The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg – The Golden Rule of Habit Change

The Golden Rule of Habit Change embodies an axiom that study after study has shown to be true: to change a habit you must keep the old cue and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.  Duhigg asserts almost any habit can be transformed if the cue and the reward remain the same.

The Golden Rule of Habit Change is: You can’t extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it.

The book follows Tony Dungy’s career in some depth, detailing how changing his players’ habits (and their belief) finally led to his winning the Super Bowl.  He believed the key to winning was changing players’ habits.

He believed champions do ordinary things extraordinarily well by doing them automatically, without thinking, without making a decision; by reflex.  This in turn makes them faster, and gives them the edge to win.

The secret wasn’t creating new habits, but changing old ones, by keeping the cues and rewards the same, but changing the routine.  He keeps his schemes and formations simple, so that by practicing them over and over, players’ behaviors become automatic.

Similarly Alcoholics Anonymous is a habit changing machine which, through its twelve step process, enables alcoholics to identify the cues and rewards that trigger their drinking habit.  If they can change the routine that responds to these, then they can kick their habit and addiction.

AA is not particularly scientific, and because it is not based on research academics and researchers have been critical of it.  But recently that same contingent has found valuable lessons in AA, particularly that it succeeds because it has found a way for alcoholics to use the same cues, and get the same reward, but changing the routine of alcohol abuse.  It forces them to identify the cues and rewards that encourage their addictive habits, and help them replace them with new behaviors.

“Alcoholics crave a drink because it offers escape, relaxation, companion-ship, the blunting of anxieties, and an opportunity for emotional release…AA has built a system of meetings and companionship – the “sponsor” each member works with – that strives to offer as much escape, distraction, and catharsis as a Friday night bender.”  If we want to change our habits, we would be well served to build a community of like minded individuals to help us.  The most powerful agent of change is social capital.

Starting Over

One of the drawbacks of working without a plan is that it can be easy to lose sight of what it is you’re trying to accomplish.  You put your head down to finish something that seems both urgent and important, and when you finally come back up for air and take a look around, you discover you are miles away from where you thought you wanted to be.

Something like that has happened to me over the last few months.  An opportunity presented itself, and I set myself an agenda to prove myself worthy of the opportunity.  Part of that agenda included a daily essay written for a particular person associated with that opportunity, and in the process of doing that, I lost sight of writing for this blog.  I apologize to my readers for that.

Regardless of what happens with the opportunity, both writing and practice are going to be big parts of my life.  I want to continue reading and writing about practice, as well as actually doing the practice every day.

Once you stop doing a practice, it can be very hard to get started again.  It’s all about inertia.  Once a body moves in a certain direction, it will continue in that direction until a force is exerted to stop it.  If you’re trying to push a large box across a floor, it’s much easier to do once the box is actually moving than it is while the box is at rest.

So it is with our habits.  It’s much easier to keep a good habit going when you’re doing it every day.  The longer the interval between practices, the harder it will be to keep the practice going.  And if you wait long enough, it will be as though you never practiced at all.

Use it or lose it.

The Bane of Happiness

Positive psychology keeps telling me the money doesn’t mean much by way of happiness.  Yet all of us seem to think money is a panacea, which if we just had enough of it, all our problems would go away.  What’s going on here?

Money may not be able to make you happy, but it can sure make you miserable.  Someone said the way to become rich is to limit your wants.  The way to become poor is to spend more than you make.

When we buy something new and shiny, whether a house, a car, or a new suit of clothes, it gives us a shot of dopamine.  But that high quickly wears off and turns into anxiety when our outgoes consistently outrun our income.  Having a negative net worth is a sure way to neurosis.  It’s hard to feel good about yourself or about life when most of your paycheck belongs to somebody else.

Probably most of you have at least heard about Dave Ramsey.  He has some really good ideas for getting out of, and stay out of debt.  But again, it takes practice.  If you just read his books without turning the exercises into regular practice, you’re going right back into wage slave status.

It takes diligence to stay out of debt, especially when so many businesses are trying to find new ways to spend your money, or give you credit to spend money you don’t have.  They all promise happiness, but ironically the happiness will only come if you keep your money in your pocket.

Learning to Pray

What is prayer?  Does it come easily or naturally to you?  For me it seems enormously difficult and conflicted.

How do we commune with God?  Or suppose you’re an atheist – is prayer then meaningless for you?

I think prayer is an expression of our longing to be connected with God, with Nature, and the Cosmos.  The connection is feeling a part of, a participant in our experience of reality.  We want to feel like our lives matter, that those we care about matter.

