Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Power of Habit: You are what you do

I love a good book. Especially if it's nerdy and discusses scientific research. Science is just people trying to figure out the way the world works. We think we know so much, but when we study the world just about everything we know is wrong. Some might think this is a weakness of science, but it's it's greatest strength. Understanding just how little we know is the first step in learning.  I've read my share of self -help books. This is not a self help book. It may have the power to change your life, but only if you recognize habits you want to change. Otherwise this book is just a window into your own mind or an interesting nonfiction book that explores how organizations have fixed problems by understanding the habits of their employees or the science of habit forming we learned from brain damaged patients. The range of topics is so broad there's something that will interest just about anyone.

The Habit Loop

When I started reading this book I had a workout routine. I wasn't going to the gym three days a week like I am now, but I was going more often than I had in the past. This book explained to me what may have been going on. I was getting a reward for going to the gym. After working out I could sleep better at night. When I was restless I felt a craving to get in the gym. The Cue was my restlessness,  the routine the workout itself, the reward was sleeping better, and the craving looped back to become my cue to workout again. Cue, routine, reward, craving. One habit after another we build our life. If you want to change your life you do it one habit at a time. Changing this loop isn't as easy as it may seem. I've been wanting to workout regularly for most of my life and yet I could never get the willpower to go. Willpower is an illusion of consciences. Most of the decisions we make are on an unconscious level. Understanding the habit loop is a way to peek into that unseen part of your mind.

Keystone Habits

After I started working out I quit smoking and started this blog. I have more energy to do the things I want to do and I'm less stressed so the bad habits were easier to kick. I stopped playing video games and started reading more. I started enjoying life more and savoring the things I like. This happened all before I even picked up this book. I thought this could all be because of the exercise, but this book taught me that we have certain keystone habits in our life that can so disrupt the normal order of things. It's not the exercise it self per se, but the change in my life disrupted my normal patterns enough that change became easier. The book records scientific research into people who've made major life changes and they could see how habits formed new pathways in the brain. What we do has real consequences to the structure of our minds. It's important to consider that the next time you beat yourself up for not having enough willpower to stay on a diet. Your brain is wired to the way you ate for years and you really expect to change that without addressing the structural changes that those habits formed in your brain?  

Social Ties and the Civil Rights Movement 

This book blew me away when it started talking about how segregation had become a habit. People can treat you like shit for years and you just get used to it. He talks about how Rosa Parks shocked enough people to change their habits and start to change. It wasn't because she was arrested. It was because her social ties to the community disrupted enough people's lives that change became possible.
When the second bus boycott was initiated people were ready to change because their habit loop had been interrupted. He talks about how Martin Luther King Jr. inspired protesters to be unafraid of being arrested by reframing the struggle for civil rights as righteous to the point where people were proud of being arrested and ashamed to be seen by their neighbors riding the bus during the boycott. Social cues are a big part of why the second boycott worked after the first had failed.

The Neurology of Free Will

When you're driving home from church and your "car" automatically goes home even though today you're supposed to drop off a friend are you really to blame? It was something you unconsciously did, but you were you in complete control of your body and mind? We go on auto pilot all the time, but do we really understand what's going on? Probably not. The subjective experience of auto-pilot happens a lot less than the objective reality of it occurs  It only comes to our attention when it's against our expressed wishes and even then we'll sometime confabulate a narrative on the fly that explains our actions. This isn't necessarily a bad thing.  It makes out lives easier, but we should be aware of it. Understanding that most of your daily tasks are done on auto pilot can make you life a lot easier. You can be less afraid of when it happens if you pay attention to your habit loops.

This is a great read. I will probably read it again. It's just so dense I can't retain it all and it's so enjoyable I want to revisit the people and situation after having read and understood the concepts better. It's made me grateful for my good habits and I depend on them more each day. I don't hesitate to rely on them more. When I pack my gym bag I can be reassured my gym pass is in the front pocket because I know my nabits better and trust them. When I go grocery shopping I start to notice what things I grab and start building good habits so can go on auto pilot and know I'm going to get the things I need. It has also made me a lot less worried about my bad habits. I know they can change if I pay attention to them and interrupt or avoid the cues that trigger them. It's just a cool book too. I highly recommend it.

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