by Todd Walker
Are old dogs really too old to be taught new tricks?
I’ve begun reading The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg.
I won’t review the entire book here. But, there are lessons for both the individual and organizations. Understanding what Duhigg calls the “Habit Loop”, and applying the principles in his book, can transform our daily lives. I like his book so far since he writes from a scientific view, not just anecdotal evidence. The science teacher in me smiles. My plan is to apply his techniques in my journey to preparedness and self-reliance.
There’s a small bit of tissue in our brains called the basal ganglia. It seems to be an evolutionary adaptation for survival. In experiments with rats, researchers wired the brains of these critters and sent them through a maze to find a chocolate reward. In the first attempts, the rats would wander through the maze leisurely and discover the reward. The electrical brain probes showed the animal’s basal ganglia exploding with activity. The rats were processing all the sights, sounds, and smells as they made their way through a new environment. They made the rats run the maze hundreds of times. What they noticed is one of the keys of making habits automatic – good or bad. The rats learned how to navigate the maze faster with a decrease in mental activity. Automatic for the rats, so to speak. They thought about what they were doing less and less.
These habits get stored in our basal ganglia in chunks. We don’t have to think about most of the chunks of our daily behavior. Our routine of bushing our teeth, or tying our shoes is automatic. Not much mental energy is wasted on habits, conserving energy for more complex tasks.
The Habit Loop
There are three steps in the habit loop. A “cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.“
Why is the habit loop so important? Habits aren’t final. Good or bad, they’re always there. Imagine having to spend mental energy learning how to zip up your pants every time you hit the restroom. Whatever habits we have, they’ll always be in our circuitry waiting to be manipulated by cues and rewards. The goal is not to change the cues or rewards – we have to focus on the routine (behavior).
I’ve used a disposable razor to shave my head and face for years. I could even manage a close shave without the aid of a mirror. When I decided to “man up” and start shaving with a safety razor and straight razor, the learning curve got steep. I was no longer able to just rush through the process without several bloody spots. I’m still in the habit of shaving, but with a new tool. Before, my mind could wander through my to-do list while shaving. Now, I now have to focus on not bleeding out with the straight razor.
February will mark my three-year journey in my primal lifestyle. My whole mindset about food, exercise, dieting, health, rest, and life has been transformed. It didn’t happen over night. The cue to eat Standard American Diet snacks was replaced with healthy choices. My body doesn’t want to eat when the lunch bell rings unless I’m hungry. Exercising is no longer drudgery. Forgive me if I seem to be primal proselytizing. I just know how much it has improved my life. Like any new habit, whether going primal or beginning prepping, take it one step at a time. Now I crave almonds and cashews instead of vending machine crap.
Cravings power the habit loop. Do you remember Pepsodent? Claude C. Hopkins, famous for convincing folks to drink Schlitz beer, was a successful advertising executive in the early 1900′s. He was responsible for selling the “Pepsodent smile” to millions of Americans. The cue (trigger) was obvious. The film that naturally coats our teeth can be felt when one rubs his tongue over his teeth. He promoted Pepsodine as the “new” way to remove the film, decrease decay, and brighten the smile. Who doesn’t want to be more beautiful? Hopkins made millions on the cue (naturally occurring film), routine (brushing), and reward (a beautiful smile).
Most importantly, he created a craving. Brushing with baking soda and salt would clean teeth just as well, maybe better. What set his tooth paste apart was the minty, tingly feeling after using Pepsodent. People associated the tingle with clean teeth. Before Hopkins, it was estimated that only 7% of Americans brushed their teeth with tube toothpaste. After his campaign, 65% had tubes in their medicine cabinet. The craving worked to drive the routine.
Grease the Groove
We are more likely to stick with a new habit if we have a predetermined cue. Our brain will crave the reward. The simple part is changing the routine. Did I say simple? Silly me. This is where the determination and will power come in.
Each morning on my way to my outside duty station I pass a pull up bar mounted on the side of the gym. I’ve made a habit of sitting my coffee down, jumping to the bar, and doing 3 or 4 pull ups. That’s called greasing the groove. I don’t break out in a sweat. It’s not a full workout. What it does is reward my mind and body with a bit of exercise. There are a few days when I get sidetracked and have to take another route to my duty station. I miss the reward.
I practice this when grocery shopping. DRG and I usually shop the perimeter of the store for fruits, veggies, and meats. When I see the familiar “Canned Meat” sign (cue) on the isle in the middle of the store, my buggy turns to check prices on canned fish and seafood. I usually toss a few cans into the cart. My stack of sardines continues to multiply. My reward? Eating tasty little fish on my “Big Ass Salad”, getting Omega 3′s, and stocking my primal pantry.
New Years Resolutions
I’ve never been a New Years Resolution-er. Does anyone ever stick with their promises? I’m sure some do. If you are one in the resolution camp, Mr. Duhigg lays out a strategy to teach old (or young) dogs new tricks. Today is just a sampling of what’s inside. I highly recommend his work for breaking the power of bad habits and building good ones…even for an old dog like me.