I’ve been catching up on my book list recently, and finally got around to reading The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. I had already listened to no less than three podcast interviews with the author, so I was familiar the ideas contained within the book. However, as is often the case, actually reading the book has made a much stronger impression on me than those podcasts.
For one, the author is exceptionally good at making all of his points by telling stories. Every single concept in the book is presented as part of an engaging narrative, often with multiple narratives woven together like a TV show that switches back and forth between characters to follow the action.
Stories also have the advantage of bringing out emotions that are absent when reading something like a college textbook. And, as Tony Robbins would have us remember, your state (i.e. emotions) has a profound effect on how you respond to things. The emotionally charged stories in The Power of Habit had the effect of making me remember the concepts in the book with vivid detail.
The Habit Loop
I’ll give a brief overview: the first part of the book covers the neurological basis of habitual behavior. Scientists know the parts of the brain that are connected to habits, and through brain scans have identified three phases of activity that characterize a habit.
- The cue is a sensory input that matches a learned pattern and signals the brain to start the habitual behavior. It can be almost anything–seeing a particular person’s face, sitting down in the driver’s seat of your car, or remembering that you have a dentist appointment tomorrow.
- The routine is the actual behavior itself, which is marked by decreased activity in the cognitive areas of the brain. This decreased activity represents a learned efficiency, as the brain doesn’t need to spend precious energy thinking about a behavior it has already rehearsed many times before.
- Finally, the reward is the payoff at the end of the routine. It can be an obvious pleasure like eating or sex, or something more subtle like forgetting about the stresses of the day (after drinking a beer, for example).
However, this isn’t the whole story. Habits aren’t truly burned into your brain until you develop a sense of craving which drives you towards the routine in anticipation of the reward. Through brain scans we can see when a craving has developed: the burst of brain activity associated with the reward starts to appear at the beginning of the routine instead of at the end when the reward is actually received.
This all made perfect sense to me as I read it, since I have removed several stubborn bad habits from my life and it’s easy to look back and see how they were driven by this “habit loop” as Duhigg calls it. The next few chapters of the book were, in fact, focused on the process of changing habits through the habit loop concept. And this is where I had my revelation.
Belief: Unscientific but powerful
Duhigg uses the story of Tony Dungy and the Indianapolis Colts to explain how habits change, and what can prevent change. I won’t repeat the whole story, but reading it put me into a very emotionally charged state. During Dungy’s long quest to remake his football team using the power of habit, his college-aged son commits suicide. Nonetheless, he carries on coaching exactly as before and, after years of falling short in the playoffs, the team finally wins the Super Bowl the next year.
As a father of a young boy, when I read about losing a son to suicide it strikes me to the core. I can almost spontaneously burst into tears simply by reading a story about that, if I let the emotions overwhelm me.
Which is why the explanation that Duhigg provides underlying this narrative hit me like a freight train:
If you identify the cues and rewards, you can change the routine. At least, most of the time. For some habits, however, there’s one other ingredient that’s necessary: belief.
Duhigg argues that the Colts kept failing in the playoffs because the players did not really believe that their coach’s philosophy was a winning one. When the stakes were high and the pressure increased, they reverted to their older habits. This is also the explanation for why many recovering addicts and alcoholics relapse when faced with a stressful situation.
However, watching Dungy go through the death of his son, and seeing him continue to coach exactly as before, instilled a sense of belief in the players. Similarly, among those alcoholics and addicts who manage to stay clean and sober through life’s tragedies, one common thread is a belief that their new way of life can bring them happiness and fulfillment.
There is, unfortunately, no specific set of steps guaranteed to work for every person. We know that a habit cannot be eradicated—it must, instead, be replaced. And we know that habits are most malleable when the Golden Rule of habit change is applied: 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.
This whole story about belief is, admittedly, the most unscientific part of the book. But I think that is only because we have a poor grasp of how belief actually manifests in the brain. You can define belief as the absence of doubt, or perhaps the point where we no longer need additional evidence to accept a proposition as true. Either way, it is a real psychological phenomenon, and just like US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography: “I know it when I see it.”
I believe, therefore I will
Starting any new endeavor is, in some ways, simply a change in habits and routines. If you want to make progress on your business idea, you have to carve out time for it in your schedule. And to do that consistently, you need to alter your habits about how you spend your time, so you get to work instead of hopping on Facebook as soon as the kids are in bed.
As I have admitted numerous times on this blog, the primary reason I have not moved forward with my business ideas is that I have not put the time in. I don’t work on starting a business, therefore I don’t start a business. The revelation I had while reading The Power of Habit is that deep down, I don’t really believe I can do this. I don’t believe it’s going to work.
This is actually a great realization to have. I can stop beating myself up over my priorities and productivity habits. I can stop trying to dredge my brain for ideas on how to “get motivated.” Until I find that belief, it’s not going to stick anyway.
There is no switch I can flip in my head to force belief where there is none. This isn’t the end of the road though. Duhigg does provide a proven strategy for overcoming doubt: community.
People might be skeptical about their ability to change if they’re by themselves, but a group will convince them to suspend disbelief. A community creates belief.
This falls in line with Jim Rohn’s famous declaration that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. Basically, if you don’t believe, find others who do and get close to them.
I have my action plan now: Find a community. Ironically, I’ve been part of an online community of aspiring entrepreneurs for over six months, but I haven’t even begun to tap that resource. Today would be a good day to start.
What about you? Instead of beating yourself up over failing to stick to your new habits or commitments, how about examining your belief. When life gets in the way of your plans, does your shallow belief give out? How can you find a community of others like you, and borrow their belief until you develop some of your own?