The Power of Habit
When I was a new minister and preparing my Sunday sermons, I was in the practice of writing them – that is finally putting together all of the pieces into one manuscript – on Fridays. I was in the habit of starting to work on them shortly after breakfast, triggered by the end of our dog walk: piling up in a pre-determined order the notes and books I was working from on the floor around my computer in my home office, making sure I had a full pot of coffee brewed and a first cup poured, that the space heater was on if it was cold, or the fan on if it was hot, before I ever put my fingers on the keyboard.
Every half hour or so, or every couple of pages done or so, I would take a break: refill my favorite mug, grab a handful of chocolate, chips, touch my toes, and , without missing a beat, take up where I had left off, until I had produced the 2500 words(or so) the 10 pages double spaced sheaf of papers ( or so) that would be the not too long, not too short 20 or so minutes worth of words I would share with my congregation during worship.
Besides the reward of having completed this major and expected task, central to my parish ministry, I knew that I could then look forward to the weekly late Friday afternoon movie matinee date my husband and I went on—without guilt or anxiety. And that I would have plenty of time left for last minute adjustments, edits, and even some practice runs.
This sermon writing practice, this cluster of habitual behaviors went on faithfully and efficiently for more than a decade before something happened—I can’t recall the exact circumstance or circumstances—that first caused me to abandon this Friday routine for Saturday— very early in the morning—and then gradually later and later, until a whole new habit had taken over—going to bed Saturday evening in the twilight hours, no matter how light it still was outside. Around the same time my husband would finish his bedtime ablutions, I would rise and prepare to begin my sermon writing.
Which would then kick in some habits that my dogs have gotten into—demanding to be let outside, no matter whether they had been taken out 20 minutes before, barking and disturbing our neighbors in the middle of the night, then expecting to be fed, at least if I had any hope of being able to get into the kitchen to make that pot of coffee or pod of coffee that would be imperative to trigger those first few sentences, and so on, and so on. Except no chocolate chips.
This shift from Friday to Sunday in the wee hours of the morning ( sometimes as early as midnight) of course has caused me to often finish only a few hours before I have to leave to get ready for the rest of the service and the rest of a busy day. Not only that, but my whole weekend is shadowed by (or more accurately covered with a gigantic dark thunderhead of dread) that I will not get up in time, that I will not finish in time, that I will arrive here or wherever else I may be preaching with a black binder filled with blank pages.
Or worse. And that worst did happen a couple of summers ago on a Sunday morning around 6:30 am when the pretty complex sermon I had finally finished evaporated into cyberspace as I was directing the computer to print it out.
It is said that there was never a more blood curdling scream heard in our house, or perhaps the entire neighborhood then that moment when thousands of freshly minted words disappeared, and no amount of searching for back-up places succeeded in finding where they had gone. Somehow or other, I managed to deliver the sermon from notes and memory, and somebody in the line following the service told me that it was one of the better ones I had delivered. But the emotional price was huge and the prospect of a repeat horrifying.
Of all the habits I have that are annoying ( and we all have them don’t we) to my mate, this one has been the most aggravating, as he watches me go right up against the edge, the very edge of deadline, playing chicken with my body clock, my alarm clock, and computer gremlins, month after month. And even after the inevitable happened, that vanished sermon, continuing the same behavior, like a danger junkie, which is most likely why I do it. That and the absolute quiet at that time of night/day, some evidence that this mode of writing is fresher for me and in many ways easier to deliver, not so over thought; and a lot of anecdotal support that I am far from alone in this Sunday morning brinksmanship. I have heard tell there is a Facebook coterie of rather distinguished ministerial colleagues who urge each other on each week at the same time.
Being on sabbatical recently gave me the first opportunity in going on 15 years of ministry to take a break from a number of responsibilities and routines, including sermons. On the list of the changes I intended to make as a result of this time away, this deliberate comma in fulfilling my regular duties, I fervently wanted to alter the way I get sermons finished because not only is it stressful and creatively dangerous for me on Sundays, it sets up another habitual pattern of crashing that afternoon, waking up too early the next morning, falling asleep right after dinner watching television the next night, early rising, and on and on.
Sound familiar to anyone else?
Not writing sermons at all made it possible to list “getting up at six or six thirty instead of 3 or 3:30” as one of the almost 50 things I did accomplish on my sabbatical, so long as I was on sabbatical. This first time in the pulpit after a five month hiatus I managed to shift things a bit, from a midnight sermon writing start on Sunday to a dawn start on Saturday. But not nearly where I want to be, for me, for the stability of my dogs or the sanity of my husband.
As hard as it is to change “bad” or at least compulsive habits, it has also been hard to intentionally establish new ones, like the hope I had going into my sabbatical that I could take up the routine of reading and writing a blog about a book a day, as one woman has so famously done. Not even close.
