I’ve been reading an e-book on The Power of Habit (Charles Duhigg); in part because it’s interesting, in much larger part because my own habits are something of a mess, and in part from habit: when you’re not sure what to do, read a book! It’s interesting and well written in most of the same ways as Outliers and The Brain That Changes Itself, with solid writing, interesting stories, research that supports rather than overwhelming those stories, and a respectful attitude toward the reader that conveys the impression Duhigg figures we’re a lot like him, only we don’t happen to know about the stuff he’s telling us yet. It’s by no means breathtaking, but if you’re interested in the topic, or in psychology in general, I would recommend it.
So, yes, my own habits are something of a mess. To put it in Duhigg’s terms, habits rely for their power on a three part process: a cue, an action or series of actions, and a reward. You’re driving home from work, you pass a In-N-Out Burger (cue), you drive in and purchase a combo (action), and you enjoy the greasy deliciousness (reward). It’s time for bed, you brush you’re teeth, you get a nice clean minty feeling in your mouth. You’re home from work, your dog looks at you pleadingly, you take her for a walk; you feel like a responsible pet owner. And so on. many of the differences between cultures are habitual, and this can make otherwise automatic activities much more challenging, and lead to problems in managing them. For instance, the morning routine. Hear alarm clock, push snooze; hear alarm clock, push snooze; hear alarm clock again, roll out of bed, take hot shower, brush teeth, drink tea in bathrobe while hair dries, get dressed, drive to work in time to get a decent parking spot and avoid being blinded by the sun, get out school supplies, and begin class. Or whatever. The point researchers never tire of making is that all of these actions rely on their own cue-action-reward system to function automatically. The alarm says 6:40 (cue), you roll out of bed and stumble into the bathroom (action), and take a nice hot shower (reward). Until you move to Georgia, and no longer have access to hot morning showers. In addition to fuzzy hair, you’re out of sorts because you went to all the trouble of getting out of bed without the reward you had anticipated. You’re grumpy because your routine hasn’t worked, and because it’s 20 degrees in your bedroom. You got up on time, and all you got for your trouble is getting dressed sitting on the floor in front of the space heater in already dirty clothes you haven’t been able to wash for two weeks. You wake up later and later.
You had other morning habits as well, perhaps. If you show up to work on time you get to write that in the register, greet some people in the staff room, make some photocopies, check your email, tidy up your classroom, and greet the children as they line up beside your door. Until you move to a school with no register, no internet, no heat, no copier,no classroom, and most of the other teachers ignore you (not intentionally, but simply because there’s nothing to say), and your English speaking co-teachers only say hello, and then go talk to their friends in Georgian; you have no lesson plans and no resources. Where you had previously established a routine of: it’s 7:20 (cue), drive to school (action), greet other people and tidy up classroom (reward), you now have no reward, because you get the exact same results whether you show up early or late.
So now you have a problem: there’s no reward for getting to work early, and no consequences for getting there late. The only co-workers who talk to you say “that’s fine” when you show up half way through class. Habits that seem more or less arbitrary (the ones depending upon one’s own personal strength of character) tend to require much more maturity than those depending upon expected rewards. And personal maturity doesn’t just happen overnight. What to do?
The psychological answer is to keep the cue and the reward, but to change the action. If you habitually eat because you’re bored, go for a walk when you’re bored instead. If you smoke because you want stimulation, drink a cup of coffee instead. Or whatever. At this point, a difficulty is immediately obvious: if my cue is that it’s a certain time, and my reward is approval from my peers and the opportunity to set up my classroom, then it’s kind of obvious this “going to work” habit depends upon peers who express approval when I’m there on time, or at least reasonably positive feelings, and an area to set up. When my peers ignore me (or I feel like they do), and I’m not to enter the classroom until the children are already all there (because I’m a homeless language teacher), then the habit was disrupted for external reasons — the reward is no longer available, and there isn’t an obvious alternate reward to be had. And I’m just not all that mature. What to do?
There’s a mismatch between the program I’m in and my own habits, so that I usually feel like I’m contributing less than I could or should. They want us to “be creative” in designing and implementing new extracurricular activities, lesson planning department meetings, methodology, resources, and so on. I’m frustrated, because the environment I’m in doesn’t even hint that any of those activities (and the hard work they involve) are in any way valued. If you actually want someone to start a club, rather than just always feeling guilty about not starting a club, then you give them a heated room for their club, tell them they can use the printer for club fliers, and, perhaps most importantly, tell them about stories of successful clubs and about the need there is for this club. You let them know, in word and deed, that it’s wanted and needed — if it actually is wanted and needed; I don’t know whether such a club is wanted or needed. You give them a vision of what it is they’re supposed to be doing, and of what it would look like to realize that vision. The reason I find this to be a mismatch is because I don’t have enough vision to do this on my own, and I’ve found that to be true of many of the other volunteers as well. I get the impression that our program leaders didn’t think this through all the way — that they thought that their volunteers would automatically know how to create, lead, direct, and sustain initiatives on our own, without instructions, resources, mentoring, or adequate training. And for many of us, that’s simply not true. I find it to be an unrealistic and poorly articulated hope that will not become reality unless a lot of other things are in place as well — especially a structured opportunity for meaningful, focused, creative interaction with the other teachers, and for joint reflection afterwards. And that won’t happen, I expect, until there is some reward in place for doing so — financial, career, social, or whatever.
The Power of Habit didn’t quite tell me what I wanted to hear. Of three sections, one is devoted to personal habits, and two to organizational and social ones — and the idea seems to be that while personal habits are important, they usually also rely on social factors, and that the key to changing the habits of an organization lies in changing key procedures and rewards in that organization (and correctly identifying the right habits to go after), rather than in giving people more information and expecting them to figure out good habits for themselves. In other words, one of the themes is that institutional habits usually override personal habits within the institution, and that they need to be carefully addressed as such. The premise behind my program seems to be that personal expectations, creativity, and habits are more important than those of the organization, so that if you put an interested, educated foreign person who likes things like interesting classes, discussion groups, plays, and so on, into a school, they will be able to figure out, more or less on their own, without necessarily having to be in a school culture that fosters that, or that helps them in any way. Which is certainly not true for me. What I’ve found is that I will instead try to join discussion groups, clubs, and so on outside the school, in organizations where they are expected and active, so that the school is less important to me than those other groups, and my relationships with my official co-teachers are less important than my relationships with the other English co-teachers I met unofficially. Which is precisely the habit the ministry is trying to discourage, in part through our program.