The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. Doubleday Canada, 2012. 400pp.
“We are becoming who we will be . . . “
What shapes who we will become? According to Charles Duhigg, “becoming” happens through a three-step habit loop: cue, routine, and reward. In his The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (Doubleday Canada, 2012), Duhigg provides scores of examples of habits that have revolutionized individual lives and entire corporations. Habits have helped sedentary, unhealthy smokers kick the cigarettes, start exercising, and become fit, healthy people. Habits helped the Indianapolis Colts, a once-failing professional football team, become Super Bowl Champions. Habits revitalized Alcoa, a once-ailing aluminum manufacturer, transforming it into a Dow Jones top performer. From individual to corporate life, habits manifest change and perpetuate behaviours that shape our lives.
For exercise programs and Fortune 500 Companies, the cycle of cue, routine, and reward seems like an unavoidably conscious and volitional strategy. And at first, it is deliberate. Yet Duhigg explores the transformation of habits into unconscious practices as they are practiced over time. While we can imagine the mental anguish necessary to resist that cigarette or stick to our key values, habits held over time actually allow our brains to “stop working so hard,” as Duhigg says.
This is a good thing. If we don’t have habits, the average day brings a neurologically paralyzing amount of stimuli our way. If we had to react to each event as if it were happening for the first time, our brains would grind to a halt. Tragically, this mental paralysis has been observed in people with severely damaged basal ganglia, the part of the brain known to store habits. Habits allow us to perform life’s many necessary behaviours without short-circuiting our brains.
To illustrate the power of our unconscious commitment to certain habits, Duhigg tells the story of Eugene Pauly. Viral encephalitis destroyed Eugene’s medial temporal lobe, a part of the brain responsible for cognitive tasks, memory, and emotional regulation. Though his habit-storing basal ganglia remained intact, his damaged brain no longer let him consciously remember any of his routines.
Limited to memories more than three decades old, Eugene’s life lost its continuity with the past. He experienced only life’s present, moment by moment, the kind of life that should make a brain grind to a halt. Not remembering that he already ate his morning meal, Eugene would eat multiple breakfasts. When asked to draw a map of his own home, he could not remember its layout. However, Eugene’s brain didn’t freeze up. He somehow remembered how to prepare his breakfast and how navigate through the rooms of his house with ease. Eugene’s unconscious store of habits filled the neurological gaps left in his brain. Unconsciously held habits oriented Eugene to his life when one of its most essential pieces of orienting hardware was destroyed. “Habits gave him his life back,” says Duhigg.
How do habits become unconscious parts of our lives? Before a habit becomes a habit, there is no way to predict how the three steps (cue, routine, reward) of the habit loop come together as a package deal. Each step must be experienced as it arrives. When Julio, a macaque monkey used in habit research, first saw coloured shapes on a screen (cue), he had no idea that touching a lever controlling the juice (routine) would produce sweet blackberry juice (reward). Julio’s brain was limited to experiencing the cue, routine, and reward as isolated, separate events. Though this may sound simple, Julio’s brain activity would only produce the pleasurable “I got a reward” activity after he got the reward.
At first, the loop went cue, routine, reward, and then “I got a reward.” However, after many cycles through the habit loop, Julio’s brain began flashing the “I got a reward” activity before he completed the routine: cue, “I got a reward,” and then reward. Now, the “I got a reward” brain activity served as a cognitive reward-in-advance—a foretaste of what really lay at the end of the habit loop. The cognitive reward-in-advance moved Julio through the loop toward the real reward. And for us, as this loop solidifies, it is plunged deep within our unconscious minds and we begin to perform our routines reflexively without our brains working so hard.
Understanding these components of habit loops can catalyze change in our lives. If we are pleased with all of our habits, the automation of the loop solidifies good actions. But if we have habits we want to change, we need to hack into that smoothly running loop and excise the undesired routine. The cue and the reward can remain, but the unwanted routine can be jettisoned. Understanding which cues initiate our habit loops allows us to wrestle our automated, unconscious routines back into our consciousness. Once back in our consciousness, we can engage our brains in a higher way and let them work hard to facilitate change. Having experienced the cue and the reward-in-advance, we can recognize the standard routine we typically perform with this habit loop and choose a new routine to replace the one we no longer desire. Though “habits emerge without our permission,” we are not stuck forever in every routine we presently practice.
