From Sorting the Pieces of Your Life, A Woman’s Guide to Simplicity, Order, Renewal, and Trust
“Everyone goes through periods when we know we need to change. Studies, however, tell us that simply knowing often isn’t enough. . . it takes something else—exposure to the right idea, hearing stories that resonate in our own lives, a certain kind of encouragement—that makes the first step feel within reach.” – Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit, Why We Do What We Do in life and Business
In his ground-breaking book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg, an award-winning reporter, tells the story of Eric who quit smoking permanently after a long term habit. Eric had used willpower in the past to overcome a speech disorder, but it just wasn’t working with his nicotine habit. Despite his well-intentioned efforts of chewing gum, reading affirmations, and setting goals, his resolve to stop smoking failed him.
He realized that he was trying to ‘just walk away’ without replacing smoking with a new habit. He was also simultaneously trying to change other things and, as he put it, ‘needed to focus on one thing at a time.’ He knew that smoking was his ‘keystone habit’ so he decided to just focus on that while doing experiments to discover what his relationship to smoking was all about.
He soon learned that his cue to smoke was a desire for calmness. “Smoking had become my way of relaxing,” he said. And so he began to experiment with substitute behaviors. Eventually he discovered meditation and began practicing it for just a minute or two when he needed calm. As he continued to practice he successfully replaced smoking with meditation.
“It’s tempting to see those relapses as failures,” Duhigg writes in his book, “but what’s really occurring are experiments.”
The powerful insight we gain from this is that change is achieved by practice. Just as we can’t sit down to the piano and immediately play Clair de Lune if we have never played before, we can’t just make up our minds to change an unhealthy habit or start a new one.
Recent research backs this up. A small clump of tissue in the center of the skull, the basal ganglia, has been found to be integral to habit development. Through studies, in which rats wandered through a maze following the scent of chocolate, it was discovered that their basal ganglia was working furiously. Over many runs through the maze, gradually the rats ran faster, and their mental activity slowed down. The rats had internalized how to sprint through barely thinking. The brain worked hard to internalize the habit and then had to think less.
An old friend of mine, Candy Smith, who is a dancer, once told me that when she was first learning a dance she had to think carefully about which steps came next, even consulting her notes, but as she practiced again and again eventually she reached the point where, as she said, “It’s in your body and you just dance!”
So it is with developing new habits. And often the new habits we are developing are in response to the old habits whose death we desire. In fact, according to Duhigg we will never be successful in changing unhealthy habits unless we replace them with new healing habits.
Researchers at MIT have discovered a simple neurological loop behind each habit we have: a cue, a routine, and a reward. Duhigg gives us the framework for change: Identify the routine; experiment with rewards; isolate the cue; and have a plan.
He himself noticed that he had a routine. Every afternoon at a certain time he got up from his desk, walked to the cafeteria; bought a chocolate chip cookie; and ate it while chatting with friends. This routine had resulted in an eight pound weight gain over time. After experimenting he discovered the reward he was seeking was a temporary distraction that comes from chatting with friends. He realized his cue was simply the time of day. Then he designed his replacement—walking to a friend’s desk and talking for 10 minutes. Of course these changes have to be practiced again and again for the brain to make them automatic behaviors. But fortunately the brain tolerates relapse.
We can follow the same plan to develop a new habit if there is a way we want to improve our life.
My daughter Rose was deeply affected by learning in her college ecology class about the ecological footprint everyone leaves upon the earth. Research has shown that if everyone in the world lived like we do in the United States we would need seven earths to sustain the way we live.
She realized that most of her garbage was plastic, and, unlike paper and bottles, plastic is more difficult to recycle. She decided to spend a year not using plastic containers for her groceries or food storage at home.
“I had skeptics around me,” she said, “but that just inspired me to prove them wrong. I was told, “You can’t do that.”
“Hmm, we’ll see about that,” she said and embarked on her journey of forming a new habit.
“An important part was the decision,” she recalled. “It was less about a struggle and more about planning my life in such a way that was conducive to my resolution.”
She started buying her food at produce markets that carried unpackaged produce and food in bulk bins so she could package her food in paper bags or plastic bags she already owned and was recycling. This also meant not buying as many processed foods since they are often sold in plastic containers.
Her diet changed dramatically. She was eating more natural food and cooking from scratch to make her own bread and tortilla shells for example
The hardest part, she said, ‘Was going without cheese. I loved cheese and it was always sold in plastic.”
That is until she discovered a farmer’s market, where a certain farmer who ran a pastured farm, sold cheese in its own rind.
“I probably wouldn’t have even gone to the market that morning if I hadn’t started my new no-plastic habit.”
And most incredible to me is that Rose’s plastic-free year not only led to a smaller ecological footprint and a healthier diet, but she now works on the farm that made the cheese that was encased in its own rind. She started out as the dairy manager, which meant learning to make cheese and later more skills necessary for running a farm with pastured animals.
One new habit changed her life!
(And if you want to know more about the farm go to Seabreezefarm.net or more about her year without plastic go to [email protected])
I am inspired toward developing and strengthening healthy habits in my own life by the stories I have shared today. Aristotle sums it up precisely, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”