kitchen table math, the sequel: habit, part 1

Friday, February 10, 2012

habit, part 1

I keep mentioning my Eternal Basal Ganglia project...the one that never, ever gets done. (It's close! I swear!)

One of the issues I've been struggling with is the question of how people develop good habits as opposed to bad habits. More to the point, how would one go about developing a good habit on purpose?

Which, of course, raises the question of what, exactly, a habit is.

Answering that question has turned out to be more difficult than I expected. We all know a habit when we see one, and we all have numerous habits of our own, some of which we're trying to "break." But when you try to reverse-engineer the concept, it gets slippery.

I think Piers Steel's terrific book, The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Things Done, has helped me finally make the jump from "What is a habit?" to "What would I need to do if I wanted to create a habit on purpose?"

More later.


Allison said...


this is hard?

A habit is something you do over and over again across time, instinctively.

You develop a good habit by forcing yourself to do said thing over and over again.

If what you meant was hard was the gap between "doing it over and over again intentionally" and "doing it over and over again instinctively without having to think about it", then I guess perhaps cognitive-neurologically, it might be that the question is difficult.

but otherwise, it seems really obvious.

Kevin said...

Allison, I believe that you are misusing the word "instinctively".

A habit is not an instinct.

Blogger is still refusing all comments from my identity, so I'll be unsubscribing form all blogger blogs tomorrow.

I'll miss the discussions here, but if I can't participate with my chosen identity, then I won't participate at all.

SteveH said...

"What would I need to do if I wanted to create a habit on purpose?"

I think there are lots of ways to do it depending on what it is. I will try to reverse engineer one of my own. In college, I decided to start running for exercise and I really don't remember why. It wasn't as if I had some great epiphany or dire medical reason.

It was winter, but I found an indoor track that was open to students and the public. I bought running shoes, decided on a time each day I could go there, and then just went. It wasn't very good at first because lots of people were there. Little kids and old people ran right by me.

Early on, either my legs or my lungs really hurt. It was not much fun. So why did I succeed? It was will power and the fact that I knew that if I missed a day or two in a row it might be all over. Ultimately, there has to be some sort of payback. That was when I could run 5-10 miles and feel great afterwards. I think the keys were deciding, setting a time each day, and then just doing it.

I stopped running after a few years, but started up later, then stopped. Then you have the problem that you know you can do it if you want to, but not right now. Soon. Really! I promise! Now, my problem is that I ride my bike in the summer and do nothing in the winter, but I know how to change. Really I do. Well, maybe next week.

I remember someone I worked with on a team project in college who was married and had a daughter. He told me that he didn't do school work on weekends. When I just hung out for the small times between classes, he would jump right in and do his work. I liked to be able to have bigger chunks of time where I didn't have issues of stopping and starting. The problem is that stopping and starting happens at all levels.

This lead me to the idea that if I'm working on something, I like to leave it when I'm not done with a part that's easy. It's really hard to get started on something new. (I'm blogging rather than doing that this morning.) So if I can start back up on a task without thinking much, it will be easier to get going. Then my brain will kick in and I can get a lot done in a small amount of time. I look at all of the code I've written in the last 35+ years, and it's all come in small bursts. These bursts can go on for weeks at a time, but there can be other weeks where little of real value gets done. I'm working, but little gets accomplished.

I really think its an inertia and momentum problem. When I'm productive, I'm really productive, and when I'm not, I blog. OK, I have to quit now, open up Visual Studio and force myself to concentrate rather than find some excuse to work on something else.

Then there is the issue for people who have too much to do at work. You get into the habit of doing a lot of work, but accomplishing little. Nothing gets done really well. You've substituted working for accomplishing.

Catherine Johnson said...

Blogger won't allow a Wordpress commenter?


Catherine Johnson said...


this is hard?

It seems super-simple until you try to write a book proposal about it.

That's one of the virtues of writing.

You find out all the things you didn't know you didn't know.

Catherine Johnson said...

My rule of thumb: if something were easy, we'd all be doing it.

If it were easy to develop good habits on purpose, we'd have a lot more good habits than we do.

At least, I would.

Catherine Johnson said...

