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.


6 thoughts on “Habits

  1. Very well written.

    I have a rabbit trail that may or may not be relevant:

    Some people have an easier time than others maintaining what you call, “joining discussion groups, clubs, and so on outside the school, in organizations where they are expected and active,” as well as being active inside the school. The reason is that these people have an innate ability to maintain a greater number of relationships at any one time. One question I have about the power of habit, is what do you do in instances like that, where someone must adapt to function in an environment that they are not a natural fit? Does this cue-action-reward system work for these outliers? I would have a huge problem with a system like that. It is far better to adapt naturally to an environment in your own way than to rely on habits to force people to change who they are (which, happens when you force people to change not only what they do, but their attitude as well)

    • In the case of TLG, it’s specifically a volunteer program for people who want to travel and practice teaching conversational English — our position within the community is basically “friendly person to practice English with,” who have just moved into a new culture half a world from our homelands — and therefore, on the whole, a group of people who want to participate socially, though there are, of course, variations. I’m probably on the less extroverted end of the volunteer spectrum. If someone simply wasn’t interested in or motivated by relationships with co-teachers and students (or even random people they meet at bars and on the street, for that matter), then programs like Teach for America, Peace Corps, mid-term missionary work, or even the much less demanding TLG, are probably not a good choice — and they’re not the sorts of programs that anyone *needs* to join in order to make a living.

      The challenge for organizations is often figuring out what habits are important and worth changing, and which ones people can just figure out and get along with themselves. For instance, Duhigg talks about how Starbucks, when training their employees, focuses on those moments of stress when someone’s employee habits (making coffee, taking orders, etc) are most likely to be upset by emotional habits (there’s a long line and I start panicking; someone yells at me and I yell back), because it’s those moments that are most likely to lose customers. If someone has a bad day and chews out the barrista for putting cream in her chai when she wanted soy, does she get snapped at, or calmly offered a larger soy chai for free? That interaction matters to the company, regardless of how their employee might ordinarily behave, because when complaints are handled badly businesses lose customers, who also complain to their friends. So it’s in their interest to train barristas in a habit that goes cue: a customer is upset and snaps at you; routine: you calmly apologize to the customer and give her what she wanted for free (or whatever their procedure is — I don’t know); reward: the customer calms down and your manager compliments you on handling the situation well. If someone really, genuinely dislikes dealing with customers and managers, and is not motivated by happy customers and approval from managers, then serving coffee is probably not for them.

      In both those cases, if the volunteer shows up late for school or the barrista yells at a customer, it’s almost certainly not because “that’s just who they are,” or because they actively chose to do those things. Usually people like having well formed habits. It’s because they’re stressed for some reason, and have less self-control in small matters than they otherwise would. The appealing thing about habits is that they do not need nearly so much self-control, alertness, and time as making conscious choices, since when the cue triggers them, the most automatic thing to do is the habit. That’s why, for instance, it’s better that tooth-brushing is more habitual than deliberate — because then it takes less mental energy and is more likely to be remembered.

      While Duhigg does bring up the issue of using people’s shopping habits to know things about them that they would rather were private, such as tracking their purchases and sending them custom advertisements, so that they’ll buy whatever it is they habitually buy at your store rather than someone else’s, he doesn’t talk much about trying to seriously change people’s personal habits, such as by getting someone who doesn’t care to be involved in a bunch of social engagements to do so. He would probably say such a person should re-examine their own habits and figure out what it is they actually want, along with how to integrate that into their habits (it works best, he says, if the cue and the reward are similar to those experienced before — if someone was looking for social approval in drinking parties, they should find a different social group that will approve of something healthier, for instance. “I have all sorts of avoidance habits based on being cold. I will buy a better heater.” “I habitually stay up late because the TV is on; I will go into a different room — preferably the one with the new heater,” and so on)

      Is that related to what you meant?

  2. Its related to what I mean, but after thinking about it, I was incorrect in criticizing the forming of good habits. When I say, “It is far better to adapt naturally to an environment in your own way than to rely on habits to force people to change who they are” I had something else in mind entirely (quick-fix self help) which is not related to this discussion. Focusing on TLGers, it is starting to make sense to me that good habits probably are helpful to cultivate for the reasons you mention, and that it takes time to form good habits (unlike a quick-fix). The very fact that it is such a slow dreary process is a good thing in my opinion because it does not try to bypass hard work.

