What do we do? Good and bad habits

by Rob Tiller

Periodically I get the bug to improve my Spanish, which has been stuck for a while at the low intermediate level. Rosetta Stone’s relentless marketing finally overcame my defenses, and I found myself signing up for its web-based offering on an all-you-can-eat-in-one-year basis. I like it.

It’s all in Spanish (no translations), with photographs to guide you toward basic vocabulary, and is broken into little bite-size challenges. It works well on my tablet device. Part of the genius is that it constantly quizzes you, asking you to think and make your best guess as to each new bit of vocabulary, and gives a small musical reward (a harp arpeggio) for a correct answer. (Wrong answers are punished with a less pleasing sound.)

When you’re a beginner at Spanish, or anything else, you have to exert a lot of conscious effort to accomplish anything. This “beginner’s mind” (see Zen) is fun, in a way. It’s involving. But eventually, if you keep at it, you advance, and you are no longer a beginner. Conscious incompetence changes gradually to unconscious competence — a habit. You can communicate more successfully, but without any particular feeling of accomplishment. Then you’re ready to begin German, or whatever. Education is, in part, the accretion of useful habits.

I wrote a bit last week about developing the habit of exercise, and have been thinking more about the significance of habits. A few moths back I read Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit. It has the air of one of those airport bookshop books that’s more like a padded-out magazine article, but it has a few worthwhile ideas.

According to Duhigg, hundreds of our everyday activities are just chunks of behavior that require no conscious thought. We may think that our days are spent considering and deciding on our actions, but typically we spend lots of time on autopilot. Think of getting up, showering, eating, brushing teeth, walking, driving, saying good morning, turning on your computer, web surfing & etc.

This is not in itself a bad thing, because it’s energy efficient. Once we’ve learned to drive and gotten to be experienced drivers, we don’t need to think about driving our daily commute, which frees up energy for other things — like texting. Just kidding! Kids, please don’t text while driving. But seriously, as much as I think conscious thinking is a worthwhile thing, life as we know it would be impossible without a large repertoire of behaviors that require no conscious thought.

Habits, like bacteria, get a bad rap because we forget about the good ones and mostly notice the bad ones. And we should give attention to those bad ones. Over and over, we do things that we know very well are bad for us, and it doesn’t help that we know it. Some bad habits just waste time, but others, like smoking or overeating, can take years off your life. What to do?

Duhigg proposes a simple approach to changing bad habits. Researchers have found that all habits have three parts: the cue, the routine, and the reward. For example, you feel bored and fidgety (the cue), you go to the snack station and grab a candy bar (the routine), and devour the sweet gooey thing and feel a moment of bliss (the reward). Then you feel unhappy that you ate something against your better judgment.

According to Duhigg, the trick to changing a bad habit is recognizing the routine, and experimenting with substituting a new routine that gives the same reward. He gives the example of his own snacking, which he thought was a function of hunger, but realized had more to do with needing social interaction. So instead of having a cookie, he started having a chat with a colleague, which yielded the same psychic reward.

This seems like a reasonable approach. Good intentions and raw willpower are usually not enough to dislodge entrenched bad habits. A bit of playful experimentation is worth a try.