Habits, and how to notice what you’ve stopped noticing

Flickr user Ginny, https://www.flickr.com/photos/ginnerobot/with/3226941566

What do Barack Obama and Albert Einstein have in common?

Besides stinging intellects and “they-said-it-couldn’t-be-done-so-just-watch-me” spirits, both fill(ed) their closets with similar items to eliminate decisions about what to wear. As Obama says, it’s less disinterest in fashion, and more preoccupation with running a superpower: “I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make. You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself.”

They’re not the only ones who remove personal choice to be more effective at work: Oliver Sacks eats the same thing every day (oatmeal and canned fish). “I don’t want to be bothered to make a choice,” he says.

If you struggle to rise above the everyday to stay focused on leading toward big picture goals, there’s a trick. Put everyday noise in the background by making habits your friend, versus your enemy.

We’re all familiar with the example Charles Duhigg provides in his book, The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. In his quest to unpack his “three o’clock cookie” habit, which snuck up on him and put five pounds around his middle, he realized that in order to break one habit, he had to make another. And preferably, one that wouldn’t steal energy but boost it. How?

Habit loops

Like Pavlov, modern scientists have studied how associating an action with a reward helps make the action automatic in animals. Measuring brain activity in rats shows that habit loops save energy. Once a habit loop is triggered, the rest of the action costs less energy than it normally would. For example: door to maze opens, go left, get cheese. The beginning of the loop is the door to the maze opening. Duhigg calls this the CUE. Most of us are already familiar with the idea of a REWARD (the cheese, of course). Duhigg defines the HABIT as the actions or behavior between CUE and REWARD. Once a habit is established, the brain goes on auto pilot to save energy en route.

In studying his own Habit Loop with the cookie, Duhigg took shots in the dark, substituting other habits for the cookie habit. He was searching for what gave him the feeling of REWARD. How else could he get what the cookie gave him, without having the cookie itself?

Teaching leaders about habits: the Habit Loop game

When I’m not Superheroing, I’m a choreographer, director and teacher. I wanted to come up with a physical exercise to explore habit loops, so I read The Power of Habit and worked on physicalizing it to create a high-impact miniature of the habit loop that was engaging, sticky and fun. Creating a felt experience like this often gives people access to concepts they might otherwise resist (plus, it’s just deeper funner, people!).

Imagine Joe, your CIO, is on your left – he’s your CUE. When he gives you a sound and and movement (let’s say he points upward with a staccato shout), it launches you to your right and across the room – which you have to cross in some way other than walking. To cross, you skip circuitously toward Sandra, the Director of Marketing, who upon your arrival emits a chirp with two hands in the air. Sandra’s chirp is your REWARD, in sound and movement terms. As HABIT, you do this a few more times, reinforcing the pattern: staccato shout from Joe, you skip across the room, and Sandra gives you a chirp with both hands in the air. Meanwhile, Sandra is secretly choosing something about your skipping HABIT that delights her (she decides it’s your indirect path).

The next stage is just like Duhigg’s search to replace his chocolate chip cookie habit. Now, your task is to find a different way to cross the space – no skipping – that will still earn the REWARD from Sandra. You really want that heartfelt chirp! You try crossing like a football player, a ballerina, and a spy – but Sandra keeps giving you a disappointed sound, like a broken video game. Finally, you try an 80’s-style disco dance across the the space, zigging and zagging – and you get the chirp! You do your disco dance two more times, with Joe’s staccato shout goosing your tempo, until everyone breaks out laughing.

Rhythm as metaphor for autopilot

In the rehearsal room, I use rhythm as a device that enables actors to stop thinking and tune into a structure that transcends all of them.

My goal for this group of leaders was to give them an experience of automaticity through rhythm.

Rather than making conscious choices about what to do when, actors find themselves being moved…they just instinctively know. Rhythm, like habit, lets us bypass thinking and slip into action. My goal for this group of leaders was to give them an experience of automaticity through rhythm. I wanted them to notice how strongly CUEs jumpstart action and REWARDs get you hooked – even in the context of a simple game.

Reflections on rewards

The Habit Loop game didn’t just give us a physical version of replacing an old habit with a new one. It also surfaced a conversation we wouldn’t have gotten to any other way. The notion of REWARD leapt to the foreground as soon as we returned to the leadership behaviors this group was trying to build new habits around. In our debrief, leaders clearly saw  they weren’t experiencing a reward for the new behaviors.

What’s the reward for these leaps of leadership we’re making, they wondered?

Back to chocolate chip cookies

After several experiments, Duhigg uncovered the truth about the REWARD his cookie habit delivered. After going outside, calling a friend, having coffee, and other experiments, he found what worked the best was to stand up from his desk and gossip with a co-worker for 10 minutes. It wasn’t the cookie he craved, but a break from work, a chance to socialize and think about something trivial for a moment, that was his real reward.

It’s provocative to consider there may be a REWARD lurking under your REWARD – something you don’t yet know about. You have to notice something you’ve stopped noticing (and maybe never did). That REWARD might look different than you think it does – and worst of all, you might not figure out what it is until you’ve experimented a bit. You’ll have to plunge in and just start crossing the floor in new, bizarre ways. You might just be waving your arms for awhile.

But when one of your experiments earns a chirp, you’ll recognize the feeling. You’ll get new insight into the REWARD that’s really driving your habit, and you’ll be able to fine-tune your new habit so it accomplishes what you hope. The REWARD will ensure it sticks, and becomes automatic.

What’s the habit you’d most like to re-create?

Contributed by Deeper Funner Superhero Jessica Wallenfels, whose first language is movement (even though she does communicate in English with the rest of us mortals).

4 thoughts on “Habits, and how to notice what you’ve stopped noticing

  1. Great post, and it resonates with all the recent business buzz about extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivators. As you point out, there’s power in reflecting on the intrinsic reward that may be “lurking under” the extrinsic reward (which is often much easier to spot).

  2. Thanks Nick! Yes, Julie’s shown me some cool stuff about how relatedness, competency and autonomy are intrinsic motivators we can’t deny, no matter the salary size. More to come on that, hopefully in an delicious mental sorbet.

    • Interesting post and exchange, thank you! “Investigating” the multi-layering of structures that drive my behaviors/habits, and that of the individuals/groups I work with, fascinates me. I have found it particularly helpful to determine if or how the motivator deployed (intrinsic and extrinsic, consciously or unconsciously), whether or not in the form of a reward, is not only sustained but nourished if it is a healthy/helpful behavior to the individual and/or organization. “Peeling the onion” so to speak, in order to better understand if the habit is cultivating the desired character in the individual or the desired culture in the organization. Then asking again, why that is important to them? Once I am able to figure that out, for myself/group at this deeper level, I am completely aligned with you that it is only through lots of experimentation that something else has the opportunity to emerge. Definitely mental sorbet for me Jessica, thanks again!

    • Kelly, what a terrific addition: nourishing the motivator or “reward,” once you’re clear what it is. What an abundant approach. Thanks for adding your experience to the mix!

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