I just finished reading the Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. Yeah, I know, I’m about five years behind the curve but better late than never right?!
I really appreciated his breaking down the structure of a habit into Cue, Routine and Reward. Sometimes just seeing the structure and process of something can help demystify it and therefore give us a little more control over it. Or as Socrates put it, “The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.”
Another way to look at this structure is using termanology from tai chi push hands or the Alexander Technique; Stimulus, Reaction, Result or Response. I like this terminology because it helps me to remember that once a “routine” is stimulated we tend to go into reaction mode and a predictable outcome is pretty certain.
It amazes me how much of my own life is automatic. In addition to the daily habits and routines Charles seems to be referring to there are also the thoughts, behaviors, beliefs and judgments of myself, others and situations. These seem programed in and appear to be subconsciously prompted.
How does this relate to fitness, nutrition and living a healthier life?
I really like something Charles says towards the end of the book, “Once you know a habit exists you have the responsibility to change it.” Notice he doesn't say obligation to change it. He says, “responsibility”. I believe this is a critical distinction.
In my opinion, responsibility and obligation are too different things. Being responsible is having the ability to respond, being able to consciously choose something different. Obligation is layered with moral, ethical and possibly legal ramifications.
Why is this distinction important? Because it differentiates between the “need” to make a change or different choice and the ability.
All too often we are unaware of the habit cycle we’re in. We’re often aware of the result but not of the habit itself. We’re not aware of the stimulus triggering the action or lack of action. And, to a certain extent, we may not be aware of the reward we’re seeking and receiving.
For instance, you may have the desire to create the habit of working out each week. You schedule the time maybe with a trainer or with a friend. You have every intention of showing up. However, halfway through the day you start to feel bogged down, maybe a little stressed, maybe a little bored and sick of the daily grind.
Maybe work is really consuming, maybe lunch wasn’t balanced. Regardless, this stimulation triggers the thought that you need some “self care”, you need to “take it easy” or that you need something aside from your normal, possibly mundane, grind. This triggers the routine of canceling or not showing up.
The reward may be the momentary feeling of less obligation, a freer schedule and the possibility of doing something exciting and outside of the normal grind or just relaxing and finding some comfort with this free time.
However, the end result is you’re not making progress towards your goal and reason for wanting to make the change. This also comes with that fun baggage of guilt and shame usually associated with not following through on a commitment.
In this scenario we’re pretty clear on the result. We have that guilty, slightly ashamed feeling that we’ve let ourselves and possibly others down. We’re aware that our reasons or goals haven’t changed and that we haven’t done anything that day to move the needle. We’re aware of the action (or really the reaction) we’ve taken or as Charles would put it, the routine, of calling and canceling.
What we are often unaware of is the cue or stimulus that set the ball rolling in the first place and that once we’re aware of the reality that it’s just a cue, just a stimulus, we can make another choice.
Coffee is my vice, my habit. I use coffee as a means to “pump me up”, elevate my spirit, give me energy, deal with my boredom (I think the last reason provides the greatest insight).
A mentor of mine once called coffee the “drink of slaves”. He went on to elaborate that people often drink coffee in order to help them push through tasks they’d prefer not to do. I agree with this to a certain extent and would add that it provides a level of comfort too (plus it taste and smells so damn good!).
For me the stimulus or cue is often the thought of the task(s) ahead or the experience of boredom. The routine or reaction is consuming the coffee and the reward is the boost of energy, excitement and comfort I experience. The result is the decline in energy and bogged down feeling in my body from drinking too much coffee as well as the slow dependency that sets in.
It’s taken me a while to bec
ome aware of this habit loop; the stimulus, reaction, reward.
I bring this up not because I think coffee is bad but as an example.
(Sounds pretty simple right!?...Well, ) I think there is a trap or an underlying habit that we get caught in that clouds our ability to make another choice. This is the habit of criticism.
We criticize ourselves for having the habit and for not choosing differently. I think this is another habit and a way in which we can escape responsibility.
The reality is, just because we’re aware of a habit and are responsible doesn’t mean we have to choose differently. We can consciously choose to take the same action or have the same thought the stimulus cues us to do. However, by criticizing ourselves we’re able to escape the reality that we’re capable of making the choice and therefore capable of making a different choice.
We’re much more powerful than we like to think. Why? Well, (as Uncle Ben put it) with power comes responsibility and when pushed to admit, most of us don’t really want that responsibility. Well, at least we don’t really want it when it’s more convenient to shift the blame somewhere else.
So, how do you become aware of the habit loop?...
Number one, spend some time in quite reflection or meditation. Slow down. If writing is your thing write. Start to notice patterns in your life and back tract those patterns. What is it you dislike and want to change about that pattern? Find the reward. What are you getting that you like. It’s easy for me to blame the coffee after I have drunk a full French press and have come down off the high. It’s much harder when I’m enjoying the productive buzz right after my first cup.
Once you’ve identified the reward the action or routine is usually fairly easy to identify. I brew the coffee, I head to the coffee shop etc.
Then see if you can identify the cue or stimulus. I think about my routine day, experience boredom and crave the stimulation of something exciting or different.
Again, reality is we have the ability to make our habits choices and that criticism is just a way to hide from that reality and responsibility, our ability to respond. So whether you choose to or not, empower yourself with the knowledge that you can choose.