“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit” – Aristotle
I’ve seen and heard about this book from various sources over the last year or so and just now got my hands on it. Being someone who works with others to make lifestyle changes, I’ve been excited about the impact it might make on my perspective and how I work with people. I can see why it’s been on the New York Times Bestseller list. Duhigg’s style in presenting a combination of hypothetical thought and scientific research is wonderful for all sorts of minds ranging from the creative to the data driven. Here are a few of my takeaways so far for you to think about:
40% of the actions we take each day are habits.
This means they didn’t actually require a conscious decision. This is amazing if you think about it! Nearly half of your day is essentially on autopilot! Better yet, our brains are essentially trying to create a habit out of every single thing we do. Why? Habit circuits in our brains require less brain activity. Like nearly everything else physiological, our brain is designed to make things as easy as possible.
The neuronal wiring of a habit never disappears once it is created.
This is either our greatest strength or most glaring flaw. The great part, we never forget how to drive home from work, even if we go on vacation for a month. The flaw, our brain doesn’t distinguish between good or bad habits. So if your habit on the drive home from work is to stop off for a tub of ice cream, that too returns after that month long vacation. We can override this habit by creating a stronger, more consistent habit, but that takes quite a bit of mental energy to establish and overcome.
The Habit Loop
Our habits are born through this idea that a cue, such as hearing our phone ding or seeing it light up with a text message, leads to a routine, us attending to the message, and ending with a reward, the excitement of a message (anticipated or novel) or the distraction from whatever we are doing. The habit being born isn’t the powerful part however. It isn’t instantly something that is automatic. Some habits, if the reward is consistent enough, create a craving in the brain that turns this into a powerful loop. You can actually see this in brain scans where the habit has been reliable enough to cause the brain to anticipate the reward. Our brain and body actually react to the cue as if it were the reward. This craving aspect is what drives the loop to be automatic. So now, after you’ve received several messages that brought you excitement, you automatically want to reach immediately for your phone every time you receive a notification. Now that this loop is really cranking it takes an immense amount of brain power to slow down. What if you end up in a big lunch meeting with a potential client and now your phone lights up? Of course it’s inappropriate in that setting, but you are already hooked. Even if you don’t give in, your attention is significantly divided and you’re spending much of your brain power on how to not reach for your phone, instead of closing the deal with a new client. That brain power is also willpower which may come to bite you later in the day. Your willpower is finite. So if you're spending large chunks of it throughout the day resisting urges from other habits, you will be weaker come nighttime. Hence, food cravings being the hardest to resist late at night.
Why do some exercise habit attempts succeed while others fail?
Exercising, we can all agree, is a good habit. Now why is it that some exercise habits stick and others fizzle out. In The Power of Habit, Duhigg cites a research study that claims people who continue exercising are the ones who “feel good” after exercising because of the endorphins produced by the exercise (“runner’s high”) and those who felt a sense of accomplishment from completing their workouts. This, among other reasons, is where having an exercise professional is paramount for creating exercise as an automatic habit. Many people who work out on their own or in classes never manage to work hard enough to reach the feel good “runner’s high”. More so, many people do not know how to or have the desire to track their workouts in a manner that shows their accomplishments and progress relative to their goal. Coincidentally enough, if you are tracking your workouts and progress appropriately, you would have the information you need to push your body into the endorphin rush stage consistently time after time. In this case, you get the best of both worlds! This is why we keep records the way we do in my practice. It drives people! Does anybody know the hottest trend in exercise right now? Here are some hints – Fitbit, Apple Watch, Garmin, Polar, Nike Fuelband, etc… Yes, fitness tracking devices. The forerunners in creating and selling these products knew this information undoubtedly. If you’ve been struggling to make exercise a habit, I hope this sheds some light onto your situation. If you really want to move your exercise habits in the right direction, find a professional to help you make the change. Accountability, safety, efficiency, and a life changing new habit are all you have to gain.
What is your experience?
What are your tricks to making something a habit or getting rid of a bad one?
What habits are you struggling to set or get rid of?