Habit. What a dirty little word. We use it to explain away our worst tendencies, as if calling them habits whitewashes us from responsibility. No one wants to be called a drunk, an over-eater or a lazy bones, but we’re willing to cop to “being in the habit” of having a few too many drinks, enjoying a few too many desserts, or forgetting to go to the gym.
This week I read The Power of Habit. Why we do what we do in life and business by Charles Duhigg. He argues, with support from Aristotle and William James, that changing the habit changes the man. Person. You know what I mean.
We’ve all made New Year’s resolutions with the intention of changing our lives. We start out strong on January first (okay, maybe January second), feeling self-righteous. But by Valentine’s Day most of us have petered out. No matter how much we want to lose the weight, quit smoking, or drink less, we lose momentum and the intention just drifts away. Soon we are back to our old habits.
Habit. There’s that dirty word again. Duhigg argues that our habits can be changed if we understand the underlying psychology behind them. For instance, let’s say I am trying to lose weight. And let’s say that every day around 3:00 pm a colleague comes around to see if I want a chocolate break. So I indulge in a treat despite my desire to lose weight. I know I should stop, but I like this person and I really like the break. It makes the rest of the afternoon pass by so much quicker. What can I do? I’m in the habit…
Duhigg would have me dig into the craving behind this habit. He argues that you can change the habit if you understand the cycle around it.
- Cue: Tired and/or bored
- Habit: Chocolate break with colleague
- Payoff: Renewed focus for the afternoon
What I am really craving is a short distraction from work. That’s the heart of the habit. The chocolate is just part of the cycle. If I can substitute some other distraction I could lose weight while still fulfilling my need for a break. I could suggest that we change our break—talk a walk or eat an apple. I could find a healthier break buddy. I could go for a run. You get the idea. The pivotal concept is to identify the real craving and address it.
As interesting and fun to experiment with as this is going to be in my personal life, it’ll be key to my success as a health coach.
Joshua Rosenthal, founder of my nutrition school and the author of the book Integrative Nutrition, also has a thing or two to say about cravings. He teaches that a craving isn’t about a specific action or food, it’s just how the mind is interpreting a specific body need. Using our example above, as a nutritionist, Rosenthal would say that a craving for chocolate is really a craving for energy, which could be satisfied by an apple. From a nutrition standpoint I totally agree. But from a psychological standpoint, Duhigg would argue that the chocolate is not the core craving, and that an apple might not address it.
In fact in a debate I think the two would agree. Rosenthal refers to the food we eat as “secondary food” and believes that everything else in our life—friends, satisfying work, love, etc.—is our “primary food.” If you want to change your health, Rosenthal believes, you need to address both primary and secondary food. Which is more or less what Duhigg is saying, using psychology-speak.
Needless to say, the sociologist in me is licking my chops to start trying this out on people.
Evil laugh. Evil laugh. Evil laugh
This next year is going to be fun!