Saturday, 30 June 2012

Habits, their crucial role in our lives and ways to change our habits

There is an obvious connection between the right habits and success .We have come a long way from what has been said about habits in the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin .But many questions remain.Why some people  people change their" bad "habits while others fail to do so?Why we want to fall for temptations and do wrong things?Why are our desires disordered?What is the relationship between habits and mindsets?How habits are important tools for change at individual , corporate and societal levels?What is the role of will power in changing habits?What is the relationship of will power with neurology?Is there something in the  working of our brains which does not let our will power prevail over habits?How beliefs are created and what is the role of beliefs in habit creation and change?Do we believe in a free will?
                         I read my first book on habits called  "Seven Habits of highly effective people"by Stephen Covey  (which has sold  more than 25 million copies worldwide since its first publication in 1989 for the  first time in 1994,  then in 2003 and again  in 2007.It is one of the best  self help books on habits.But it suffers from two major omissions:
1.It fails to mention the role of emotions and emotional intelligence in  life.
2.It does not tell how to create  desired  habits in oneself  , in order to be effective .It is one thing to know what the seven habits of highly effective people are .  It is quite another to create these habits in self .This makes the book less practical  .Ever since my first reading of this book , I was on the look out of a book  , which could tell  the process of creating and retaining new habits , and  to eradicate the undesirable habits .                                 
                   Recently I came across   "The Power of Habit. . .Why we do what we do in life and business" by Charles Duhigg , a book published in 2012, and I decided to read it to find answer to the  questions  which Covey left unanswered in his book and some of the above questions regarding habits  which came up in my mind from time to time .This book   is a page turner and a riveting read .Duhigg has an interesting style of telling stories.I read this book of 372 pages  in  about ten hours .Duhigg is a reporter for New York Times , and the book has an obvious journalistic style .It is not a book written by an expert on applied  psychology or neurology.It is an entertaining and breezy reading .It succeeds in  sensitizing us about  the way we look at our actions , routines , habits and mindsets .It  has opened up several aspects of habits which I did not know .It describes the habits of individuals , of successful organizations and of societies as also the neurology of free will .
                                            Some Habits can emerge without our permission and continue.We can also create new habits by putting together a cue/trigger/spark / craving , a routine and a reward(The Habit Loop).Duhigg  says that we cannot extinguish or eradicate a bad habit . we can only change/replace it with a new habit.He says that old habits don't die.Even if we change our habits , old habits still exist in the neural pathways of our  brain but remain dormant to new habit ."If you want to change a habit, you must find an alternative routine and your odds of success go up automatically when you commit to changing as a part of a group.Belief is essential and it grows out of  a communal experience, even if that community is only as large as two people."He gives the example of how people with certain brain damage could still perform certain tasks through the power of habits
                                           But my personal experiences contradict what Duhigg says .Golden Rule of habit change i.e. substitution is not true , at least not always true.I was a "chain smoker" for about 20 years   from 1973 to 1993 .I decided to give up smoking cigarettes on march 13, 1993 .At the time of giving up , I was smoking , on an average , forty cigarettes a day .Here is how I gave up the smoking :
1.A  doctor friend of mine asked me to get X rays of the chest taken .X-rays report indicated some affected portion of the lungs .It was a warning signal of breathing difficulties in future .
2.I began to visualize smoking as equivalent of consuming  poisonous gases , and committing slow suicide .I had started this visualization for about a month before I actually gave up .
3.I decided to kill the desire to smoke , focusing on very little pleasure it was giving and looking at it as a self imposed habit deserving to be eradicated .I reflected on this daily for about a month before the day of actual quitting .This was reinforced by my recitation of a stanza from Bhagwat Geeta relating to the killing of desires.
4.I had realized that reducing smoking by degrees , by reducing the number of cigarettes smoked daily , will not work .I had tried it earlier and failed.The habit had to be killed in one go .
I must share that there were no with drawl symptoms , no craving for a substitute , no looking back .It is now more than 19 years and I think , my habit of smoking is extinguished .This is contrary to what "science of habit" cited by Duhigg have us to believe .
                               The first major premise of Duhigg that you can can  change an old habit only by substituting it by a new one , is not really born out by my experience , and I am inclined to disagree with ,notwithstanding the evidence that neural pathways of old habit remain in the brain .                           

