Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Habits...of Another Kind

This post is way overdue but the stars aligned yesterday to remind me. After reading The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, I was quite inspired to re-think some of my own habits—as well my children’s (I’ll leave my spouse of things for now J). One of Duhigg's lengthier reflections is on how Target managed to make inroads among pregnant customers. Apparently, new parents are a very interesting group to retailers because they much more open to changing their habits than your average consumer, since their lives have just been totally disrupted (since this is a Mom Blog I feel no need to explain why!)
Anyway, a couple of days ago, Duhigg was on our local NPR station, talking about habits with Dr. Dan Gottlieb and Michael Bain of UPenn on “Voices in the Family”. Part of the discussion centered about how habits evolve. Duhigg’s operating definition of a habit is something we initially do consciously and deliberately and which, after a certain point, we do something routinely and automatically without thinking—Duhigg’s go-to example is backing our car out of our driveway. Initially it requires a lot of attention and focus but after a while it becomes second nature. Our brain makes a neural pathway and when it sees its cue, its starts to go in the direction of habit. What once took a while to figure out becomes a mental short cut.
Why do we do these things? Apparently, we do them mostly for the “dopamine hit” that we get from them. This is easy to see in cases like junk food, drugs, and alcohol—the pleasure center in our brain gets activated and so we reach for the Ben and Jerry’s, even though we know it’s the 4th time in a row. But food isn’t the only thing that gives that “hit”—it seems like even backing out of our driveway gives a psychic satisfaction that we crave on some level.  The key to unlocking and working with our habits is to identify the cue, the routine, and, especially, the reward. What is it that I get out of habit x that I crave? If I can find a better way of getting that reward, I can change the habit. The goal, then, is to figure out the two ends of the habit loop: the cue and the reward. To break a routine, I need to a) identify the routine b) experiment with rewards c) isolate the cue (the standard five are location, time, emotional state, other people, and immediate preceding action) and d) [drum roll] have a plan.
The mystery to me is how to use this to my benefit. While I have bad habits like anybody, what bothers me most (and those around me) are all the habits I don’t have. Like screwing the tops all the way back on lids (don’t ask) …or turning the lights out before I go to sleep…or…I think I’ll stop here lest I betray too many embarrassing weaknesses…. If I can just find a way to a reward for doing those things I’ll be all set. 

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