Recently a friend insisted I read Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit. What a good friend. Duhigg deciphers the eternal question of why we do what we do as habit–and translates the physiology and psychology of it into language we can all use to make sense of our lives.
For starters, we can’t totally get rid of those bad habits. Just willing ourselves not to do that thing anymore usually doesn’t make that change happen for the rest of our lives. Sometimes, the attempt fails from the get-go. And when you do pull it off initially, quite often you find yourself right back in the old habit when things get stressful. (“Mom isn’t doing well with this surgery. I need a cigarette just this one time….” Or “Work is insane, and I’ve done a great job of getting rid of that 15 pounds. I can have a donut….” We can’t erase old habits, but we can modify them. Duhigg clarifies that distinction and demonstrates how.
When we get to the point we can “give up work,” habits can become particularly frustrating. The ones that structured our lives for the sake of doing the job are no longer needed. Those good habits don’t go away either. Sometimes, they turn into not-so-good habits in the new context. During your career years, work came first. You’re used to getting things done on the job before anything fun even hits the radar. If you’re giving whatever you’ve substituted for that work the same kind of priority, you’re going to find yourself cleaning the garage on a glorious spring day instead of taking your golfing buddy up on a spontaneous round. Same deal with fun. If you’re used to going to the casino every Friday night as entertainment because it was what helped you unwind after the work week, you might be ruling out things that would be even more fun for Friday night because you’re coming from habit instead of conscious choice. (And you may be missing out on fun that happens at the casino venue on other nights of the week.)
Habits help us do what we want to get done. They are formed and perpetuated in a different part of the brain than conscious choices. They are far more automatic. Once in place, you can count on them. They happen even when you have gotten into one of those maddening “indecision interludes” when even deciding which pair of socks to put on in the morning results in second and third guesses. Good habits help create the “Good Life” when you’ve retired and the whole day (and week and month and year) is up to you.
We have learned an amazing amount about what happens physically to create a habit. There’s also a huge body of work about the psychology of human motivation that comes into play. Duhigg explains all of that well, and it’s worth the time to read just for that. But he also addresses what most of us really want to know: How can I have better luck dealing with my own habits–both the bad ones I want to change and the good ones I want to add?
We are all “creatures of habit.” Willpower enters into the equation, but so does knowing what triggers the behavior and why you find it rewarding. You can change things more effectively if you understand the process and the pieces of the puzzle. Duhigg didn’t write the book just for the retirement scenario. But when we get to making that transition, paying attention to our habits and tweaking them to serve us better in the new territory is a major plus. If you want to address that challenge, The Power of Habit might make it a lot easier.