Tag Archives: Habit

Playing with Dice

A few weeks ago, I came across a reference to a book called The Dice Man, written by Luke Rhinehart. It was published in the 1970s, deemed “a cult classic,” and banned in some places, although I don’t know why. Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange) endorsed it; some compared it to Catch-22. So why haven’t I heard about it until now?

The protagonist, also named Luke Rhinehart, is a psychiatrist disillusioned with—as far as I can tell from reading about the book—just about everything, but especially about the fact that he has a self he feels compelled to be true to. He decides to liberate himself by letting chance determine his actions from that point forward, rather than by remaining true to character, so to speak.

Fortuitously, he finds a single die on the floor at that very moment, and he resolves to henceforth let the die determine his course of action.

While I have no intention of reading the 500+ page book, the premise intrigues me. Personality typing systems such as the Enneagram and the MBTI are based on defining and explaining us by our temperaments. Our temperaments, experiences, and genes combine to form our selves. Generally, we tend to behave like ourselves, but sometimes we notice we are not ourselves or other people comment that we were not ourselves last night or last week or earlier this morning. When it comes to personality, consistency is very highly prized. Continue reading

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The View from Here: Habits of Attention

Habits, Part 5

If you’re not a bird watcher but go for a walk in the woods with someone who is, you’ll probably be surprised at how many birds your companion notices that you don’t see until she points them out to you. And even then you might not see all of them. While you’re enjoying the warmth of the sun, the myriad of wildflowers, the physical exertion of walking, or maybe the general ambiance of being on the trail, your companion is screening a lot of that out in order to focus her attention on birds. Essentially, she’s scanning the environment for birds. And no matter where she is, she’ll likely notice more birds than the other people around her will.

In one way or another, each of us is traveling our respective path or trail scanning for birds. We’re just not all scanning for the same species of bird. And in order to pick out, say, all the red-winged blackbirds, we have to screen other things out—like the rustling of the wind in the trees, the squirrels scurrying about, and all those other irrelevant birds.

Each Enneagram type has different priorities and biases, and those priorities and biases determine what we’re aware of (screen or scan for) and what we’re not aware of (screen out). In other words, we habitually notice some things and habitually try to push other things out of our conscious awareness. Some people claim we create our own reality, as if there is no objective reality whatsoever. It’s a gross oversimplification. But we do each experience reality differently by virtue of our habits of attention.

  • Type 1s scan the environment for chaos or disorder to right (in themselves or others). They screen out anything they perceive of as frivolous or purposeless.

I once worked with a Type 1 who kept a supremely neat desk. Another co-worker liked to tweak him occasionally by waiting until he left for the day and then moving one object a few inches to the left or right. The next day, the first thing the 1 would do was return the object to its “correct” location. Continue reading

You’ve Got to Believe

Habits, Part 4

It may seem too obvious to have to say it, but in addition to identifying all the components of a particular habit loop, there’s one more vital element to changing it: the belief that you can do it. In the case of a years- or decades-long habit you’ve tried and failed to change or do away with numerous times, the belief that you have any control over it may have faded long ago. Resignation has likely set in. So it’s probably best to not pick one of those habits to experiment with changing.

The belief that I couldn’t exercise in the morning because I’m not a morning person was bolstered time and time again by my failed attempts to do so. I tried exercising with different tapes, DVDs, or TV programs. I experimented with different kinds of exercise. I signed up for many a gym membership. The closest I ever came to regular exercise in the morning was walking to work when I had to. But the interesting thing about my current morning exercise routine is that it didn’t take hold as a result of any intention on my part—or any change in my belief that I could exercise in the morning. However, I had already changed another long-standing habit I previously believed was set in concrete—which is the time I get up in the morning. Because I don’t have to be anywhere at any particular time in the morning, I don’t have any external motivation not to stay up late and then get up late. Even so, getting up late often made me feel like I was behind before my day had begun. So over a period of several months, I successfully managed to change both my bedtime and my waking time.

Getting out of bed an hour and a half to two hours earlier than I used to turned out to have several rewards. The first was a feeling of accomplishment. The second was having more time in the morning. And the third—much more subtle, but possibly the most valuable of all—was a change in my belief about how not-being-a-morning-person doomed me in certain ways. When I look back at the beginning stages of my exercise habit loop, I see how having more time provided me with the opening to start taking morning walks. It was kind of a novelty at first, since I sometimes found myself out walking around when I would normally have been rolling out of bed. But I don’t think that habit loop would have developed so quickly without the change in my belief.

When it comes to the mechanics of changing an existing habit, Charles Duhigg says there isn’t one specific formula because one habit is different from another. And, as we know all too well, people are different from each other, too. But Duhigg offers an overall framework for changing habits:

  • Identify the routine
  • Experiment with rewards
  • Isolate the cue
  • Have a plan

On his website, there’s a link to A Reader’s Guide to Using These Ideas, the Appendix from his book, The Power of Habit. It has some good suggestions and a lot more detail about the steps of his framework for changing habits. You can read it online or print a pdf copy.

Once you understand how a habit operates—once you diagnose the cue, the routine and the reward—you gain power over it.