My first recollections of prayer were a kind of litany against fear: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.  And if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”  Or, “All night, all day, angels are watching over me my Lord.  All night, all day, angels are watching over me.”

Then as I got older they became a list of requests, generally in terms of wanting something for myself or another, whether health, prosperity, wisdom, etc.

But imagine talking to a friend this way, everyday presenting them with a list of petitions.  Such a relationship probably wouldn’t last long, and generally neither do such prayers, at least not for me.

But still I have this longing to be in relationship with God, with nature, with my friends and family, and acquaintance.  The older I get the more I realize that I am always in God’s presence.  I am part of nature and in nature.

I can hold my friends and family before God in my mind’s eye, and appreciate them, bless them from my heart, and imagine them finding their place and purpose in the world, imagine them blessing the world in their own special way.  I can imagine us connected and full of God’s presence, full of God’s grace, and blessing others and one another, blessing God in our own way.

Fighting Despair

I am a “four” on the enneagram.    Fours tend to focus on what’s missing in their life, whether that is meaningful relationships, meaningful work, or simply meaning itself.  As a result we often feel defeated, and frequently battle despair.

Fours can be a dreary lot to hang out with.

When this fit takes me, it can be difficult to find my way back to hope.  But I have found some things that help.

Probably most helpful is to stop and open my eyes; to give thanks for the things that aren’t missing.  When I do this I am always astounded at just how remarkably blessed I am.  Savor those blessings, linger over them, and meditate on them; especially if you too are a four.  There is nothing like genuine gratitude to chase away despair.

Another thing I do is to try to keep moving, like Dory in “Finding Nemo,” just keep on swimming.  I’ll do simple things, like washing the dishes or vacuuming the floor.  They remind me that I can get something done.

Make a list of the things you have accomplished, no matter how small.

Or bring to remembrance those times you’ve been a blessing to someone.  I remember a line from The Brothers Karamazov, “I threw an onion.”  I try to be a blessing in some mundane way.  Maybe I’ll go to a rest home and just listen to an old person’s story.  Just listening to someone can be a great blessing, especially to those in whom the world no longer has any interest.

Searching for a Social Practice

What do I want from a social practice?  I want to broaden and deepen my circle of acquaintance.  Yet, we are all limited in the scope of our acquaintance.  I don’t really like to admit that to myself, but it’s true.

So let’s look at the first aim: to broaden my acquaintance. In the course of our lives, we will meet people who fall across our path.  Some will be interesting, some less so.  We can learn from all of them, but occasionally one will particularly attract our attention, or draw us in.  The conversation will be particularly interesting in terms of content and level of trust and vulnerability.  We want to pursue these people.  Write them into a list.  Keep track of the times we contact them.  Make notes of our conversation.

And we want to deepen our relationships.  What does this entail?  Well a deep relationship is based on trust and vulnerability.  It can’t be deep otherwise.

To build trust we have to be trustworthy.  We can’t betray a trust by telling tales out of school.  Moreover it requires being reliable, by doing what we say we’re going to do, and accomplishing the task in a timely manner.

A person has to feel safe before they will be willing to make themselves vulnerable.  I think trust comes before vulnerability.  We have to have already built trust before a person in going to bare their soul to us.

I think a person is more likely to be vulnerable with a listener than they are a talker.  We want to know we are being listened to, before we share the shadows of our soul.  We need emotional space.

A deep relationship is both encouraging and challenging.  We don’t humiliate each other with the other’s shame.  But we do challenge each other, “Hey, you said you wanted to write, so why aren’t you writing?”  We encourage each other to move forward, to face our fears, and to act in the face of them.


What is structure?  Things like going to bed and getting up at the same time every day; buying food that’s healthy, or not buying beer or candy; writing the first three hours of the day.

Just not buying beer to drink at home has been huge for me in making it possible to have productive evenings instead of crapping out in front of the tube.

Structure puts us in the right place at the right time.  Structure puts only healthy food before the elephant eyes of our appitite.  Structure makes it easy for us to build the kind of habits we want, and difficult to do the “bad” habits we don’t want.

Structure builds a shute around temptation to guide the elephant directly to the goal of practice.  It keeps us out of harms way, and puts us in the way of our practice, so that it’s easy to do the right thing at the right time. With time, we come to do those things almost automatically.  And this frees the energy of our minds to focus on our practice, rather than wrestle with a decision we shouldn’t have to make in the first place.

For example, I go to bed at 10 and get up at 5, whether I’m “ready” or not.  I write from 5 to 8 in the morning.  At 8 I practice yoga.  After yoga I eat breakfast, etc. 

