Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

I decided to read The Power of Habit at around the hundredth time someone referenced it in an article, podcast, or conversation. As if to illustrate how much of a touchstone of the self-improvement movement the book has become, a guest of the Brute Strength podcast referenced it less than an hour after I finished the book the other day. Since I'd read several articles detailing various principles Charles Duhigg outlines in the book, I didn't know how much I'd gain by reading it cover-to-cover, but I decided to take plunge because of my need for fresh habits to match my fresh digs. I'm hopeful it will pay off in several areas of my life.

First, I'm starting a gymnastic strength training program, and the next few months are crucial for me to establish a habit of consistent mobility work, proper form, and fighting through fatigue to maintain positions. It's much easier to establish habits in new activities than override bad ones, and I'm excited to start some healthy ones.

Another area I've written about before is waking up early. It's been three months since I've gotten up at 5AM consistently, and by golly I'm going to get back to that this week. Along with exercise, getting up early is one of my keystone habits that make everything else in my life flow. I've been doing pushups, squats, and planks most mornings lately, and hope to continue that budding habit during my early morning hours.

I'm also actively cultivating healthy habits in my daily interactions with Mindy, such as emotionally and verbally empathizing with her and writing her more notes and letters. We are also hoping to start a routine of reading a relationship book and praying together on my weeks off. As I've observed, habits are especially powerful in the context of families, and I hope we can work together to create powerful and fun family rituals.

Finally, I'm always on the lookout for better ways to do my job. My hospital is currently promulgating the acronym AIDET (Acknowledge, Introduce, Duration, Explanation, and Thank-you) as a way to improve patient-provider communication, so I'll be looking for ways over the coming weeks to make that a standard part of my encounters with patients. Hopefully I'll have progress to report on that front in a few months.

If there's inertia in your life you haven't been able to overcome, I hope the ideas in the outline below will empower you to create new habits to overcome the old.

Prologue: The Habit Cure
A key to major life change is a focus on changing one habit-- a keystone habit- that teaches you how to reprogram other routines your life.

Chapter 1: The Habit Loop: How Habits Work
The basal ganglia is central to recalling patterns and acting on them.
Habits never really disappear. They're encoded into the structures of our brain. But we can create new neurological routines that overpower old habits.
Even people that have lost their ability to form new memories can still form new habits.
Studies indicate that families usually don't intend to eat fast food on a regular basis. What happens is that a once a month pattern slowly becomes once a week, and then twice a week- as the cues and rewards create a habit- until the kids are consuming an unhealthy amount of hamburgers and fries.

Chapter 2: The Craving Brain: How to Create New Habits
Choose a simple and specific cue and clearly define a reward. Over time, this will create a craving that drives the habit cycle.
Most successful dieters envision a specific reward for sticking with their diet, for example, a bikini they wanted to wear or the sense of pride they felt when they stepped on the scale each day. They cultivated this craving into a mild obsession that crowded out the temptation to drop the diet.

Chapter 3: The Golden Rule of Habit Change
The habit loop = cue--> routine--> reward. The golden rule of habit change is to use the same cue and provide the same reward, but change the routine.
Changing the habit loop works until a stressful situation arrives. That is when you need belief in something greater than yourself to get you through (e.g. AA). And belief is easier when it occurs within a community.

Chapter 4: Keystone Habits, or the Ballad of Paul O'Neill
Keystone habits like exercise, eating dinner together, and making your bed are small wins that set in motion forces that favor other small wins. Winning patterns convince people that bigger achievements are within reach. [see Admiral McRaven's 2014 University of Texas commencement speech.]

Chapter 5: Starbucks and the Habit of Success
Self-discipline predicts academic performance more robustly than IQ.
Willpower is a muscle that gets tired with exercise but which can be strengthened over time. [See The Art of Manliness series on this.]

Chapter 6: The Power of a Crisis
During turmoil, organizational habits become malleable enough for a leader to be able to both assign responsibility and create a more equitable balance of power. [This point was rather obvious to me.]

Chapter 7: How Target Knows What You Want Before You Do
If you dress something new in old habits, it's easier for people to accept it. [This connects to some of Adam Grant's ideas in Originals-- that people with original ideas that run counter to the status quo sometimes need to adopt a Trojan Horse approach to introducing their ideas in order to preempt resistance.]

Chapter 8: Saddleback Church and the Montgomery Bus Boycott
When the strong ties of friendship and the weak ties of peer pressure merge, widespread social change can begin.
Then people must put in place habits to perpetuate the change.
Finally, for an idea to become self-propelling, those habits must help them figure out where to go on their own, and which change participants' sense of self.
The only way to get people to take responsibility for their spiritual maturity is to teach them habits of faith.

Chapter 9: The Neurology of Free Will
"Some thinkers," wrote Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics, "hold that it is by nature that people become good, others that it is by habit, and others that it is by instruction." For Aristotle, habits reign supreme. The behaviors that occur unthinkingly are the evidence of our truest selves, he said. So "just as a piece of land has to be prepared beforehand if it is to nourish the seed, so the mind of the pupil has to be prepared in its habits if it is to enjoy and dislike the right things."
If you believe you can change-- if you make it a habit-- the change becomes real.

Appendix: A Reader's Guide to Using These Ideas
Going back the idea listed in Chapter 3, the habit loop = cue--> routine-->reward.
The framework for habit change is to isolate the cue, identify the routine, experiment with rewards, then come up with an alternate routine using the same cue and rewards.
Cues include location, time, emotional state, other people, and immediately preceding actions.
An example of putting this process into action is the author's habit of getting a cookie at the cafeteria every afternoon, which had resulted in significant weight gain. He quickly discovered that the cue was simply the time of day, sometime around 3:30 PM. After some tinkering, he found this habit sprang from a desire for distraction and socialization (the "reward"). He was able to replace this routine with a new habit of getting up from his desk and finding a coworker to talk to for 10 minutes. After a few months, this new habit became automatic.

To bring things full circle, the cues for the new habits I'd like to start include my alarm clock, getting home from work or a reminder from my phone to work out, interacting with Mindy, and introducing myself to patients and families. The rewards are increased physical, intellectual, relational, spiritual, and professional flourishing.

What are the cues and rewards you can use to reengineer the unhealthy habits in your life? Give it some serious thought and let me know what you come up with!

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