July 2, 2012
Joe, a friend of a friend, is a classic grumpy old man. Now in his seventies, he has but one friend. He is not short of money but he is certainly short of charm. Worse, he is set in his ways. He knows what he likes and people and things must behave accordingly. Naturally, everyone irritates him. This is a classic human folly: we are sensitive to other people’s habits but oblivious our own habits. Why is that?
Did Joe not recognize when his own habits were fossilizing inside him? Probably not. Habits have a way of taking over unawares. Sarla’s thrift habit made her into a hoarder. Mark’s shyness with women caused him to be fired because he was surfing porn during work hours. Brandon used to be popular in school because he always had interesting gossip. Now he has no friends because he just cannot keep secrets. Habits begin as harmless, but at some point they take over, growing big and powerful. Then it is too late. We are helpless to stop.
But here is the joke: habits are primitive and follow a predictable path. By observing them ( that is, through experimentation) we can uncover the innards of habits. Then we are in position to unlearn habits, as well as to cultivate better ones.
Most people have heard about Pavlov and his dogs. He was the scientist who discovered stimulus-response association. He rang a bell each time the dogs were fed. Over time, the dogs associated the bell with food and began to salivate when they heard it ring. Habits are built from this simple repetition of association. There has to a stimulus or trigger (the bell for the dogs), a behavior or response(salivating) and a pay off that drives the whole loop (the food reward in that case).
Our habit may appear more complicated than that, but in reality they are wired to this primeval brain function. They vary only slightly from those of dogs or mice. Some key things to understand about human habits.
1) They are flexible, no matter how deeply ingrained. And yes, you can teach an old coot new tricks. Provided, that is, he is sufficiently motivated. I know in my case, a near-death was motive aplenty to make radical changes in my life. So much so that I am now grateful for my heart failure. For others a belief in God or some higher power acts as a motive.
2) The pay-off or reward that drives the habit loop is often hidden. It maybe primal and unrelated to the behavior (just as the bell and food for Pavlov’s dogs). For example, some gay men indulge in promiscuous behavior not because they love sex, but rather because they are lonely. Obese people sometimes eat for comfort, not for the love of eating. Some get addicted to TV out of boredom. If we can suss out the root reward, we can then address that need more appropriately (and be more fulfilled).
3) Habits operate in intertwined networks. That is why they feel so big and powerful. Undo any one component of the network, and the whole things becomes pliable. For example, I used to have problem with tidiness (even though I hate clutter). I tried using will power to stay vigilant throughout the day, but that was exhausting. Instead, I made a simple change. Each morning upon waking, I resolved to make the bed before doing anything else. Nothing more. This simple change opened the way, quite effortlessly, for other changes in the breakfast routine (plates now got put away without my noticing), and so on throughout the day. It is what some call a keystone habit, changing which changes all others. This is useful when trying to change the habits of others, such as noisy neighbors.
4) Ask to change only small specific behavior. We in big city apartments will, from time to time, be forced to endure people above or beside us who disturb our quietude. I had a family with small children living above me, the children liked running on the wood floors with their shoes on. Asking them to be more quiet and respectful of me did not work. It was too non-specific and implied they had to watch themselves every single moment for my benefit. But when the parents were asked to not let the children roam about with shoes on, it had the desired effect of making the whole family more quiet. The request was specific and small, very doable and reasonable, not big and general as before.
5) Habits are not a bad thing. They are tools which, when used skillfully, help us to do the job with minimum effort. The keyword is skillfully. No one teaches us the mechanics of habits. So we flounder through life, by trial and error, without ever understanding our own compulsions and obsessions, nor those of people in our lives. Our needs evolve over time, but we do not know how to change the habit that no longer suits. Understanding habits means we can rebuild better tools that evolve with our needs.