A lot of what we do is based on a belief or a lack thereof. For example, I do NOT believe it’s possible to give up caffeine, so why would I try? Well, I’m American. So I’ll stick to my coffee, but soda is bad-news-bears, so it probably needs to go. But I’ve yet to give up my Diet Mountain Dews because I don’t believe the habit is possible to break. Without belief, it simply won’t happen.
I’m reading a book written by Charles Duhigg that takes a look at The Power Of Habit. And wow, is it powerful. Our brains quickly program themselves to make tasks easy. I think of my present job where I work with fairly technical mechanical and electric products – when I first started, I was terrified and clueless and asked a million questions; it took me forever to figure out which direction to turn a screw-driver, or where the cam should be positioned, etc. Now, it’s all muscle-memory. In fact, my primary issue is that I’ve become so good at what I do on the technical side, that I go into a habitual robot-mode and sometimes forget to empathize with the customer.
Habits – whether it’s the daily Starbucks (was guilty for a while, but I’m pulling away from that one, because if you do the math…that’s one of the reasons I’m still poor) or the afternoon run – all have a trigger. If we pay attention to the triggers, then we can replace the routines as long as they lead to similar rewards. My daily Starbucks was triggered by my automatic drive-thru orientation. I’d get to the intersection by Bass Pro and fly right by the turn I should take to work, because my brain was screaming, “Coffee!” But little did it know there was free coffee waiting for me at the office that would provide the same reward: wakefulness. It’s taking some time, but gradually over the last several weeks I’ve noticed that I don’t have to think as much or be as deliberate about turning right at that intersection now and heading straight into work.
When it comes to stress or anxiety, perhaps your first response is, “Which place has the best Happy Hour this evening?” I’ve been there and occasionally have the same pitfall. But I’ve discovered that I can replace my stress routine with running, which happens to be a little easier on the waistline and a whole lot better for me. So I leave work, where it’s fairly high-stress due to the nature of customer-service and I get home. I can help myself to a double-serving of my Mom’s delicious cooking or I can lace up my new running-shoes and hit the pavement for a few miles. The new routine delivers the same reward – the stress melts and is replaced with euphoria but instead of carbs or alcohol, it’s endorphins delivered by exercise, that delivers the punch needed to extinguish the stress.
Learning about habits and how they work has been fascinating and I’m only halfway through the book, but I wanted to share what I’ve been learning. I’d highly suggest picking up a copy for yourself and reading through it. However, there is one thing left to cover…
It turns out researchers have studied habits and how to replace old ones with new ones for decades. Time and again, they’ve managed to take smokers away from their cigarettes and alcholics away from their bottles and overeaters away from that second slice of pie. However, in high-stress situations, they’ll almost always fall back to their old habit.
“One group of researchers at the Alcohol Research Group in California, for instance, noticed a pattern in interviews. Over and over again, alcoholics said the same thing: Identifying cues and choosing new routines is important, but without another ingredient, the new habits never fully took hold. The secret, the alcoholics said, was God.”
If I were to continue quoting, you’d learn that researchers hated the explanation but decided to study it anyways. It turns out the belief in something higher gave them the resolve to follow through, even when traumatic or high-stress situations arose in their lives.
“If we keep the same cue and the same reward, a new routine can be inserted. But that’s not enough. For a habit to stay changed, people must believe change is possible. And most often, that believe only emerges with the help of a group.”
Just as much as belief, they needed community. I can’t imagine a better group than the local church. But in any case, the secrets to better habits aren’t that secret. It would appear it all boils down to belief and community.
And I’ve discovered the first step is prayer. Asking God to help me with my unbelief.
Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House, 2012. Print.