Friday, June 8, 2012

The power of habit!

"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit." - Aristotle

Here is an interesting story about a woman named Lisa Allen, reported by Charles Duhigg, in his recent book, The Power of Habit. Lisa started smoking and drinking from the age of sixteen and by that time she reached thirty, she was obese, troubled with deeper debt, and with unstable jobs.  Here is another status of the same women, in the next phase of her life; lean and vibrant with toned legs of a runner. She firmly established in her job, she is debt free and not touched a drink or smoked for over four years. She lost sixty pounds and ran a marathon since then. She was an interesting study for neurologist, psychologists, geneticists, and sociologists. The researchers’ goal was to identify how habits work at the neurological level – and what it took them to change.

How changes do happen in behaviors? What is causing the transformation? Research findings are very interesting. By focusing on one pattern – what is known as “key stone habit” – one can reprogram other routines as well. In the above mentioned study, Lisa changed her smoking habit which created a chain reaction that lead to change in other habits as well. In a larger context, business organizations get transformed by changing habits, starting with a single key activity change.

William James (1842 –1910) a pioneering American psychologist and philosopher wrote in 1892, “All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits”. Most decisions we make day to day are may feel like well thought over actions, but they are not. They are habits. One of the studies by Duke University in 2006 found that 40 percent of decisions people performed were not actual decisions, but habits.  High performing athletes and other high achievers build their skills but routine practice which eventually become part of their DNA, or their daily habit.

To a greater extent, our habits define our destiny. Although each habit may look little on its own, over time, the way we deal with our day to day activities including what we eat, whom we talk to, how we deal with children, how we deal with money, how often we exercise have enormous impact on our health, wealth, and happiness. Have you ever noticed your own driving habits? There are no special thoughts on your actions at every stage of your driving. If you closely observe you follow a particular patterns based on the habits you developed.

Habits never really disappear. They are encoded into the structure of our brain and that is a huge advantage for us, because it could be awful, if we need to relearn to drive after every vacation. The problem is that your brain cannot tell which is a good habit or a bad habit. So, if you have a bad habit, it is lurking there, waiting for the right cue or rewards. Habits are powerful, but delicate. They can be deliberately designed or can emerge outside our consciousness. They often occur without our permission. They shape our lives far more than we realize. They are so strong that they cause our brains to cling to them, exclusion of all else, including common sense.

The central argument of this article can be very exciting to all. Habits can be changed, if we understand how they work.  We need to make conscious choice of what we want to accomplish. To drink or to run is a choice one has to make deliberately.  Repeat the process till it becomes a habit. Then stop making the choice and the neuron in our brain will ensure we follow the pattern and the behavior will become automatic.

Let me also share some very basic tips that work for you.  Many behavioral scientists have reported that if you repeat an activity at least 21 days without break it may help in habit formation.  So, chose one good activity and practice it to become a “keystone habit” and then sustain it. Always remember that you have a higher purpose in life and choosing the right habits will take you to the destination you wanted to go!

I wish you good luck and see you next week!

Saju Skaria


Shailesh Powdwal said...


I wasn't aware of your bolg writing skills and today somehow went on to link. I am bit attracted to this habit thing and read through. I agree with your idea on habits don't change and hence excellence can become habit. I have little different view though. habits need to be changed if they are not taking you to extreams. In case of excellence you always need to change the habit of being an excellent in whatever you do by ensuring you get the best out of that habit, else that will become monotonous and some people may look at it as doing things again and again in a same way which may not work.

I like this habit of excellence concept though and thanks for raising that thought. Good luck

Saju Skaria said...

Hi Shailesh,

Good to see your note. Habits can change with deliberate attempt. That's my point. If you have good habits stick with it and change bad habits deliberately.

I welcome your feedback and comments on my blog on various topics.