              Duhigg analyses  the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous   as a" group therapy".The 12 steps of AA are as below(for convenience):
                                                              The 12 Steps 
        Step1- We admitted we were powerless over our addiction - that our lives  had become unmanageable
Step2- Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity
Step3- Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God
Step4- Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves
Step5- Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs
Step6- Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character
Step7- Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings
Step8- Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all
Step9- Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others
Step10- Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it
Step11- Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God's will for us and the power to carry that out
Step12- Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
                         Duhigg recounts how when researchers asked recovering alcoholics what made their new habits take hold so that they were able to stay sober even under the direst of circumstances, their answer was always the same :God.It reflects the view that humans are material and spiritual beings.Reject the latter and you end up treating men and women  in controlled experiments the way you treat mice .But being subjects and not only objects,  humans have their own idea of what is going on inside them .Duhigg and the researchers that he quotes tweak the spiritual out and replace it with belief in them selves.While AA seems alcoholism as  a three fold "disease" physical , mental and spiritual , Duhigg admits to the first two ."A system of meetings and companionship that strives to offer as much escape, distraction and catharsis as a Friday night bender." On the other hand , in AA philosophy ,"Not Drinking" is only first in AA in a process leading to "Spiritual awakening".
While step 3 deals with will , the step 4 deals with making a moral inventory of them selves.It is not only the circumstantial habits o surrounding their drinking but character and emotional habits that cause the harm that they  do to them selves and to others.In step 5 , alcoholics  admit their  wrongs and develop exterior habits of self examination and admission of wrongs to other human beings  .At the same time , they  acquire interior habits or character traits such as  honesty , humility and forgiveness.They proceed from spiritual awakening which transforms the prescriptions and concerns which drive our old habits .They  try to practice these new habits daily in all they  do and through repeated action, the traits are generally ingrained in their minds and brains and develop into habitual dispositions .Right thinking , right feeling and right action slowly become second nature to them .This is the understanding of the habit formation that underlies the 12 steps of AA and is distilled in the phrase"practice these principles."
 AA is  nurturing such a fruitful tradition of coperation between science , religion and the spiritual , a tradition Chrles Duhigg has chosen not to follow.Duhigg tries to fit 12 steps of AA by bending them out of shape  so that they will fit into his "habit loop" scheme of Cue , routine and reward. 
           The mind can shape the brain , and modify behaviour, habits included.   The book  describes the biology of habit but leaves out morality and spirituality of habits , ostensibly in the name of science.It goes into the moral consequences of our habits but avoids going into the moral , emotional and spiritual origins of our habits .It says that we need to have beliefs but does not say what we are supposed to believe in.Is it God or power of visualization?It describes how habits work on and shape us and also how we shape our habits .It is in shaping of habits that we get  an unclear and somewhat incomplete picture.It also talks very little about habit shaping skills .Excluding morality and spirituality in the name of science , is the second major weakness of the Duhigg's book.
                       If you want to realize the vision you desire for your self ,you need to create habits to match your vision .The idea of keeping a journal of one's keystone habits helps keep one mindful of the source of one's actions.The power of goal setting  by simply writing things down is demonstrated.
                   Habits play an important role in changing the culture of an organization .Duhigg gives an example of Star bucks habits.The book then goes on to describe how habits are responsible for the social movements , like the Montgomery Bus Boycott movement led by Rosa Parks.While it is difficult to fully agree that social movements are caused by habits , it may be relevant to concede some role for habits in mass movements.In order to really take hold and spread, the movement must be  guided by an effective leader who lays down new habits for the movement's adherents in a way that allows them to gain  a sense of identity.The role of leadership in the context of habit formation of followers and self is relevant .But support to a social movement does not come out of habits of people who support such movements.It seems that Duhigg has used his habit model as a hammer and every story he tells is a nail.Developing a "model" and trying to explain every situation according to that model , is another weakness of the book .
                                         Duhigg rightly draws our attention to the fact that habits can be manipulated by others.The book is a manual for corporate mind control.It tells how  corporates  manipulate our habits and can  use this information  for dark purposes. The others may like to develop and encourage us to have certain habits .This is the dark side of habits practiced , among others , by the advertising firms and marketers.They wield the power of habit to manipulate the consumers and others .Corporate retail houses can act like Big Brother , intruding the privacy of common customers or individuals .The dark over lords (Corporates)know this already .I am glad we  ordinary  people  too get to know it now .The book makes us aware of our buying habits.It is a powerful insight.
                                   The book gives two new concepts of small words  and weak ties .Small words are small changes leveraged in the present so that bigger changes can be enacted later on .But then , why put effort to maintain will power when you can step back to examine the tiny impulses that drive your desires and behaviours.Weak ties are described in the context of movements .Weak ties are the rational bonds between the people .People you may know of but not very well(Friends of friends).Movements are born and political campaigns are won using these weak ties.It remind us of the bridging social capital described by Robert Putnam in his book "Bowling Alone".There is a lot of weight in what Duigg says on the important role of weak ties.
                                The book ignores or poorly covers the following areas:
1.Role of past experiences and social expectations in habit formation .
2.Depression and other emotional issues that drive an addiction in a person.
3.Examples of successful self help people or groups.Self help by individuals and also by groups ,  can result in major changes in habits as in life .
4. Need for empathy , caring and  love as a type of reward in habit formation .The self respect and guidance from well wishers in a positive environment .
5. People change when they embrace values more important to them than the rewards of a self destructive habit .(Why people change by Allen Wheelis). 
6.The emotional intelligence that allows one to develop the will power for more positive feedback loops is poorly explored.
 It seems that the book has good stories but poor guidance.
 Despite all its"flaws" and weaknesses,I have enjoyed reading this book .I am quite impressed by the 12 steps approach followed by Alcoholics Anonymous(AA), especially making  moral inventory , will power,prayer , meditation and spiritual awakening .I am fascinated by the role of  habits, described by Duigg in organizations , social movements and leadership at different levels.Manipulation of ordinary individuals through habits and mind contorl by the Corporates , is a new insight.The importance of weak ties for leaders , is a very important area introduced by Duigg to his readers .
Despite my strong disagreements with some of the major areas of Duhigg's book , I recommend you to read this fascinating book , for the reason that it compellingly  provokes you to think and find your own solutions .
                          Your habits are what you choose them to be.