How Powerful is Habit?
There was a girl who had a terrible nail-biting habit and went to see a specialist about it. The assignments he gave her entailed that she carry an index card around with her at all times, writing down a check whenever she felt the urge to bite, and writing down a hash mark whenever she successfully overrode the habit with an alternate route (e.g. crossing her arms or putting her hands under her legs), as practiced in his office. This was after she had established that the biting most often occurred during mind-numbing activities such as doing homework or watching TV. Additionally, the nail-biting would end with a moment’s sense of “completeness.”
The activities which spurred her mind to wander elsewhere were the cue for the habit: the physical sensation, coupled with the sense of completeness, was the reward. To change a habit, the cues and rewards must remain the same-- hence the specialist’s working with her to find some replacement routine which, like nail-biting, produces a physical sensation. Within a few weeks of seeking treatment, her prevalence of nail-biting dropped significantly. What a life-redeemer!
This anecdote is from Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit. Reading this book gives the sense that so much of what goes on in the world is strongly influenced by a few simple principles-- specifically, those surrounding habit. It’s simple: if you want change, you must change the cues, how you respond to the cues, the reward, how you go about achieving the reward, the craving, and/or how you fulfill the craving. But maybe even that is an overcomplicated picture.
The first step to any change is awareness. You don’t necessarily have to be aware of your cues, routines, cravings, and rewards to change. You do, however, have to be aware of discrepancies between your thoughts and desires, behaviors and desires, and what you think and what you say. To put it crudely, you have to be aware that something is wrong here—you are living incongruently.
Step 1 of the 12 steps, in Alcoholics Anonymous, is to admit you have a problem. One reason habits persist is due to a lack of awareness of them. They’re automatic. You take them for granted. The body starts moving, the vocal cords start shakin’, or the thoughts start racing—meanwhile, consciousness checks out.
I must note that I use “habits” as a broad term here. This could be not just reaching for chocolate or tearing your hair out, but also the way in which you relate to others (i.e. how you communicate with them-- are you avoidant? Are you hesitant to share things about yourself?), for instance.
What if you can condition yourself to automatically turn negative thoughts into positive ones? What if I can condition myself to turn out a piece of writing when I feel ready to check out, instead of actually checking out with excessive food or sleep? What if I can even condition myself to dive into and defy my fears, instead of heeding them and avoiding what scares me? In other words, what if when I get scared to act I simply act—automatically?
I am amazed at the possibilities.
Behavior: An Incomplete Picture
I have a concern with this perspective, and it is this: Fixing behavior doesn’t always fix the problem. Sure, to successfully stop cutting or starving yourself is no accomplishment to take lightly, and it can bring great relief as well as a boost to the quality of life.
However, just because things look fine or like they’re getting better doesn’t mean they are. Ultimately, I like to think that things are always growing, and moving in a positive direction. Still, while the line of best fit may be straight, the set of points it represents are far from being linear when connected. And I mean far. Like, far out, dude.
We are not linear beings. If we were then we’d be machines. Rather, there are lots of things happening inside us at once-- and, yes, this is even aside from the countless biological processes.
Your subconscious mind never lets go of things (e.g. certain concepts, ideas, schemas, thoughts, etc. of significance to you), even if your conscious mind has for the time being. These thoughts, or entities of your mind, are always being processed by the subconscious-- as long as they are deemed significant. Who exactly is the judge of this is hard to say. Let’s just go with you for now- whether you realize it or not.
The premise: You cannot forget until you have forgiven—even if you’d like to imagine otherwise.
So the true “problem,” in contrast with the behavior, is what caused the behavior in the first place. That means that when teenagers chop themselves up into little pieces, it is the anxiety that provokes them to do so that is the true problem.
But what causes the anxiety? Self-loathing? What’s that all about? What are the beliefs that have been conditioned into your thinking that fuel that?
Yes, it’s awesome that our heroine could manage to stop ripping her nails apart. But what if that behavior was a reflection of her life being run by unfulfilling activities such as homework and television? It’s great that she can do those things without physically maiming herself now, but why does she subject herself to such mind-numbingness in the first place?
Damn it, why do any of us?
Painting the Rest of the Picture
This is not meant to put a behavioral-focus to shame, however. An understanding of the habit-principles has the potential for immense power.
My point is that the behavioral perspective must be, in most cases, complemented with a larger perspective—that is, one that focuses more on the humanistic side of things. We can also call this emotional, existential, or personal.
These words cannot be used interchangeably, but the point is that they contrast the rudimentary, linear, mechanistic nature of behaviorism.
The humanistic lens is like the glasses for your behavioral-glasses. Behavior is a piece of being human, but it does not make a human. Likewise, an event in a dream is a significant part of a dream, but it is not the dream itself.
An unfettered focus on behaviorism can lead to frustration. I stopped the behavior—why am I still unhappy?! I pity you, 16-year-old girl of the past. But only for a second. You would have known better, had you not been caught up in your own game. Had you only known that thoughts matter, too.
Behavior is useful as a measurable starting point for change. It can be observed, and it is easy to determine whether a behavior has changed.
First, determine what the behavior is. From there, drill down until you hit the root of the problem, which exists in your subjective experience (which cannot be observed by others). Ask, In what circumstances does this behavior occur? What are the feelings present in those circumstances? What are the thoughts related to those feelings?
Finally, ask this: What belief or conditioning might those thoughts arise from?
Look at that-- one conditioning leads to another. What Pavlovian lives we lead!
What might the alternatives to running on a mass of habit loops be? Well, if you lay out the behavioral-perspective broadly enough, you could argue that there is no alternative. Everything is habit. What doesn’t look like habit is just one cue replacing another, such as a physical craving. Our lives are a jumble of shifting cues, routines, rewards, and cravings, all trying to lock into place for good. All we can do is change these. That is truly all change is: a trade-off of routines.
Damn, that sounds like downright roboticism (or dog-ism). But think about it: how skilled are most people you know at changing these four entities? How quick are they to implement change? How much do they even talk about change? Are they even aware that they’re taking an undesired something for granted, and that they can do something to change it?
Simple does not always mean easy. But don’t worry about that right now. Instead, think of what power the ability to make change entails.
That right there is the definition of power-- the ability to enforce your will by making changes. It’s habits that block our power in the first place, which is why changing them can be such a biotch. See all the cycles we live inside of?
Life Beyond Habit
You can’t escape the role habits play in your life, but you don’t have to make the behavioral perspective the main way you see the world. You can approach your life more humanistically, instead.
There is higher motivation. You can be driven by an awe-inspiring, compelling purpose of your choosing everyday. You can choose to defy your fears. You can expose yourself to novel situations and take new actions, actions which you have never even contemplated before. You can even increase the strength of your conscious mind, as well as the proportion of time with which it leads you (as opposed to your automatic subconscious).
It is well within your abilities to change your habits to make your behaviors more in line with what you desire. Ultimately, you choose to be as you. Darn it, you can choose.
If we weren’t conscious and gifted with choosing power, how on Earth/in the universe would we be able to change our habits?! There must be some part of us, then, that is more powerful than habit.
We truly are the captains of our fate. We must look at our lives through multiple perspectives- physiological, behavioral, mental, emotional, and spiritual- to be effective. There is no need to live another day of your life trapped in an anhedonic cycle of any sort. Go forth, and free yourself.
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