Duhigg tells us, “Habits aren’t destiny . . . Habits can be ignored, changed, or replaced.” To illustrate, he tells the story of Mandy, a life-long nail biter. With the help of a therapist, Mandy hacked into that life-long habit. As she deconstructed her habit loop, she realized that a feeling of tension in her fingers served as the cue, nail biting as the routine, and the physical stimulation created by the biting as the reward. Having hacked into this habit loop, Mandy was ready to change.
Once prompted by the cue of tension in her fingers and already receiving the reward-in-advance, Mandy would carry out a “competing response,” or a competing routine, that occupied her hands without biting her nails. Then, she would give herself the real reward of physical stimulation by “rubbing her arm or rapping her knuckles on a desk.” Mandy hacked her own habit loop and replaced her undesired routine with one more compatible with her goals. For Mandy, her habit of nail biting was not her destiny.
Habits themselves may not be destiny, but are habits and destiny intertwined in any way? Might habits orient us toward our destiny? This essay began with Dallas Willard’s words, “We are becoming who we will be.” Yet Willard did not stop there. His entire quote reads, “Action is forever. We are becoming who we will be—forever.” If Willard is right, having the right habits here and now is eternally important.
Willard, a philosophy professor and author, relies on a longstanding Christian belief that there exists partial continuity between our present, physical creation and the next. The continuity is partial, however, because God preserves and redeems what is compatible with His good future and eliminates that which is incompatible. N.T. Wright explores this partial continuity in his After You Believe (HarperOne, 2010).
This continuity involves the whole of God’s creation. Wright notes “a new heaven and a new earth . . . coming down [to earth] out of heaven from God” (Revelation 21:1, 2). Additionally, Revelation 20:6 envisions the continuity of the people of God between this life and the next as they serve as “priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him” in the new creation. God’s creation has a destiny, a telos or goal, toward which God is taking it, beginning here and now. In light of this continuity and God’s decision to weave humanity into his redemptive work, human actions really do matter and can create a lasting, perhaps even eternal, impact on the world.
So, does God use our present habits to shape our eternal destiny? Many, Wright included, say yes. God-ordained, Christ-shaped, and Spirit-energized habits are part of God’s method of getting us from our present to our future destiny. Sadly, in this present life we will always fall short of that destiny due to the indelible stain of sin sabotaging our best efforts (Romans 7:14-20). Yet, as we repeatedly act a specific way, the behaviour can become ingrained into our character as “second nature.” This is Wright’s way of saying that a conscious habit we initially have to work hard at can be plunged into our unconscious, and we can act the same without needing the same mental horsepower. Though acquired as opposed to innate, a habit can truly be part of who we are becoming—forever.
The place for habit in the development of Christian character stands in opposition to the romantic notion of simply “doing what comes naturally” and thereby being truest to oneself. The Christian virtues at which Christian habits aim are revealed, not deduced naturally. They are learned. Yet, though they do not start as innate and effortless, the hope for Christian habits is that they would not indefinitely require constant, endless mental vigilance. Instead, the hope is that we would soon practice Christian habits without our brains working so hard. And God has already revealed the destiny, the telos, for humans. The ultimate reward has already been disclosed. We are headed toward a new creation in which the Christian virtues of faith, hope, love, and the fruit of the Spirit form a sustainable life in God’s good future. Thus, we are to “put on” faith, hope, love, and the fruit of the Spirit until they become habitual and form our character. In so doing, we get to experience the reward-in-advance; we anticipate God’s good future in the present.
Habits preserved Eugene Pauly’s life for as long as they could. When Eugene’s physical body was falling apart and his mental faculties were failing, his deeply ingrained, unconscious habits kept him moving and oriented him to the life he had built over many decades. Thus, Eugene’s habits predicted the kind of life he would live in his future. For Christians, like Eugene, habits play a preserving and a predicting role. The long practice of Christian habits embeds faith, hope, and love so deeply within a human life that they can preserve our lives and our character and predict our future activity. If “action is forever” and “we are becoming who we will be—forever,” habits can build the character we will possess in the God’s good future.
We are told, “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” now (Colossians 3:12). “Put on love” now (Colossians 3:14). Don’t wait to begin practicing the habits that preserve the present and connect us to God’s redemptive plans. After many flawed, fumbling, and even accidental repetitions of clothing and putting on, God will graciously make living our virtues increasingly natural, and more and more a part of who we are. We are designed to get wrapped up in Godly habit loops by receiving a piece of the ultimate reward in advance and practicing routines compatible with God’s good future. We are designed by God to grow through habit, becoming more faithful, hopeful, and loving, living in line with God’s good future now and destined to practice those habits forever.