I have worn glasses since I was a little boy. They are such a part of my daily life that sometimes I try to remove them when they aren’t on my face. For example, I always take them off before I put my shirt on, but sometimes when I’m not wearing my glasses, like when I get out of the shower, my hand will reach to take them off when they are sitting on the counter. It makes me feel so dumb!
Habits like this happen without conscious effort. They are automatic. “The popular meaning of ‘automatic’ is something that happens, no matter what, as long as certain conditions are met. An automatic answering machine clicks into operation after a specified number of phone rings and then records whatever the caller wants to say.” John A. Bargh and Tanya L. Chartrand, “The Unbearable Automaticity of Being,” American Psychologist 54, (1999): 464. So in my case, the condition which sparks the habit is putting my shirt on.
Do We Really Have the Ability to Choose?
But is my hand actually acting on its own? Some people believe this, arguing that humans only experience the illusion of choice. One book that makes this argument is 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense by Michael Brookes. It points to extreme examples like alien hand syndrome, where a person’s hand performs actions they don’t want, like repeatedly turning a light switch on and off when entering a room. M. Brooks, 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense: The Most Intriguing Scientific Mysteries of Our Time, (Profile, 2009), 151-152. In this worldview, “A human being is … a mere piece of machinery, a toy—complicated, very complicated, but a toy of impersonal forces. A person’s self-consciousness is only an epiphenomenon; it is just part of the machinery looking at itself.” James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog, 3rd ed., (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997), 93. But examples like alien hand syndrome don’t convince me that humans lack the ability to choose. In this case, it just doesn’t make sense to use the exception to prove the rule. Especially when the exception is considered a disease; after all, most people feel like they are in control—at least until something goes wrong.
When Habits Go Wrong:
Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit is one of those rare books where every page is a delight to read. He documents why habits go wrong by pointing to science, which explains that habits “emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often.” Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit : Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (New York: Random House, 2012), 18. If you think about it, when was the last time you had to think: “Now, how do I walk down stairs?” You don’t consciously think about routine behaviors unless something odd happens, like when your foot slams into the landing at the bottom of a set of stairs because your brain miscalculated. For more on how the brain manages routine actions see: Jeff Hawkins and Sandra Blakeslee, On Intelligence (New York: Times Books, 2004), 84-91 Generally we aren’t aware how much of our lives are run by habits, but research indicates that only 5 percent of our daily activity is the product of conscious, intentional actions that we choose. Bargh and Chartrand: 464.
Even though most routine actions don’t feel like a choice, the essential thing to recognize is that we firstly chose an action several times before it became a habit. For example, as a kid I can remember my parents saying: “Take your glasses off before you put your shirt on!” What started as conscious choice became habit. This is what psychologists call a “paired” response. When I think about pulling my shirt off, my brain fires up the paired routine where my hand takes my glasses off. In this sense “a habit is a formula our brain automatically follows: When I see CUE, I will do ROUTINE in order to get a REWARD.” Duhigg, 285.
Create New Habits through the Habit Loop:
Duhigg argues that anyone can use the Habit Loop formula to create habits. “Want to exercise more? Choose a cue, such as going to the gym as soon as you wake up, and a reward, such as a smoothie after each workout. Then think about that smoothie, or about the endorphin rush you’ll feel. Allow yourself to anticipate the reward. Eventually, that craving will make it easier to push through the gym doors every day.” Duhigg, 58 If you have ever intentionally created a new habit, you know that it takes a fair bit of will-power to maintain; but after a while, you don’t have to think about it. That’s where we want to be with all healthy habits. We want them to happen automatically without any effort on our part.
Train Cravings to Hack Old Habits:
But what about old habits? The good news is that if we originally chose to make something a habit, we can also choose to re-engineer that habit. It is helpful to know that the most powerful part of the formula is not the cue, it is the craving. “Cravings are what drive habits. And figuring out how to spark a craving makes creating a new habit easier.” Duhigg, 59 Thus, if I want to change my habit of removing non-existent glasses I need to tap into what drives that behavior. Since this craving is rooted in protecting my glasses from damage–something I don’t want to change–I will never be motivated to hack this habit. Thus, even though it occasionally makes me feel foolish, this habit is not worth hacking.
Control Your Habits Before They Control You:
This book serves as a useful reminder that we are in control of our habits. We create them (whether consciously or unconsciously), and can change them if we want to. Yes it is hard, especially at first, but habits are easy to sustain once they are in place and are therefore worth experimenting with. Consider the following quote: “It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle—they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments.” Bargh and Chartrand: 464, citing A. N. Whitehead, An Introduction to Mathematics (New York: Holt, 1911).
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