The Power of Habit Summary: turning an unnatural act into a natural one…
Need Life-Change? The Toilet Is Ground Zero…
Potty training…who would have thought this held the key to personal transformation. Want to quit smoking? Change your diet? Quit biting your nails? Stop gossiping? Look no further than the basics: elimination on the porcelain throne.
Let’s start with a short quip from M. Scott Peck’s “Further Along The Road Less Traveled.”
People sometimes ask me the most impossible – for example. “Dr. Peck, what is human nature?” And because my parents raised me to be an obliging child, I try to come up with answers to such impossible questions, and first answer I give is: “Human nature is to go to the bathroom in your pants.”
It really is. That is exactly the way each one us started out, doing what came naturally and letting go whenever we felt like it. But then what happened along about the time we were two years old or so, our mother or possibly our father – although usually it is our mother who gets the message across – came to us and said, “Hey, you’re a nice kid and I like you a lot, but I’d kind of appreciate it if you would clean up your act.”
Initially, such a request makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to the child. What makes sense it do what comes naturally and let go whenever one feels like it. Moreover, the result is always interesting and different each time.
Sometimes it comes in a form that you can write on the walls with, and sometimes it’s in hard little balls you can toss out of the crib and watch bounce on the floor. But it makes absolutely no sense to do what is profoundly unnatural, which is to keep a tight fanny and somehow manage to get to the bathroom just in time to see this beautiful stuff flushed away and put to no useful purpose.
However, if there is a good relationship between the child and its mother, and the mother is patient and not too demanding or controlling – and unfortunately – these circumstances often are not met, which is why psychiatrists are so into toilet training – but if these circumstances are met, the child says to itself:
“You know, Mommy is a nice old gal and she’s been awful good to me these last couple of years, and I’d like to do something to pay her back. I’d like to give her some kind of gift of my appreciation. But I’m just a puny, helpless two-year-old, so what could I possibly have to give her that she might want or not – except this one crazy thing?
So the child – as a gift to its mother – starts doing the unnatural and keeping that tight fanny and going to the toilet. But look what happens here over the next few years. Something absolutely marvelous. By the time the child reaches the age of four or five, if in a moment of stress or fatigue it forgets and has an accident, it feels unnatural about the messy business whereas it has come to feel utterly natural about going to the toilet. In this brief span of time, as a gift of love to its mother, the child has changed its nature.
Charles Duhigg Research Suggests It Can Be Done!
We are machines; yes, sophisticated computers with what feels like a supernatural operating system. That being said, machines can always be controlled, the automatic processes have their advent from some starting point. What we are really discussing here are habits and relationships. Further, we are briefly – like super briefly – examining how the two work in concert to create life change.
As a computer can be optimized to execute one’s bidding, granted the user knows the codes; one’s habits can be optimized in order to foster a higher quality of life, granted once more, that the individual knows the cue, the routine, and the reward.
At least, this is what Charles Duhigg asserts is the proper coding. M. Scott Peck provides a little pushback and seems to be arguing that these specific life change codes consist of four letters: L-O-V-E.
Therefore, whereas Duhigg sees this life change as centered around the will, Peck sees it centering around the community. But let’s be realistic – it’s both!
The Mechanism of a Habit
Per Duhigg, the way to change a habit – the unnatural into the natural – is by altering the routine without modifying the cue and reward.
This is a trigger (e.g. a TV commercial, a bar of chocolates, an emotion, or a sequence of thoughts) that tells your brain to go into automatic mode, using a particular habit.
The automatic response (e.g. feeling irritated, getting a glass of wine) can be mental, emotional, or physical.
The routine can produce physical sensations or positive feelings (e.g. pride, relaxation), which determine whether you’ll remember this feedback loop in the future.
How I Reduced My Coffee Intake Significantly Using The Power of Habit
Let’s illustrate using my coffee habit. Oddly enough, the coffee only plays a very small role.
At work I have two primary roles, one is to engage clients via group and individual therapy and the other is to document everything that takes place.
I adore the former but rather loathe the latter. Usually, when I’m typing away I begin to feel sleepy, somewhat bored, and apathetic (the cue). This sets in motion the automatic processes (the routine) wherein I meander to the cafeteria to pour myself a fresh and steamy cup of joe. From there I slowly saunter back to my office but only after stopping at every office along the way!
The reward? A burst of life and energy. From what? Socializing, not that caffeine. Rather than interacting with my clients, which brings me much joy, I spend 15 minutes or so interacting with my peers and head back to documentation. My brain sees the coffee as the desire but in reality, I want to re-engage – I hate being at the desk!
After reading The Power of Habit this was all unveiled to me. Per Duhigg, we must keep the cue and the reward constant but modify the routine. So this is what I did.
Instead of going for coffee at that time, I now go to the cafeteria, grab a protein bar, and make my rounds socializing with my colleagues. Remarkably enough, I have no desire for that noontime java. Furthermore, using Peck’s relational model, I informed my colleagues of what was going on – for support and accountability, a little love goes a long way!
Whether you think personal life change comes from love, will-power, or both, I think two things are undeniably evident. One, with a little self-awareness and grit, our habits can be effectively changed. Two, with a bit of love and support, this burden can be lessened significantly.
Yes, we most certainly can turn an unnatural act into a natural one, as Dr. Peck so oddly but brilliantly illustrated. Therefore, if you think eating healthy or staying sober, or something within that general framework is unnatural and maybe even impossible for you, just remember each time you sit on the latrine that the possibilities are endless.