It seems the term “hot mess” has made it into our cultural vocabulary so in that spirit, let me say that our lives are a hot mess of our habits. Depending on your habits, that can be a good thing or a bad thing. I imagine its a little bit of both. Charles Duhigg explores this powerful source of change in our lives in his book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.
Who and what we are today, good or bad, are a result of our habits. Change your habits and you change your destination in life. However, when you want to change some part of your life, like losing weight, getting fit, arriving places on time or getting organized, it’s not enough to change any old habit – you need to focus on a ‘keystone’ habit (Duhigg xiv). Scientists have discovered that by focusing on one pattern, a keystone habit, you can reprogram the other routines in your life as well (Duhigg xiv).
A paper published at Duke University showed that more than 40% of the actions people take are habits, not actual decisions (Duhigg xvi). The U.S. military definitely understands the power of habits (I can still make hospital corners in my bed, but I’ve yet to figure out where that’s helped me in life) and even used that power at the field level to reduce riots that occurred in Iraq. As impromptu crowds would gather to protest various issues eventually a riot would ensue – U.S. commanders, who are always looking for a habit that can generate repeatable results, figured out that the riots started shortly after the food vendors arrived (Duhigg xviii). The stopped the food vendors and soon enough, the restless (and hungry) people left.
“There’s nothing you can’t do if you get habits right,” U.S. military commander in Duhigg’s book (p xx)
Habits are so powerful that they can keep us going even when our minds are checking out. In fact, that’s part of what habits are supposed to do. Remember when you learned to drive a car? At first, everything was a challenge – now you do it largely without thinking about it (Duhigg 17). The reason we’re able to do this may be a little piece of brain matter known as the basal ganglia (I think I caught some of that once in college – they have a shot for it now).
The basil ganglia, a little golf ball shaped lump of tissue that takes care of breathing and swallowing (so we don’t have to think about such things), and also may be responsible for our internal habits (Duhigg 13,-14). Using rats in a maze, scientists learned that as the rats learned to better navigate the maze, their mental activity decreased (Duhigg 15). As the daily routine became, well, routine, the rats thought less. Hmm, based on this analysis maybe management should reconsider the cubicle designs in their office buildings. Within just a week, the rats memory centers quieted down and the rat could sprint through the maze without hardly thinking (Duhigg 15).
Maybe this is why Peyton Manning has his offense firing on all cylinders lately – as one TV commentator put it the other day about the Denver Broncos running backs, “they don’t even know the play until five seconds before the ball is snapped.” You have to be on your toes with this guy! Staying mentally sharp seems to be paying dividends.
However, there is a danger to ‘chunking’ down complex tasks and that is our brain may be not paying attention when we need it to – ever zoned out in traffic? For the most part, our basal ganglia has us covered there – it tells us when to run our patterns and when to jump out of them and pay attention. Welcome to the habit loop:
- The habit process begins with a cue, which is a trigger that tells our brain to go into an automatic mode and which habit to use (this is what keeps you from walking into the aerobics room buck naked with a towel and soap in your hand). (Duhigg 19)
- Second, there is the routine, which is physical, mental or emotional (Duhigg 19).
- Finally, there is the reward, which helps your brain determine if the routine and trigger are worth remembering in the future (Duhigg 19).
- Repeat as necessary and you have a habit
If the first rule of Fight Club is that you don’t talk about fight club, then the first rule of habits is that you don’t NOT do a habit to get rid of it – it must be replaced (Duhigg 20). Our habits are very hard wired and every time we repeat them they get a little bit more hard wired. But, habits are not your destiny – you can change or replace them and even in some cases ignore them.
The problem with a habit is that the brain stops fully participating in the decision making process and ‘runs its pattern,’ when there is the appropriate trigger. The brain can also not tell the difference between a good and a bad habit – YOU can, but your brain has a hard time here (Duhigg 20), which is why breaking habits, just like breaking up, can be hard to do (thought I’d slip a Neil Sedaka reference in on ya).
Habits can emerge without permission. All it needs is a trigger (i.e. a cue) a routine and a reward (Duhigg 25). Just go on vacation sometime and see what happens. Usually within a day or two, you’ll have established some habits about your vacation.
Unfortunately, marketers are geniuses in understanding our habits. Ever wonder why every McDonalds is the same set up no matter where you go – there are consistent logos, color patterns, and store designs (Duhigg 27). There are cues everywhere. The routine then kicks in (remember how good those fries tasted last time?), and then the reward. Duhigg also notes that McDonald’s fries are designed to start disintegrating the moment they hit your tongue in order to deliver the salt and grease right away, which causes your pleasure centers in your brain to light up (p 27), which further locks in the pattern. NOW I finally know why they taste so good.
The people at Pepsodent (the toothpaste) figured out how habits worked – you find a simple and obvious clue and you clearly define the rewards (Duhigg 36). But, there’s also a third rule that must be satistifed to create a habit (Duhigg 36) – you need to cultivate a craving (Duhigg 49). Pepsodent did it by putting in a slight irritant into their toothpaste to create a tingling sensation on the tongue and gums after brushing (Duhigg 57). If people forgot to use Pepsodent, they missed the cool, tingling feeling in their mouths – they expected it and craved it – when they didn’t get it, their mouths didn’t feel clean (Duhigg 57).
Cravings are what drive habits
In Pepsodent’s case, the tingling didn’t make the toothpaste work any better, is just convinced people it was doing its job (Duhigg 58). The folks that make hair shampoo also figured it out – we like to see foam in our shampoo even though it doesn’t do anything to help clean our hair (Duhigg 59) and even the people at Febreze figured out that if they wanted people to buy the product it actually needed to smell fresh and clean, not just get rid of old odors (Duhigg 59). It wasn’t enough for people to get out with the bad smell, they needed to smell the good – they craved it.
Spend some time in the next day thinking about your habits. What are the cravings that’s turned you into a hot mess or a hot success?
Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House, 2012. Print.