Steve - just wait 'til I get the Skinner passage posted!

TerriW said...

Heh -- I'm going to enjoy seeing what you have to say on this, Catherine.

Last year was my year of habits, you could say. The year when I took a look at myself and said, "OK, I'm going to do *whatever it takes* to change." I've posted here a bit about the fitness/eating portion of it, but there were other areas in my life where I was doing the same things: bad personality traits, work habits, etc, etc.

One resource for change that I found interesting was Flylady. I'm not 100% on board with her, but I've used a lot of her ideas and adapted them to my life. She's all about picking ONE SMALL THING to start with for change, and just concentrating on that one small thing for ... well, however long it takes. (She figures 3 weeks or so, most likely.) And then once that thing is mastered and an unthinking, daily part of your life, add more.

So, it's all about slow, sustainable change -- which was fine for some parts of my life, but face it, I had too many things I needed to change to take it so slow. So with a few aspects of my life on the Flylady train, I completely detonated my fitness/eating habits. For those, I used mostly potential public shaming and extensive checklists and lots and lots of reading on the subject -- total immersion, I suppose. And that worked, too.

Anywhoo, it's been over a year and so far I've managed to maintain/achieve most of the goals I was shooting for, though there were a lot of bumps in the road along the way.

I'm interested to see what you have to say on the subject, because even though I *feel* like most of this is The New Normal and fairly ingrained habit, nearly 40 years of conditioned crappy habits is a tough beast to overcome, and I try to remain vigilant to slipping back.

Anonymous said...

Okay, Im still unclear on what you're confused on, but I'll be more clear, and the maybe good tell me why this isn't what you've talking about, Kay?

A habit is something you do "naturally" or "unconsciously" or "quickly" that is tightly bound to a reward. I don't mean those quoted words in any neuro-cognitive sense, and I don't know psychologically cognitively which would be correct, but its something where the desire is couple tightly enough to the reward that it's reinforcing.

People establish habits all the time_ grousing about the commute, or watching a new TV show, or eating a piece of chocolate in response to it being 4 o'clock. All of these actions becomes difficult to break because the tie to the reward is immediate, and the Value is relatively high.

Teaching yourself a habit is really easy if the thing you pick is tight coupled to a reward.I specifically and deliberately taught myself to crack my knuckles at 12, to bite my fingernails at 18, and to smoke cigarettes at age 20. I still do the first two, and only stopped smoking after we moved to MN and I found that getting dressed in a parka and inhaling in -10 degrees hurt physically, because my habit was to only smoke outside.

"Not doing" something is not a habit. that's why you can't easily establish a good habit if what it really is is the lack of a bad one. You have to put in a new thing that gets rewarded.

Modern good habits are probably not what our brains are coded for evolutionarily/genetically. that is why eating cruciferous vegetables isn't an easy habit to establish, and you have to create or engineer a set of rewards to really not slip back.

Epigenes probably play a huge role in this. If you're got famine or equivalent epigene history, your reward loops in your brain will reward hoarding more strongly than without that history.

Anonymous said...

So, do you really mean a habit when you talk about a good habit? Like covering your mouth when you cough? Or do you mean Something more complex which is really a set of behaviors or routines?

Let's take teaching yourself to cover your mouth when you cough. There isn't a tightly coupled neurochemical reward, so you have to create a loose one and persist for longer. You do this with self praise or a flicker or whatever immediate response you can to create a positive reinforcer.

In kids, you provide the praise for it, the tickets, and the peer reinforcement too.

Anonymous said...

Want to create a new habit?

Allocate an hour to join Facebook and establish your wall or network or whatever it's called. Then, every time you're waiting, remind yourself to use your smartphone to check up on Facebook. Waiting for a train? Check fb. Waiting in line at the store? Check fb. Waiting for your spouse? Check fb.
Give it a week. Chances that 7 days later, you are checking fb even at a red light will be high.

Waiting times are slightly anxious times where we are stressed or bored and hence ripe for wanting a reward that comforts that waiting. Things that are socially normal can be created this way easily. Doing jumping jacks everytime you wait isn't, and would not lower anxiety for most people.