Reading Material

On our honeymoon, I read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. And it was phenomenal. I think it helps to love books in the personal development/self-help/non-fiction genre, but truly I think anyone interested in breaking poor habits and sustaining good ones (or anyone interested in psychology generally) would love this book as much as I did.

Just a few of the books I read on our honeymoon...

In the book, Duhigg describes the "habit loop". The habit loop consists first of a cue ("a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use"), then of a routine (this can be physical, mental, or emotional), then of a reward (if you like the reward, your brain decides to automate this loop for the future!). As Duhigg describes it: "Over time, this loop - cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward - becomes more and more automatic." We continue performing the routine that we've associated with the cue, because we believe it gets us that reward. Duhigg also notes that there's no secret formula for quickly changing habits, but it helps to dissect and identify the different parts of this loop: first, identify your routine, then you experiment with rewards, then you isolate the cue or the trigger that is setting the entire loop in motion. Interestingly, Tim Ferriss (a great resource on quickly learning new skills) also advocates for what he calls "sequencing", wherein you master proficiency by reordering your thinking - or learning the skill backwards or the opposite of how you'd expect to. (Note: Tim has a one-page "list-icle" about this - and other tactics for mastering new skills - in the October '13 issue of Women's Health, if you're interested!). It seems to me, that sequencing is very nearly what Duhigg is suggesting as he breaks down the most simple and effective way to diagnose and change a bad habit.

So, of course, as soon as I put the book down, I immediately started testing out the cycle on my own habits, and Aaron's too. I first listed three of my bad habits, according to me (1. Communicating negatively/impatiently with Aaron, 2. My lack of healthy eating/exercise, 3. Drinking wine too regularly), then asked Aaron to list three of his own. He had a really difficult time with this (apparently, Aaron's quite pleased with all of his habits as they are), so he picked two and I chose the last one: 1. Being more reactive than proactive, 2. Being indecisive, 3. Farting incessantly in front of his new wife.

Following that, I tested Duhigg's framework on each of my bad habits. (Aaron, understandably, no longer wanted to play with me and had since gone off in search of another Mythos.)

The Habit Loop (via Charles Duhigg)

I made the most progress deconstructing my bad habit of not exercising. And by "not exercising", I mean mostly not varying from a sedentary position. Pretty much ever. I hate it - both the fact that I don't exercise and the actual act of exercising. Once I'd diagnosed my bad habit (the easy part), I tried to identify my routine: I get up in the morning, I usually (/always - sorry, mom!) skip breakfast, I work all day, I get home late and I'm tired, I play with my puppy, I work some more (often accompanied by wine; see Bad Habit #3 above), I'll maybe watch some TV or read my book, and I'll pass out. Though there are variations, that pretty much sums up my 24-hour cycle on a regular basis. You'll note there's zero percent exercise throughout.

So, rewards. What could possibly be rewarding about this routine? ALSO EASY. My routine, as it stands, allows for: relaxation after a long/tiring day, time to get more work done, the opportunity to zone out and/or be lazy, a chance to catch up on all of the television shows you kids tweet about or (much more likely) my latest book, and on some occasions, this routine - by not forcing me awake for early morning exercise - allows me to sleep in.

Now, my cues: what are those triggers that put my routine in motion that then (possibly) give me the rewards described above? Well, sometimes I wake up too late or I'll go to bed late. More often than not, I get home from work very late and I'm exhausted. My first instinct is to sit down on my couch when I get home - at which point I'm much more likely to drag my laptop or my puppy or my remote into my lap than I am to get up and be active. And, almost always, I drink wine.

So now I have a lot of different options - any number of the above cues might set my routine in motion, in the hopes that I'll garner one of the rewards also noted above. The question is - which reward am I getting that's made my loop concrete? Which reward is the one that I don't want to lose, so I continue to follow my habit loop over and over again?

According to Duhigg, that's the part we have to figure out - because once you can isolate that reward, you can come up with new habits that lead you to the same conclusion. For instance, if the reward for me is relaxing or getting even more work done after I get home, maybe I need to practice exercising before work in the morning, so I can spend my evenings doing whatever I want. Or perhaps the reward for me is sleeping in a bit later - in which case, I'll want to try exercising after work and going to bed earlier, so I don't feel deprived of sleep or forced to wake up earlier. You have to test each reward until you've found what it is you're really searching for by performing a habit over and over again - and what new, positive habit can take its place.

I haven't quite figured it out yet - for the poor habits I listed above, or any of the myriad bad habits I'd like to change. But that's okay. I know I can only successfully change or develop one habit or skill at a time (that's an important tenet of one of my personal favorites, Maneesh Sethi's, philosophy), and I feel incredibly empowered by the knowledge The Power of Habit gave me and my understanding of how to make any positive personal change at all.

If you're interested in more information about habit formation and change, first, read this book. Duh. I didn't type all of this for nothing. I also highly recommend the other two resources I mentioned: Tim Ferris (particularly his book, The 4-Hour Chef: The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Anything, and Living the Good Life) and Maneesh Sethi (of "Hack the System" fame). They both speak more about gaining skills than changing habits, but much of their advice works for both. I absolutely love this sort of information, so you can expect to hear a lot more from me on the topic too.

Now you: If you could change just one of your habits, what would it be? (Hint: If you fart incessantly in front of your partner, that's a great place to start.)