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.

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.

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?

Begin the Adventure

An adventure takes us out of ourselves.  It removes us from who we thought we were, and places us in situations we didn’t expect to face; demands from us a strength we didn’t think we possessed; gives us wounds we didn’t expect to receive, or thought we could recover from.

An adventure changes us.

How does a person with a day to day job have an adventure?  We think of Jason and the Argonauts, or the Odyssey, not Bill at his 9 to 5 desk job.

To some extent, Harry Potter and his buds are in a situation like this.  They go to school every day.  They have homework.  They play sports.  Sure, they’re magical, but even the magic is routine in the sense that they have to learn and practice to be able to use it.

Harry had Voldemort and the Death Eaters to contend with.  But our lives aren’t without fears or monsters, or even forces seemingly out to destroy the world.  Our life is an adventure too, if we can only see it that way.

Our practice is preparation, an initiation to our own adventure.  To some extent our adventure chooses us, but we also choose it.  Each of us has that dragon in our minds that we need to face and subdue in order to move forward, to get past that gatekeeper and move on to the next level.

We each of us know what that obstacle is that is holding us back, that makes us afraid, or that keeps us from doing our work.  The adventure begins when we start to practice, when we learn discipline, and endure the pain of facing our fears.

Children as Practice

Maybe nothing in life is more painful or rewarding than raising children.

As a parent, I wanted to teach my children all the things I had learned from life.  Instead, my children taught me all the things I had yet to learn about it.

I acted as if my children were lumps of clay I could fashion into my own idea of beauty, of character, and of excellence.  They acted as if I knew nothing of beauty, of character, or of excellence.  They seemed to think my ignorance was only exceeded by my arrogance.

Nothing has humbled me more than being a parent.  Nothing has taught me patience like being a parent.

Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned from being a parent is when to bite my tongue, which is often.  When it comes to words, less is more.  There is no quicksand like that created by an exchange of angry words.  What started out as a misdemeanor is quickly turned into a felony; what was at first a consequence is shortly made into a bombing run; what was a life lesson becomes a lifelong scar.

The other important lesson I’ve learned is to accept who my children are, and not try to turn them into who I think they ought to be.  This is a hard lesson, one I am constantly in the process of learning.

Sometimes it is hard to separate “the good,” “the beautiful,” and “the true” from our opinion of what those are vis-a-vis our children.  The best I have been able to do is to model what I believe the “three verities” are, and to discuss them with our children when I have the chance.

Our children are a constant source of feedback to us, as we are to them.  If we keep that channel of communication open, we can all grow as individuals, and grow as a family.  But if that channel is closed, we lose the feedback, lose the connection, lose eventually our sense of family altogether.

Building the First Circle of Wisdom

I take as my model for a “community of wisdom” Benjamin Franklin’s “Junto”, a club of about 12 men who got together weekly for their mutual improvement.  They would take turn about in leading a discussion on morals, politics, or science, and committed to produce and read to the group an essay of his own writing once every three months.

Our debates were to be under the direction of a president, and to be conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute or desire of victory; and to prevent warmth, all expressions of positiveness in opinions, or direct contradiction, were after some time made contraband, and prohibited under small pecuniary penalties.

The first step is drawing up a list of likely candidates to form such a group.  Alternatively, you might use a resource such as to find a group of individuals so inclined.  Or you might resort to joining a formally organized group such as Rotary or Toastmasters.

Franklin also drew up a list of questions (see questions under the link above) that I believe are indicative of what is a matter of concern to an “elder” or “wise one.”

In order for the group to be well run, for its members all to take part in the discussion, and for the group to eventually become viral, I believe the first meetings should address the ideas of channels of communication, of talk dancing, hand signals, and self-organization and self-replication of groups.

Why viral you may ask?  The group should have the goal of going viral so that the wisdom of the group can be shared with the world.  As the group grows and divides the elders become mentors to others seeking meaning and significance in their life.  This later became a goal of Franklin’s group as well, which eventually evolved into the American Philosophical Society.

