I just finished an excellent book. Yes this, my second blog entry, starts as a tiny book review. Please don’t stop reading though. If you get past the book review I will reward you by a rousing discussion on bodily functions (poop – there will be poop jokes). Ok? Ok. You’re excited. Just… just be excited.
The book is called The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.
According to some researchers about 40% of the things you do during a day aren’t conscious thoughts. They’re habits. Your brain running on autopilot. And not even your big human brain. Your lizard brain. See, evolution is very very lazy. So when it decided that it wanted to make a smarter species, it didn’t just build a whole new brain from scratch. Instead, it wrapped shiny new parts of brain around the old shitty parts. Over and over. Our most recent operating system is the cortex. The cortex is pretty awesome. Logical thought? Cortex. Art? Cortex. Civilization? Cortex.
But the MS-DOS sheathed by our shiny new brain is a little nub in the middle called the Basal Ganglia. We’ve had this sucker around since evolution stopped screwing around with single-celled organisms. Among other things, the BG handles habits. It records things you do a whole lot and then just does them for you without you needing to ask. Which can be a brilliant feature! Do you really want to have to FOCUS on tying your shoes? Brushing your teeth? Making breakfast? Some of you are saying, “I do focus on those things.” But do you really? If you pay attention, your body automates a lot of things for you that you do all the time. If you ACTUALLY had to focus on everything you do, you’d be unable to function, life would have an OVERWHELMING number of tasks you’d have to devote all of your attention to. Which is exactly what happens when brain damage effects the basal ganglia. With this puppy in place you can drive, chew gum, sing along to Taylor Swift (don’t act like you don’t), and still be thinking about all the shit you have to do today. Because your brain is awesome.
Except when it starts TiVoing things you don’t want it to. Which it’s going to do, because it’s dumb. It’s a lizard brain. It just makes habit loops all day long. And a habit loop consists of three things:
Cue — Something that triggers the habit
Routine — The habit itself
Reward — The ultimate goal of this habit
Now stuff like this can be simple. You slip your foot into your shoe? BOOM. There’s your cue. Your brain starts tying the fuck out of those shoes (your routine). Reward? Holy shit, my shoes are tied.
But it works just as well for things that can be terrible. And things that form for no reason with cues you’re not even aware of just because you’ve done it a few times. Have a bad day at work and buy a pint of a ice cream to cheer yourself up? I do. Sometimes I have a bad week. But a bad week like that can easily have you snagging Ben and Jerry’s from the bodega freezer on your way home. It ingrains itself into your already set routine of walking home from work. You stop thinking about it, because you’re thinking about how much you want to headbutt your boss. So your basal ganglia just kind of takes over and buys you some ice cream to cheer you up. Which is great! Until a hundred pounds later you’re bemoaning your insatiable ice cream addiction. If you’re lucky, the cue is simply your walk home. Your cue for ice cream could just be anger, because the sugar and chocolate give you the reward of feeling happier.
Cue: Dickface boss, Routine: Ice-cream awesome-time, Reward: HAPPINESS! (And diabetes, but your lizard brain doesn’t care about all that).
These routines form automatically and you can’t stop them, but through awareness and some discipline you can exert a considerable amount of control over them. You can rewire your lizard brain. Make your lizard brain do your bidding. Lizard brain, lizard brain, lizard brain.
To summarize all of The Power of Habit would be difficult and I could never truly do it justice. It’s a very interesting book. I hope you read it. But to give you a taste, let me walk you through some of the book’s tips on how to modify a bad habit using a very real, very troublesome, and very totally definitely not made up example from my life.
Step One: Identify the Routine
For the sake of this example we’ll use a habit I’m currently attempting to overcome: shitting on my roommate Emily’s piano.
Several times a week while at home I find myself stopping what I’m doing, wandering over to the door of my roommate Emily, opening said door (regardless of whether she’s in her room or not), going inside, pulling down my pants, boxers, or Star Wars pajama bottoms and squeezing out a large and pungent piece of excrement onto her piano.
As you can imagine, such activities have strained my roommate relations and caused a significant rift in household politics. However, as much as I tell myself “I should stop shitting on my roommate’s piano!” I nonetheless, after a conscious effort, find my butt cheeks poised above her ivories once more.
Now The Power of Habit constantly comes back to what it refers to as the Habit Loop. A simple loop that consists of Cueà Routine à Reward. Identifying each of these is part of the process of learning how to change a bad habit (e.g. composing in fecal matter on my roommate’s music maker).
So we’ve gotten the first part! The routine is me stopping what I’m doing to go poop on a piano. Great! What’s next?
Step Two: Experiment with Rewards
Why do I feel this insatiable craving to plop so vigorously on her percussion box? Is it simply an overwhelming need to go? Am I angry at my roommate? Is it some existential commentary my bowels are making on the nature of pop music?
For me, I would go about my normal routine, stop myself, and…
-Poop in my other roommate’s rooms and on their things (desire to defile?)
