Habit Science: Part 1

So I’ve started the New Year off right by reading a little book called The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. I just finished part one yesterday. This book is fascinating and a total page turner for even those passively interested in how and why we develop habits in our lives.

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Instead of giving you an easy synopsis of what I’ve read so far, I want to relate some of the more interesting applications of what I’ve actually learned from the book.

A Bad Habit

When I was around 6 years old, I have a very vivid memory of discovering the texture of my favorite blanket: Nice Blanket. I’d lay in bed, waiting to fall asleep, Nice Blanket pulled all the way up to my chin. When I’d feel particularly restless, I would graze the tips of my fingers across the surface of the blanket. By that point, the blanket was showing signs of extreme use. It had loose fibers, small holes, and lots and lots of pilling. When brushed with the fingertips, Nice Blanket made a distinct crackling sound as pills caught bits of skin and nail on the tips of fingers. It reminded me of the sound of static. For whatever reason, this sound calmed me down and helped me fall asleep.

After doing this for a few years, it occurred to me that biting my fingers’ loose skin and hangnails off made the smoothest, and therefore most pleasant, static sound. A bite here and there turned into a bite of each finger. This turned into me biting all of fingers on a regular basis. Eventually biting replaced static as the calming agent in my habit loop.

I hate admitting this, but 20 years later, I’m still battling this habit. I’ve been biting my fingers for more than half of my life. I’ve always recognized it as a bad habit, but have managed to pull back when it’s reached a critical point. The moments where it becomes a point of embarrassment are the worst. While reading The Power of Habit, a strikingly similar story was articulated in the book. I gave me some serious pause.

The Habit Loop

Within the first chapter, Duhigg articulates what science has come to call the Habit Loop. Through research, scientists have learned that all habit revolve around a routine. Most people recognize the routine as the entire habit, good or bad, and assume that changing the habit means changing the routine. With that understanding, science shows that this assumption is correct.

So then, why is it so difficult to break free of habits we no longer want?

Because there is more to a habit than just routine. When we break down habits, we realize that our routines are always cued by something, and always rewarded by something-typically a feeling of satisfaction. When visualized, the cycle looks like this:651a88f9-0a27-4fdb-a8a6-94a93d62542d

On page 74, Duhigg tells the story of Mandy, a chronic nail biter who came in for treatment at the counseling center at Mississippi State University. Like me, she’d been biting most of her life. Her Habit Loop looked like this:

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The habit loop concept applies to all habits, good or bad. We get sucked into routines because they are cued by a very specific action or circumstance. When Mandy wanted to bite, it’s because the thousands of loops from previous bites had fueled her temptation. She had a craving for stimulation that was only magnified by the power of the loop.

But wait! You ask. Why couldn’t Mandy just realize what she was doing and stop herself?

This is the fundamental difference between habits and repeated tasks. Habits are automatic. Whats going on inside your brain when you go to bite your finger for the fifty-thousandth time is not a conscious awareness. It is more like a triggered shortcut. The human brain works with incredible efficiency. When a task is repeated over a certain range of time, the brain creates shortcuts to make the process less cumbersome. In so doing, it learns how to reroute behaviors to be quick and effective, even if they are destructive.

The part of your brain responsible for all of this is called the Basal Ganglia. It is the deepest and, scientists believe, most primitive part of the modern human brain. When you develop a habit, the Basal Ganglia kicks in and directs the show. Suddenly, reaching your hand up to your mouth is not a conscious act, and before you even realize it, you are biting your fingers.

Conclusions So Far

This book has been utterly fascinating. I’ve already learned a great deal and feel understanding of the habit process allows me better footing for battling the vices that have plagued me for far too long. I look forward to learning and understanding habits in different contexts as the book lays them out.

If this book sounds at all interesting to you, I highly recommend it! I am not being paid to promote anything, and all images on this entry were pulled off an image search for the book.

 

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