve spent more than (2 hrs * 4 weeks * 4 months) + (3 hrs * 4 weeks * 6 months) together and he knows me fairly well. He was also spot-on with his lift estimates for my first meet, even with my wacko eating, stress, and sleeping the last semester of school. We committed to eighteen months. If I had eighteen months to spend on a goal, what should it be?

He chose body transformation with a sprinkle of powerlifting for interest. We agreed to blog both sides of the quest over at groundedsc.com, because AO is also my business partner. My blog is about my stuff, the emotional and mental game, and my response to coaching. His blog is about working with a difficult client on a challenging goal, e.g. balancing the calorie deficits required for fat loss while increasing muscle mass and maintaining powerlifting performance.

You’ll be a different person in eighteen months. So will I.

Body transformation is an ambitious goal. In theory and in practice, I understand nutrition, change psychology, habit formation, blah, blah, blah, so AO has stayed out my nutrition struggles. He’s the CSCS, I’m the LMSW. We have scopes of practice, but I’m having trouble settling into consistent eating habits and my weight loss is stalled. He’s gently insisting on a higher level of accountability because as a client I am back to knowing and not doing. I thought I could count macros and cut once school was out and I was so wrong. As long as I am still inhaling chips and guac or treating myself to a burger and fries this often, he can’t do his job. He is very good at his job.

The plan at the moment is to use Precision Nutrition‘s ProCoach system to manage my return to sane, consistent eating. It will lead me back through thirteen evidence-based habits, while I reflect on what’s important to me and any barriers I experience. On the movement side, AO is anticipating an eighteen-month macro cycle composed of four meso cycles, each of which will culminate in a powerlifting meet. Each meso cycle consists of a fat loss, hypertrophy, and strength microcycle. I’m glad he’s doing the spreadsheet because it hurt my brain just to construct the sentences.

We are also avoiding setting any end-game goals. It was his idea to set micro-goals as we go and not look too far ahead. I suspect, however, he will set secret goals. His eyes lit up and he got a vision when he thought about me being a different person, I saw the thought run across his forehead. We don’t care so much about the scale as we do body-fat and tape measurements. The scale will move, but weight loss isn’t a linear process and I care less about how much I weigh than how much weight I can push or pull. I ordered an inexpensive at-home body-fat BIA device which may not have high validity but should have good reliability.

If you can’t do this with your coach/trainer, find a new one. You deserve better.

 

Decisional Balance

WordPress wants to correct “Decisional” to “Delusional,” and that’s pretty funny. Decisional balance is ambivalence jiu-jitsu. Again, from Motivational Interviewing, when a client is struggling to resolve ambivalence and you’ve reflected and summarized and done your Fiddler on the Roof routine

there is Decisional Balance.

decisionalbalancesheet

it’s time to walk the client through the 2×2, starting with No Change X Advantages, then moving through No Change X Disadvantages, Disadvantages X Change, and finally Change X Advantages. The order is important because the last taste in the clients mouth needs to be the sweetness of possibility in the thing they are afraid to do. The balance acknowledges there are reasons to change and reasons to not change, has the advantage of transparency, and allows the client to talk himself into change.

“Has anyone done a decisional balance with you yet?” asked a friend after class today. This woman is so clinical, so curious about other people’s experiences, she puts me to shame and I’m happy to know her.

“Nope.”

“Let’s do it. It’ll only take about 15 minutes.”

Fifteen minutes to change your life, or not.

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