A Habited Mindset

Charles Duhigg’s 2012 examination of habits, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business builds around the idea of the habit loop: a cue instigates a routine which ends with a reward.  The reward is satisfying, so we crave it, making us susceptible in the future to the cue that instigated the routine in the first place.  This pattern explains numerous behaviors that any of us engage in on a daily basis, behaviors that were once the result of deliberate choices, but are now so engrained in us that we’ve ceased thinking about them and simply do them. 

One of the central arguments of the book is what Duhigg refers to as the golden rule of habit change:  “You can never truly extinguish bad habits,” he writes.  “Rather, to change the habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.  That’s the rule.  If you use the same cue, and provide the same reward, you can shift the routine and change the habit.  Almost any behavior can be transformed if the cue and reward stay the same” (62).

I found Duhigg’s thesis convincing and interesting, but surprisingly unhelpful.  My assessment is that the book would be most impactful for readers who have several habits that they are hoping to change, and I realized as I read the book that I don’t necessarily have bad habits.  I certainly engage in unfortunate behaviors, but they aren’t habits so much as they are character flaws.  For an example, one of my least favorite things about myself is my capacity to get easily annoyed.  This is more of a personality trait than a habit, and while I believe it can be tempered with effort, it’s not the kind of effort (changing a routine) that Duhigg’s book is about. 

What I did find extremely helpful in The Power of Habit was this brief little section toward the end of the book in which Duhigg writes about William James.  James, an early 20th century psychiatrist whose writings are now pillars in the canon of literature on habits, had a rough start professionally and emotionally.  In his early thirties, he felt so unaccomplished and unsure of his place in the world that he contemplated suicide.  But then, according to Duhigg, he made a decision.

“Before doing anything rash, he would conduct a yearlong experiment.  He would spend twelve months believing that he had control over himself and his destiny, that he could become better, that he had the free will to change.  There was no proof that it was true.  But he would free himself to believe, all evidence to the contrary, that change was possible.  “I think yesterday was a crisis in my life,” he wrote in his diary.  Regarding his ability to change, “I will assume for the present — until the next year — that it is no illusion.  My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.” (272)

Duhigg tells this story to illustrate the point that “the will to believe” is the most important ingredient in creating the belief in change, and that with belief in the possibility of change, change is possible.  (James is elsewhere quoted as stating, “Actions seem to follow feeling, but really actions and feeling go together; and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not.”) We can choose to adopt the habits/practices/ways-of-being of successful people, and if we believe that these actions will make us successful, likely they will have that effect.

This story spoke to me because it feels remarkably applicable to my life right now, in the form of my career.  I’ve second-guessed myself a lot in my job over the past two years and felt an overall lack of sureness when making decisions and coordinating events.  I worry that while some people will appreciate the program I’ve created, others won’t be happy with it, and still many others won’t even attend.  I worry that people think I’m not good at my job, and that I shouldn’t have been hired for it.  I worry that I’m going to disappoint people.  In short, I worry a lot.  And I realize that through all of my worrying, I’ve been sabotaging my ability to do my best work.  Worry has held me back from being enthusiastic, getting a wide variety of folks on board, and taking risks. 

But I can stop worrying.  Maybe not completely, but at least somewhat. 

Like William James, I am going to assume for the next year that I have the ability to change — and the ability to thrive — in my professional life.  I will continue to seek advice and input from mentors and the people I work with, but I’m going to stop second-guessing every decision I make.  I’m going to feel free to try knew things, knowing that, if they don’t work well, I can do them differently the next time.  I’m going to trust my vision of faith formation and put 100% of my work time effort into creating meaningful, well researched programming, but I’m not going to judge myself harshly if it isn’t well-attended, or if someone doesn’t like it. 

I’m going to get in the habit of thinking more positively about my work, and I’m going to get in the habit of acting accordingly.