-Simply harm Emily’s things in different ways (specific Emily-based anger?
-Poop in the bathroom (my insatiable cheese appetite finally catching up with me?)
-Kick my other roommate’s dog (I don’t think this helped, but that dog deserves to be kicked sometimes)
After a whole lot of egregious shitting and destruction (and quite alienating myself from my living mates), I could start to analyze the problem. When you attempt a process such as this, after each activity jot down on a piece of paper the first three things that pop in to your head.
- When did I eat corn?
- The dog works well as toiletpaper.
This is important for two reasons: One, it makes you focus on the feelings that surround your habit loop and your state of mind that might drive you to such actions. Two, the simple act of writing helps you recall your state of mind when your urges struck.
You should also, after testing your hypotheses, set a fifteen minute alarm and check in with yourself after the allotted time to reevaluate how you feel. Fifteen minutes later, do I still urge to poop on Emily’s piano? When is the answer yes? When is the answer no?
For me simply pooping didn’t change the urge. Obviously I didn’t need to physically excrete, but I felt something was missing. I felt unsatisfied. Likewise, pooping in another roommate’s room did not provide the same relief that a good fecal hailstorm directed at Emily’s room did. However, my time changing the routine to simply breaking a lamp, tearing dresses, or punching a hole in the wall of Emily’s room did seem to fix whatever was at the root of the issue and I was able to later relieve myself in the bathroom without hesitation.
Clearly the reward in this habit loop was satisfying some sort of rage against Emily herself! The plot thickens. So we have a routine (piano poop!) and a reward (torturing my roommate) now we must go on to…
Step Three: Isolate the Cue
While this aspect of the process may seem simple at first, figuring out what cues a specific habit can be the most difficult thing of all. Obviously I was at home whenever this urge surfaced, but given my lack of friends and social status, my home life consists of many hours and a myriad of activities. And your brain can be cued to certain activities for a variety of reasons.
Yet, studies have shown that most habitual cues fall into one of five realms:
Immediately Preceding Action
To ferret out the cue for my fecal flinging I had to start writing down what was going on the moment this urge to defecate came to me.
Where are you? (in bed)
Emotional State? (angry)
Who else is around? (no one)
What were you just doing? (reading the NY Times)
Where are you? (living room)
Emotional State? (annoyed)
Who else is around? (roommates watching TV)
What were you just doing? (reading the NY Times)
Where are you? (kitchen table)
Emotional State? (pissed)
Who else is around? (dog peeing on… on just fucking everything)
What were you just doing? (eating dinner and reading the NY Times)
After even just three of these situations it became clear that my urge was consistent with two other elements: Being upset and the NY Times. Further detailed examination showed that the annoyance was cued when I read an article about members of the Republican party being racist, conservative, economically exploitive bastards seeking to derail progressive policies in America.
Emily is my token Republican friend.
It all made sense! Finally I could move on to…
Step Four: Have a Plan
With my habit loop mapped, the easiest way to change any bad habit is to just change the middle. Cues are very hard to ignore (Republicans won’t stop being twats any time soon) and your brain craves these rewards (vengeance is a dish best served shitty). However, if you can construct a new routine that utilizes the same cues and rewards you can essentially change a bad habit into a good habit (or at least a habit less apt to refer to you as the “piano shitter” in mixed company).
Clearly my anger was with Republicanism as a whole, not my dear friend Emily. But a habit does not really require our conscious thought. It doesn’t require me to logically decide that Emily should bear the punishment for conservatism as a whole. My lizard brain takes over and decides that my liberal angst must be satisfied and it knows the way that has always worked in the past.
So I made a plan!
Every time when I took a moment to myself to dive into the NY Times and found myself getting upset I would go to my room, grab my camera, drop my pants, and take an extreme close-up picture of my sphincter. I would then print the picture and mail it First Class to Rush Limbaugh.
Sphincterizing Rush Limbaugh didn’t work right away as an immediate replacement, but the first time it did ease my Democratic rage and allow me to not poop on my roomie’s piano. Sometimes, granted, I would still dump on her piano because I would fail to identify the potential rage before it started and not realize what I was doing until there was already a steaming pile of ex-Cheese staining her sheets of classical music. Slowly but surely, however, one habit (my engineered habit) overwrote the bad (automatic) habit.
Eventually the added benefit of not gaining the rage of my roommate made the new habit outweigh my old habit in reward, solidifying it into my brain.
Not all habits will be this easy to change, but any time you can recognize a habit, and the parts that make up the loop, you gain immense power. Try it! Identify things that you do that you wish you didn’t and try to modify them. I know I will continue to do so, bettering myself each day.
For example, my engineered habit may be a bit of a bad habit in itself. Mr. Limbaugh has started sending me flowers and chocolate almost daily and has invited me to stay for a long weekend of “aggressive debate” in early March.
Oh dear. Back to the drawing board.
Tune in next week! I promise my blog post won’t be primarily about poop.
-Dylanp.s. I don’t promise that