Habits get bad press, as most of what is published focuses on how to get rid of bad habits. Too little attention is paid to the extraordinarily important role habits play in making our lives run more smoothly. Things that become habits are things our minds do with little conscious attention, and as we know from an earlier session, our attention is our most precious commodity. So we want that which makes us productive to become habitual. Indeed, this was part of David Allen’s reasoning behind the creation of his Getting Things Done (GTD) system – to get things off our minds and into a trusted routine, thus freeing the brain for more focused creative productive work.
Turns out that a lot of research has been done now on how habits form, how bad ones can be broken and new ones formed. This research cuts across disciplines from neuroscience to psychology to management, and is explained for the layperson in books such as The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg. Habits turn out to have three components: cue, routine, and reward. The cue is that which triggers the routine, which is the action taken. The reward is, basically, a response in our brain that is happy because of the routine. Sometimes the cue and the reward are unconscious, which makes it more difficult to change a bad habit. It isn’t the cue and reward that need to change, however, it is the routine. Duhigg gives an example in the appendix of a habit he changed, that of going to the cafeteria in the late afternoon for cookies, which caused him to gain weight. He tried not doing it, but the compulsion was too strong. So he decided to use what he learned researching the book and created a framework with the following steps: Identify the routine, Experiment with rewards, Isolate the cue, and Have a plan. By using the framework, he found that the trigger was not hunger, but a need for socialization. So he started going to coworkers’ cubicles to socialize instead of going to the cafeteria. If no one was around he would go to the cafeteria and get coffee and talk to colleagues. It has so far worked for him. (Duhigg p. 275-286)
Earlier in the book he discusses that changing one habit can have positive effects on others. Creating an exercise habit, in particular, seemed to help the most, as many people who did also began eating healthier, feeling less stress, becoming more productive at work, and better at controlling their spending. (Duhigg, p. 109)
Habits are part of the less conscious part of our minds, and so are related to our intuitive judgement, and that is the subject of a fascinating book by Malcolm Gladwell called Blink. Blink is about intuitive judgement and rational, data-driven judgement, and the conclusions are fascinating. People ask him all the time when to use which, and this is something that may never be entirely clear. He does have some conclusions, however. First, useful intuitive judgement has to be cultivated. It works for experts whose years of experience and knowledge allow them to make quick but informed judgements. On the other hand, too much information, for any one judgement, may get in the way – it may obscure the important stuff. A related problem in academia is knowing when to stop doing research and actually turn the project in.
Similarly, after 25 years as a reference and subject liaison librarian, for most questions that I get I have a good idea where to start looking for information, and usually have a feel for how much has been written on a particular topic. Many times my intuitive sense saves me time and helps me show the student where to find the information quickly. However, that judgement fails me often enough that I’ve worked out a system. I make an appointment with the researcher and spend time looking at the databases and other resources available to me. I then print pages that give the other person an idea what databases and what searches were most productive. So my experience informs my intuition but quite often I require analytical skills as well.
Routines/habits are often good as they allow us to turn our attention to important priorities. Some habits are self – destructive or simply no longer productive, and scientists are learning how we can change those. Habits and experience also feed into our intuitive judgement but we have to balance that with analytical skills to get the best results.
Duhigg, C. (2012). The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. New York: Random House. If nothing else, read the appendix, pp. 275-286.
Gladwell, M. (2005). Blink: The power of thinking without thinking. New York: Little, Brown and Co..
For Further Exploration and Insight:
(1) Have you successfully changed a bad habit or created a new good one? If so, please write a comment about the experience and how you did it.
(2) Set a goal of changing a bad habit or creating a good one… I plan on starting to exercise regularly by using Breaking the Chain (see the Session 6 post), for example. Keep track of how well you do. Add a comment to this post about the results.