My friend’s father recently passed away at the impressive age of 99 ½. This man had clearly been doing some things right! My friend, Bill, told me his dad had been an accountant who possessed the impressive ability to make mental calculations with unfailing accuracy. Just a few months before he died, he had lamented to Bill that while doing his bills, he had made a mistake in his arithmetic. For him, mental decline was no forgone conclusion in old age. Maybe this was a key to his healthy longevity. Another may well have been his advice to his children, “Good habits make life easier.”
In his 2012 book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg illuminates some remarkable research on the formation and elimination of habits. They emerge as energy savers, allowing our minds to “ramp down” and go into an automatic mode to accomplish what’s ahead of us, whether it’s mental, physical or emotional. Habits, good and bad, can make all the difference between a human’s success and failure.
According to Forbes, Steve Jobs wore a black turtleneck, jeans and sneakers every day. Albert Einstein alternated between several identical grey suits. Both reasoned, why waste brainpower on choosing an outfit each morning? Obama does the same. “I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”
Duhigg’s book explains the anatomy of our habits. They all begin with a cue. For example, when you walk into the movie theater and smell the popcorn, you head to the concession counter. The routine is the automatic response the cue has signaled. It may be physical (a morning run at 6 a.m.); mental (The Late Show monologue ends and you begin to yawn and feel sleepy); or emotional (When you’re feeling ignored by your spouse, you sulk).
If the routine makes you feel good, the reward is established. It tells you whether or not this particular action is worth repeating in the future. If you got your partner’s attention by sulking then you’ll use that tactic again. If the movie popcorn was tasty, then you’ll look forward to it next time. If you felt energized and fit after your run, it will likely become your routine.
The discovery of this loop is so important because it shows that if we can interrupt the cycle we can change the habit. Habits are powerful yet delicate. Duhigg talks about the “craving brain” behind strong habits. If the reward is really good, we form a sort of addiction to that reward and crave it. Think of how our cell phones ding each time a new email arrives. We crave the distraction or stimulation the email brings. Yet, when the cell phone chime is muted, we tend to forget about the incoming emails, and don’t miss the interruption. So the cue doesn’t only trigger the routine, it signals anticipation of the reward.
Maybe the most significant takeaway is that we can’t extinguish a bad habit, but we can interrupt the habit loop. We can replace the routine with something healthier to get the same reward. A mid-morning coffee break brings caffeine, donuts and a chance to socialize. Take away the donuts – possibly substituting a bagel or piece of fruit – and you still have coffee and friends. A stimulating and gratifying reward is still in place. In the case of a bad emotional habit of sulking, the reward you’re seeking is attention from your spouse. Is there a more constructive way to get that?
The three-part-loop looks simple, but changing habits is not easy. However, change is virtually impossible without the self-awareness it takes to recognize the cue, craving and reward. You’ve got to break it down in order to change it.
Support is also useful, but not critical, to habit change and the formation of new habits. Surrounding yourself with like-minded people (those who also want to cut out donuts) will add to your chances of success. An exercise buddy is a great example, as is a partner who also wants to improve his/her eating habits, a coach for support and accountability, or a friend at work who wants to quit smoking.
So let’s learn a little something from Steve Jobs, Einstein, Obama, and Bill’s dad. “Good habits make life easier.”
Duhigg, Charles. (2012) The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York, Random House.
Lewis, Michael. “Obama’s Way” Vanity Fair, October 2012.
Smith, Jacquelyn. “Steve Jobs Always Dressed Exactly the Same. Here’s Who Else Does” Forbes, October 5, 2012.
“Good Habits make Life Easier.” Hymen Bregar (1913-2013)