An Ordinary, Flourishing Life

I think of my life in terms of these domains: spirit, mind, body, emotion, family, community, vocation, finances, and household.  A flourishing life exhibits health and vitality in each of these domains.

If we suffer a collapse in one of these domains, it becomes difficult to flourish.  If two or more collapse, we are well on our way to a train wreck.

I keep a practice for each of these domains by which I can improve or maintain the well being of each.  It is particularly important for householders to keep their balance, and especially difficult as well.  The life of a householder is full of obligations, commitments, and stress.

If we are determined to become “the best” in a particular domain, that translates into at least 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, or three hours a day for ten years, while still maintaining enough gas in the tank to keep the other domains in a state of health.  That is no mean feat, especially if you’re a householder.

What happens to someone like me if he lets go of excellence, and chooses instead to flourish? 

His practices teach him what’s important, teach him discipline, and give him a sense of accomplishment.  His practices lead to emotional and behavioral stability.  He is a blessing to his family, and blessed by them in turn.  He practices vulnerability, reaches out to others, and serves his community.  He becomes skilled at his vocation, financially secure, and lives in a clean and organized home.

He is an ordinary person, flourishing in an ordinary life.

Dealing with Toxicity in a Group

Have you ever been in a group where one person in particular was having a toxic affect on the rest?  Maybe that person is dominating the conversational flow, or perhaps radiates some toxic emotion like anger, or is a source of invidious gossip or backbiting.

What do you do?  Do you do anything?

If you don’t do anything, then your experience and quite possibly that of everyone else in the group is going to be degraded.  If the experience is bad enough, you may find the persons whose company you enjoy most are leaving the group.  If you take your concerns to others in the group, then your comments may make their way back to the person in question, but probably not in the way you intended.

A couple of scriptures may help us out here.  Proverbs 25:9, Debate your cause with your neighbor himself, and discover not a secret to another, and Matthew 18:15-17, 15“If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. 16But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. 17If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector. (New Living Translation)

This is admittedly a difficult thing to do, to confront the offending person with the things that are bothering you.  But in my experience it usually pays big dividends.  The trick for me is to write a letter first that tries to describe my issue without giving offense.  Then I’ll sleep on it for a night.  I may ask someone I trust to read it and give me their impression of the letter and the reaction it might provoke.  Then I’ll rewrite it if necessary.

After writing the letter I will share it with the person and ask if we can talk about it afterward.  If the person disagrees with me, or thinks I’m the problem, I’ll then ask for a third person in the group to weigh in on the issue.  Then lastly if there is still no resolution, I will bring it before the group and ask them to decide.  If the group decides against the person, and the person is unwilling to change, then I think you need to resort to ostracism in order to preserve the integrity of the group.

Practicing Perspective

About 25 years ago I was in a conversation with someone in our book club when it dawned on me the person I was talking to had begun to fear for his physical safety.  My body language and tone of voice had become positively homicidal.

Since then I’ve tried to be aware of both my body and my attitude when engaging in conversation.  What am I feeling and why?  What is my purpose?  Am I trying to understand the people engaged in conversation, or trying to win an argument?

If what the person is saying is producing an unpleasant reaction in my body, I know it’s time to be careful; time to focus on my breath, and try to understand what the person is saying.  What are her assumptions?  What is her point of view?  What is her life experience?

Sometimes someone will say something that just pushes my buttons, which produces an immediate bile dump in my gut; my blood pressure goes through the roof and my breathing becomes rapid and short.  When this happens I need to breathe through these feelings and calm down before I open my mouth.  Often times this is a signal to me that I am feeling disrespected in some way.  Sometimes this comes, not from any intended disrespect, but from my own sense of inadequacy.

If the person says something I don’t understand, or uses a word I’m unfamiliar with, I’ll ask her what she means.  If I’m unsure I’ve understood what she said, then I’ll try to paraphrase what I think she’s said.  If I think I disagree with her, I’ll try to understand what she feels is important in the situation, or what life experiences have influenced her conclusions.

How do you practice perspective?  Do you have a method for psychologically distancing yourself from the conversation in some way?  Or is your source of perspective from something other than conversation?