Pioneering psychologist William James wrote in 1892 that all our life, so far as it has a definite form is but a mass of habits, regularly repeated behavior patterns, some of which—good, bad, and indifferent– you have told me about in the past couple of weeks: reading the Atlanta Journal Constitution and the New York Times first thing in the morning—before breakfast, showering, exercising, anything else. Reading the editorial section first. Reading the horoscope first. Reading the obituaries first. Listening to East Indian classical music in the morning, followed by loud blues, African and world music.
Eating ice cream every night. Eating the same flavor of ice cream every night in the same bowl with the same spoon. Computer scrabble, computer solitaire, Words with Friends, reading in bed, three cups of Joe before noon, chewing ice, picking lips to shreds, brushing teeth while marching and singing row, row , row your boat.
Not an exhaustive list, but an indication of the rich variety of ingrained patterns of behavior among us , some of which are benign and ordinary; many of which we treasure, others we struggle with, like this young woman’s. I invite you to listen to her dilemma:
“I would like to say that what gets me out of bed in the morning is the pure joy of starting a new day, or the excitement of seeing the face of my child, but really…it’s coffee and TV. I have a daily habit, for better or worse, that has been a part of my life for at least the last 10 years. I like to get up before the first cries of my toddler, escaping the snores of my husband, and have my one cup of coffee for the day while watching the Today Show. When pondering what makes this habit so important for me and what I get from it, I guess it’s a time for me to slowly wake my brain, ease into my day, and have a little ‘me time’ before the demands of parenthood, marriage, work, and chores kick in.
But as much as I’ve held onto and valued this morning habit, I’ve recently been giving some thought as to whether not I want to start my day with a fill-up of politics, murder, mayhem, strife, and what a Kardashian had for dinner the night before. I love ‘my time’ but I’m wanting a more intentional start to my day, a quieter start for my mind. I’m exploring how I can incorporate meditation with my morning cup of joe. And that puts me on to another challenge…how do I break one habit and create a new habit?”
How indeed. And do you have a story like hers?
We can look again at William James, whose findings on habit(s) were groundbreaking .When people spoke of habit, he wrote, in a chapter on habit in his introductory book on the principles of psychology, in the majority of instances it was the so-called bad habit they had in mind: the smoking habit, the swearing habit, the drinking habit, but not, he pointed out, of the abstention habit, or the moderation habit, or the courage habit. But the fact is, he noted, our virtues are as much habits as our vices, ninety-nine hundredths or possibly nine hundred and ninety-nine thousandths of our activity is purely automatic and habitual, from our rising in the morning to our lying down each night: our eating and our drinking, our greetings and our partings. And those many moments in between. We do what we do, and there is an explanation for our apparent lack of direct agency in the daily activities of our own lives. It lies within ourselves.
A tendency to act, whether for good or ill, only becomes effectively ingrained in us in proportion to the uninterrupted frequency with which the actions actually occur, he proposed, and when the brain “ grows” to their use. A notion that he could not objectively prove from his scholarly location in the 19th century, but is now well documented and critical to our understanding of the role of our brains in habitual patterns of behavior.
Charles Duhigg observes in The Power of Habit that the epicenter for the most up to date studies of the science of habit formation may be found in the building that houses the Brain and Cognitive Sciences department of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the physical location of a quiet revolution in understanding and impacting how actions become automatic for us, from the simple act of regularly and without thought putting toothpaste on a toothbrush to the far more complex act of backing our cars out of a driveway.
The results of these experiments and their analysis?
The discovery that the process within our brains of developing a habit is a three step loop of what is called behavioral chunking. First there is a cue, a trigger that tells our brains to go into an automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical, mental or emotional. Finally there is a reward, which helps the brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering.
Over time, scientists have found, this loop-cue, routine, reward, cue, routine, reward, becomes more and more automatic., the cue and reward becoming more intertwined until a powerful sense of craving emerges, out of which—a habit is born.
Habits are not destiny, the author tells us, but once they are set, the brain stops fully participating in the decision making. Unless you deliberately fight an undesirable habit, unless you find new routines, the patterns will continue to unfold automatically.
This basic finding in the science of habit formation has exploded into a major field of objective academic study ; used by artists and other creative individuals to unlock the key to discipline, preparation, and routine; and as we might have predicted, intense profit-seeking research by companies such as Proctor and Gamble, Microsoft, Google, Target and Starbucks . These businesses have learned that income stimulating cues or triggers can be almost anything, the author tells us: a sight or smell, a particular time of day or location, a computer chime, a smart phone buzz.
Routines can be very simple or complex—from pouring that first cup of coffee and aiming the remote, to an elaborate running or driving route. Rewards can be the endorphins produced by certain actions or drugs, or emotional payoffs such as the feelings evoked by praise or self—congratulation.