– Charles Duhigg

Cultivating a Craving

Habits, Part 3

I had the flu last month for the first time since the early ‘80s. One of the most annoying side effects was the crimp it put in my exercise routine. I delayed going back to the fitness room until I’d built up my stamina by walking around the neighborhood. I determined ahead of time exactly which day I was going to get back on the treadmill. When that day arrived, I went through my usual morning routine, including five minutes of stretching. But I had more work to do than usual that day and getting some of it done before exercising seemed like a good idea. I told myself that even if I didn’t go to the fitness room, I could always take a walk later. But it wasn’t so easy to derail my exercise habit. Not only did my brain pick up on the cue for that routine, it was actually anticipating the reward—energy and a sense of well-being. In fact, my brain was craving the reward.

This explains why habits are so powerful: They create neurological cravings. Most of the time, these cravings emerge so gradually that we’re not really aware they exist, so we’re often blind to their influence. But as we associate cues with certain rewards, a subconscious craving emerges in our brains that starts the habit loop spinning.

– Charles Duhigg

Duhigg says that a cue and a reward are not enough to create a long-lasting habit. The cue has to trigger a craving as well as the routine. In order to change a habit, we need to identify the cue and the reward and then replace the old routine with a new one. But the new routine has to satisfy the craving for that particular reward or it won’t work.

One of the problems with automatic behavior is that we’re likely not aware of what’s going on in the brain when we’re doing it, so it isn’t easy for us to tease apart the elements of a particular habit loop. This is the same issue we face when trying to become aware of our type-based automatic responses in life. In both cases, we need to try to make conscious something about which we’re unconscious. We need to become more aware. We need to develop our self-observation skills.

There are lots of ways to develop self-observation skills, including meditation and journal writing. But the idea of identifying and focusing on one “chunk” of automatic behavior—one habit—at a time is appealing to me. It’s very do-able, for one thing. And success in inserting one new routine into an existing habit loop can lead to success in inserting other new routines into other existing habit loops. Each time we do it, we become a little more aware of the unconscious underpinnings of our behavior. Yes, we’re still handing off “chunks” of behavior to the basal ganglia, but we are the ones choosing those routines. The process is not occurring outside our control.

Habits never really disappear, Duhigg says. They’re encoded into the structures of our brain. So we can be at the effect of our existing habits, most of which were created without our conscious intent, or we can learn how to modify them in ways that better serve us.

Your Basal Ganglia & You

Habits, Part 2

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg mentions a paper published in 2006 by a Duke University researcher claiming more than 40 percent of the actions people perform each day are habits rather than decisions—meaning the actions are unconscious rather than conscious. This isn’t surprising to anyone familiar with the Enneagram, the premise of which is that we are all essentially sleepwalking through life, each according to the dictates of our particular type. But I was surprised to learn the habit habit is actually a labor-saving device created by our brains.

Neuroscientists have found that when a new behavior is being learned, the frontal cortex of the brain is extremely active. But after enough repetitions of a routine, activity in the frontal cortex decreases and the basal ganglia takes over. The basal ganglia, according to Duhigg, is “a golf-ball sized lump of tissue” located deep in the brain where the brain stem meets the spinal column. (The brain stem and spinal column are more primitive parts of the brain than the frontal cortex. They control the automatic behaviors that keep us alive, such as breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure, etc.)

When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks.

– Charles Duhigg

Frontal cortex activity uses up a lot of energy. So in an effort to be more efficient, the brain attempts to turn routines into habits, thus allowing our minds to “ramp down.” We don’t have to waste energy thinking about how to get to work, or ride a bicycle, or toast a piece of bread in the morning. That frees up the frontal cortex to do other things, such as solve problems, invent widgets, write symphonies, or find some trouble for us to get into. The basal ganglia is so good at this process it can store habits even when the rest of the brain is asleep. That’s why my brain was able to take my five minutes of stretching and make it a cue for me to begin my exercise routine even though I wasn’t at all aware of the connection.

Brain efficiency is all well and good, but if the brain were to ramp or power down at the wrong time, we might fail to notice something of vital importance to our survival. That’s where the habit loop comes in. The sequence of actions that includes the cue, the routine, and the reward is known as “chunking.” The brain ramps down and turns things over to the basal ganglia when a recognizable “chunk” of behavior starts, and then it ramps back up when the chunk of behavior ends.

So running on autopilot is just part of the human condition. We can’t really prevent the brain from doing its thing and it wouldn’t even be a good idea to try. But once we grasp how the habit loop works, we do have some control over which of our behaviors get “chunked.”

Hat-Railings & Other Habits

The Power of Habit

Sometime in the 1890s, William James wrote The Laws of Habit. He could easily have been talking about the Enneagram:

Ninety-nine hundredths or, possibly, nine hundred and ninety-nine thousandths of our activity is purely automatic and habitual, from our rising in the morning to our lying down each night. Our dressing and undressing, our eating and drinking, our greetings and partings, our hat-railings and giving way for ladies to precede, nay, even most of the forms of our common speech, are things of a type so fixed by repetition as almost to be classed as reflex actions. To each sort of impression we have an automatic, ready-made response.

Not too long ago, I caught the end of an interview on NPR with Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit. He was summarizing what scientists refer to as the habit loop, a three-part process that consists of a cue, a routine, and a reward.

Throughout my life, I’ve made countless failed attempts to develop a morning exercise routine. I’ve never had any trouble exercising in the afternoon–or even fairly late in the evening (it never kept me from sleeping). But, no matter how hard and how many times I tried to exercise in the morning, I’ve never been able to do it. Until now, anyway. All of a sudden, and without any pain or resistance, I seem to have developed a morning exercise routine. In fact, I now prefer doing it at that time of day. I thought maybe I could look through the lens of the habit loop to try to understand what’s going on. Continue reading