Structure involves building riturals that correspond with the rhythms of the day so that we do our practice in time with the regular cycles of life.  This ritual cuts a channel through our brain as surely as running water cuts a channel through rock.

Thinking about Initiation

There are certain thinkers, like Richard Rohr, who believe “initiation” is a key part of a child’s acculturation that is missing from modern society.

My impression is that initiation is a process that is intentionally designed to produce the following outcomes in the initiate:

  1. Humbled, in the sense of each individual brought to the end of their strength;
  2. Made aware of their dependence upon a higher power;
  3. Made aware of their dependence upon the community;
  4. To emerge with a vision and a sense of purpose for their life in the context of that higher power and community.

How do you do this in a litigious society, and in such a way that is psychically healing and not destructive?

A person is humbled when they come to the end of their own strength, when they recognize their interdependence with others and with the very cosmos itself.  That is, the person who believes himself self-sufficient and perhaps even self-reliant is not humble.

This whole idea of humbling or humiliating a person is repugnant to our modern western society.  We don’t want to humble or humiliate our children.  We want to make them proud, and to think they can do anything.  I don’t think many of us would choose to put our children through an ordeal that we expected to humble or humiliate them.

Probably the closest thing I can think of in modern society to this kind of initiation is the military boot camp.  Per Wikipedia regarding recruit training:

“…if a recruit cannot be relied upon to obey orders and follow instructions in routine matters it is unlikely they will be reliable in a combat situation…the recruit who can’t work as part of a team and comply with the routine tasks of basic training, therefore, is more likely to place themselves, comrades and the mission in jeopardy.

I believe Rohr’s contention, and that of others like him, is that when we fail to intiate children into adulthood, the resulting adults will be toxic to society until they somehow stumble upon these realizations on their own, in a way that is more likely to be harmful both to society and the individual.

Security, Certainty, and Safety

Perhaps after happiness – security, certainty, and safety are the things we most want.  Yet imagine a story of a character whose life was secure, certain, and safe.  Nothing could be more boring.

Living an adventure is stressful, unpredictable, uncertain, and risky.  Adventures are often unsafe.  But they make for a good story.  The first stories, the myths and legends of various cultures, are nearly all adventures.

Our own stories are full of adventure.  Those parts of our lives that stick with us the most are those ordeals we’ve passed through, particularly those we shared with friends and family.  They are often transformative: we learn from them, and are changed by them.  They bind us together with a particulare imprimatur.  We are marked.

So how can we learn to ride the waves of adventure, the uncertain chaos of an ordeal, in such a way that we enjoy it?  Because in this world we live in, there is no escape from it.  Change and volatility come in ever more frequent and more violent waves.  And if we can learn to ride these waves, we can trade the sameness and boredom of a safe and secure life for the transformative variety and challenge of an adventure.

Fortune favors the prepared mind – Louis Pasteur.  Our practice can stretch us and strengthen us across all the domains of life.  Our practice can still the silent screams of our anxious and fearful mind.  Our practice can empart to us the gifts of confidence, courage, and the determination to persevere.  Our practice can teach us the balance to stand upon our board on tall waves that cast us in shadow, and propel us at breathtaking speed.

Wisdom’s Apprentice

Who is wisdom’s apprentice?  What sort of person is on the path to wisdom?

  1. A person who is self-aware, and has a longing to understand her place and connection with God and the Cosmos.
  2. A person who longs for goodness, truth, and beauty.
  3. A person who seeks to walk in equanimity, gratitude, and awe.
  4. A person who seeks to live empathically and compassionately.
  5. A person who acknowledges their need for grace, and seeks to be full of grace: forgiveness, acceptance, and completeness.
  6. A person who seeks a vocation they enjoy by which they can bless themselves and others, and by which they can earn a living.
  7. A person who seeks to live simply and within their means; who is moderate in all things.
  8. A person who enjoys a civil discussion about ideas that matter; who can bless a person who disagrees with her.

Is the wise person an expert?  I don’t believe the qualification of expert is either necessary or sufficient to be wise.  Oftentimes experts are arrogant.  Their skill can lead to hubris that leads them to believe they are beyond the need for grace, compassion, or empathy.  But neither do I believe it keeps them from being wise, or seeking wisdom.

It takes discipline to stay on such a path.  It takes community to stay on such a path.  Since the dawn of civilization, persons have formed communities to help one another pursue these very ends in one form or another; whether as political communities, religious communities, or academic communities.

We need each other to grow.  It is hard, if not impossible, to grow alone.  Can we form such a community online?  Could such an online community meet face to face?