Habits like regularly eating fast foods, even those we know to be salty, sugary and fatty, emerge without our permission as the cues overwhelm us—the uniformly enticing design of a McDonalds, (especially with its new look and new play spaces), the French fries designed deliberately to begin disintegrating the moment they hit your tongue in order to deliver a hit of salt and grease as fast as possible, all the better, we are told, for tightening the habit loop. And thus the occasional visit, the rare treat morphs quite predictably into routine, with the reward of comfort and stimulation and pleasure.
The habit loop is real and it is powerful, but the key, it has been found, to creating and locking in new habits, is recognizing and maximizing the centrality in our behavior patterns of what is called the craving or anticipating brain, whether for the super tingling taste of Pepsodent toothpaste, far more compelling even than the reward of extra clean and beautiful teeth; or the fresh scent of spray- on fabric refresher, more seductive for sure than successfully masking bad smells.
Or the feel- good neurochemicals an exercise workout provides, more than the understood benefits to body and health. All of these creating a prior craving for the reward that is yet to come. (as opposed to slathering on sunscreen, which no one has yet found a craving trigger for, which is why some speculate it is still so underused).
How can one crave a period of quiet meditation first thing in the morning rather than a half hour of celebrity news and a cup of hot coffee? Or anticipate finishing a sermon earlier in the week in a more leisurely and less risky way, rather than the adrenalin rush of last minute crunching? Or looking forward to a companionable or serene solo mid-afternoon walk, rather than a plugged in hour over a frappachino.
The habit loop—and the cravings that propel it– is based , not on assuming there is a corrective supernatural force behind changing lives, rather on the workings of our brains and our own willingness to be self-aware and discerning human beings. It requires of us the willingness to identify and diagnose the habit loop of a particular behavior and to look for ways to supplant old unwanted ways of behaving. The Golden Rule of Habit Change? Keep the cue, keep the reward, insert a new routine.
When it comes to creating change in our lives, habits being crucial, time is of the essence. How long does it take? One recent study showed that to learn a new habit, for example eating some fruit every day, took an average of 66 days or an average of nine and a half weeks to make it stick.
Early in my own sabbatical, I began a daily spiritual practice of handwriting and mailing a thank you note to someone for whom I was grateful for about eight weeks: setting up my box of stationery and stamps, my various address books, lighting soy candle on the dining room table and then putting pen to paper.
When I went on a trip, away from this routine ( especially the fragrant vanilla smell), I stopped and I did not resume when I returned. It was not yet a fixed loop in my brain, an automatic activity. Discouraged, I gave myself a hard time and quit, rather than understanding the process and picking it up again.
We can develop the will and the skills to analyze our behaviors, we can notice the cues, the routines and the rewards that make us do what we do, we can be realistic and give ourselves time, but without one more key factor, all of this is not enough.
In The Power of Habit, the author points out that in order for habit alteration to be successful we must believe that change is possible, and this conviction most often grows out of a communal experience, even if that community is only as large as two people. Two or more people to assure you that quitting smoking is possible; who are committed to meditation or a prayer circle; who will literally walk with you rather than hang out in the common dining area eating more desserts: who will read books with you; or work for justice alongside you because as Martin Luther King Jr. wrote we have ancient habits to deal with, vast structures of power, indescribably complicated problems to solve.
A couple of weekends ago in Phoenix Arizona, to the amazement I believe of those who had been planning for our arrival, nearly 4,000 Unitarian Universalists of all ages, from all over the country, gathered in that blazing heat, no matter how dry, still blazing; and studied about the habits of justice at a special Justice General Assembly: justice for undocumented immigrants , for low income, transgender and intersex people of color, for women and girls.
We practiced for a public witness to be held outside the infamous Tent City jail, speaking out against inhumane conditions and human rights violations. That night, I paired up with a fellow board member from the UU Women’s Federation, from the worship service that preceded it, to sitting beside her on the bus ride from the polished up convention center district to the gritty industrial area where the overflow jail was built 20 years ago, housing thousands of prisoners, many of them in Amy surplus tents in conditions of extreme heat and cold and meager food.
Throughout the evening we stayed together in the company of our own several thousand, many wearing those familiar bright yellow Standing on the Side of Love T-shirts , listening to speakers and to singers, lifting our own voices: When I breathe in, I breathe in peace, when I breathe out, I breathe out love in both English and Spanish, as best we could. Someone told us the prisoners could hear us and that they were grateful for at least this much humanity.
How do we keep up this practice, this habit of justice anew now that we are scattered? What cries for help, calls for alliance, will trigger our actions? Which transformation-seeking routines will become part of our life’s routine, and will feelings of righteousness and companionship on the journey be enough reward ? Will our purposes and principles be the cravings that cause us to anticipate the work ahead?
May we be diligent in creating and sustaining this habit loop. Si Se Puede. Yes, it can be done.