    • What would be an example of a quick-fix, as opposed to a habit?

      (That’s really all I needed to say in actual response — the rest is just because I kept writing… from habit, probably…)

      Habits usually take at least one to six months to solidify, are followed more or less unconsciously (sometimes quite unconsciously, like when someone who’s been driving the same route to work every day accidentally takes the same route when he meant to go somewhere else, and is half way there before he notices, or when sleepwalkers cook fried eggs in their sleep), and make up most everything that we do a lot but are not consciously interested in. They’re what permit us to think and do mundane tasks at the same time — drive and talk, cook dinner and listen to the radio, walk and think, shop and watch children, and so on at all efficiently. Otherwise everything would be too hard and take too much concentration; multitasking works when a conscious activity is paired with an automatic one, for instance.

      Habits become more problematic living abroad, however, because a lot of them are culturally formed. The person who drives unconsciously in America suddenly has to think about driving in England. Someone who’s accustomed to waking up to a hot shower every morning has to figure out what to do when they only get to take a shower every four days or so. Someone who likes to pick up information from websites is frustrated in a word-of-mouth culture. And so on. A habit that will work alright temporarily might not work so well in the long term — if someone adjusts t not being served water with meals by drinking less water, for instance, they may eventually become dehydrated and have to figure out a different drinking habit. Someone who bicycles every day moves somewhere where cycling is dangerous, and needs a new exercise habit, and so on.

      The TLG orientation staff like to talk about “culture shock,” and I personally think that they overuse it, but they mention that it usually occurs in stages, wherein at first someone enters a new culture and is interested in and excited by everything; then they have a really crabby period wherein everything ir annoying and too different, even the things they were excited about at first; then they adjust and adapt enough to get on with life more or less as usual.

      Considered in terms of habits, one might say that at first they have lots of attention and energy, because they’re kind of on vacation, and so it doesn’t bother them that all their usual habits are upended — that’s part of what’s exciting about travel. But inefficient habits require extra energy, because you’re always having to figure out how to do things that are usually automatic (such as how to take a shower with a wood burning water heater), and so you get tired, irritated, and want your own, stronger, habits to work again. Depending on which habits were messed with, you may even be dehydrated, sleep deprived, undernourished, and constantly cold (for instance). But eventually (one hopes), after perhaps six months or a year, you have established new, reasonably efficient habits, and have routines for all the same categories of things that were routine before (perhaps even starting a fire in the boiler twice a week).

      As an aside, one reason I think that the World Race mission marathon is kind of strange is because it has participants more every month — exactly when they would be coming out of the “this is new and different” stage, and beginning to form stable habits. My guess is that what happens instead is that all their habits become linked to the microculture of the group they’re working in, rather than to the cultures they’re living beside. I kind of think that someone living overseas should have to integrate a little with the local habits, though, and not only those of their American group, because that, along with the language, are a big part of understanding and empathizing with the local culture, which are important in mission work. I’m not sure that this is true of that particular organization, though, and would be interested to hear the views of participants.

      • I have no qualifications on this subject except personal experience. I don’t know what I am trying to say yet. Certainly a good habit is one that is beneficial, and comes about through hard work and by growing as a person. In contrast, some habits, to me, seem “forced.” A positive quick fix, as I would define it, would be feel convicted (cue), go to church (action), make friends (reward). A negative quick fix would be, feel stressed (cue), take drugs (actions), get high (reward). Both of these are habits that are formed, because they have a cue, an action, and a reward. I consider them quick fixes though, because they do not correlate with any real growth in maturity level. I would consider a good habit one that also comes with greater maturity, and that takes hard work. While one of these quick fixes is positive and one is negative, neither one deals with the root issue at hand, whatever it may be that causes one to feel convicted or stressed. I saw an interview (http://abcnews.go.com/2020/story?id=7335196&page=1) by Monica Seles, the tennis player, explaining how difficult it was for her to lose weight. She first had to deal with inner issues before any of her habits could actually change. Like I said before, I don’t know what I am trying to say yet.

      • to clarify, to go to church and deal with issues (action), and mature in faith (reward) is not a quick fix, because it does correlate with a growth in maturity.

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