The Power of Habit
‘The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change’, by Charles Duhigg, is a book I read recently which describes habit formation in humans. Duhigg explains a habit is composed of a three-step process: a cue (something that triggers us), a behaviour (the action we take), and a reward (the gain in return for exhibiting the behaviour). An example would be morning (cue) – brush teeth (behaviour) – fresh taste in the mouth (reward). Habits were essential to our survival during our evolutionary history. Cue’s existed in hunger, danger, and seasonal changes, and the behaviours exhibited rewarded us with survival. Animal studies show this primitive behaviour in action. For example, if you place a mouse in a maze with food at the end, after initial difficulties negotiating the path, the mouse begins to memorise the path on each attempt, taking less time to reach the reward. This is not because they are skilled problem solvers using logic and reason, it is because the maze cues a behaviour that leads to a reward. Habits therefore become an almost unconscious process, e.g. you don’t think about clutch, accelerator, brake when driving; you exhibit the behaviours at an almost subconscious level.
Positive and Negative Habits
It is easy to think of positive habits such as regular exercise and negative ones such as smoking, but often it is our subtler habits that prevent us from achieving our goals. In the case of a runner, a cue may be a perceived lack of fitness returning from injury, a behaviour may be a hard 10-mile run and a reward may be an endorphin rush. However, as we have discussed many times on this blog, this habit can often lead to injury. Another everyday example that is referred to in the book is the cue of needing a break from working at your desk. The behaviour involves going to a café with a colleague and the reward is social interaction and a break from work. The risk of this habit is that a trip to a café will often involve a chocolate slice and before long, a need for social interaction and a break also leads to weight gain. Identifying the cue and reward is the first step to positively altering the behaviour.
In the case of the runner, an alternative behaviour is to cross-train when low fitness is perceived on return from injury. This is ensuring that the same cue leads to a different behaviour but a similar reward without the injury. Identifying the need for a break and social interaction in the office-worker is the first step toward encouraging colleagues to take a walk together or make a coffee in the nearby kitchen. The cue and reward often remain fixed but we can alter the behaviour.
I have written previously that headspace is essential if you wish to train your body rather than exercise it. Exercise (an easy run) adds to your headspace but training (a tempo session) takes from it. Therefore, our self-control (previously written about on this blog) in relation to positive habit formation is dependent on how much headspace we have available. For example, if you over-work during the week or are in high stress personal situations, you are more likely to accept an offer of Friday night dinner and drinks and less likely to get up in time to break your 5km best at park run. The key concept to understand here would be: why do I work so hard? Can I alter it? What is in my control and what is not? Adapting behaviours to solve the problem of overwork during the week will bring the reward of the headspace that allows you to have one drink, go home, get a good sleep, and deliver a good run session the next morning (the reward you really crave).
A key to sustaining habits over the longer term is to find meaning. One of the things that enables me to endure the boredom of doing the basics consistently well is the goal and the meaning associated with it. Last season, I had a goal of breaking 34 minutes for 10km. It was full of meaning due to spending so much time injured during my 20’s. I had learned the consistent behaviours required and was willing to exhibit them for an extended period of time in order to achieve the reward. Conversely, I had also learned the negative behaviours to avoid, that brought only short term reward and long term injury.
In my next blog I will discuss how when runners develop habits that become unconscious it can sustain them during periods when hunger to train is lower. The sort of hunger I am referring to is not that which comes from not having enough headspace and self-control, but that which comes from commitment fatigue and the need to develop new meaning. In the mean-time get working on those positive habit formations in all areas of your life. Changing one habit can lead to a cascade of other positive habits – the author of the book calls it a keystone habit!