Last week, I and some other BBLers got an awesome treat when author Charles Duhigg stopped by Random House to give a special lunchtime presentation on his new book THE POWER OF HABIT: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.
Charles is a charismatic, funny, intense speaker and I would have been captivated by what he was saying even if it weren’t fascinating – which luckily it was! While spending time in Iraq as a war correspondent for the New York Times, Charles profiled a general who had successfully prevented mass riots in his command zone by studying the influence of human habits. This general had the government ban kebab carts from the public squares. Lo and behold, when people gathered in the squares, their discontent growing over the course of the day they would eventually just go home to eat dinner, rather than stay out in groups and let tensions boil over.
This is just one stunning example of how subtle habits can be – and how effectively they can be broken, interrupted, and rewarded.
Charles described a habit as “a decision you once made, then at some point stopped making and continued acting on.” This made such sense to me! It certainly explains my daily morning routine hitting the snooze button six or seven times before finally dragging myself out of bed feeling extra groggy; it’s a habit (and a bad one!) that became ingrained in my unconscious.
Describing rats running through a maze over and over in search of a piece of chocolate, Duhigg noted that when the rats were new to the maze, their neurons were firing on all cylinders, taking in new sights, sounds, tastes and smells to evaluate their environments and try to evaluate the unknown task at hand. The more times they ran the maze, the rats settled into a routine and their brain activity decreased rapidly. By settling into habit, they were thinking less and less and getting less brain stimulation.
To interrupt a habit, Duhigg said it’s important to recognize what the reward your getting from your routine is. For example, alcoholics seek a release of stress by drinking alcohol. Stress builds up, you have a drink, stress ebbs, stress builds up again… a particularly vicious cycle. And that’s why Alcoholics Anonymous is such a successful treatment program. AA Meetings effectively replace alcohol as stress relief, so you feel stressed; you go to a meeting and air your feelings, stress ebbs.
As for my own bad habit, I identified that the reward I was getting from hitting the snooze was the sense that I was getting more sleep. But really I wasn’t! I was just getting a few choppy and sporadic minutes. So I set my alarm for 15 minutes later so I could snooze uninterrupted and I felt more refreshed when the alarm finally went off. So far it’s working!