Habits of the Mind
In the winter of 1998, I was under a lot of stress and losing the hearing in my left ear. When I decided my ear wasn’t going to get healthy on its own, I started seeing doctors – close to 10 – all had their own diagnosis but no real solution. The last one was an Ear-Nose-Throat MD – Homeopath who thought I had a food allergy, but the only way to identify the culprit(s) was to put myself on a clean diet, e.g., eliminate processed foods, sugar in any form, and rotate what other foods remained on a 4-day period. I was warned that such a radical change of diet would make me feel as if I had the flu. I was willing to try the diet because so much was at stake. I did feel lousy for five days, but after nine days, the asthma I’d had since age 10 disappeared. It took a while longer for my hearing to clear up, and it isn’t perfect, but it’s significantly better.
A diet is a huge habit to change, and most people who I’ve related my story to say look surprised (maybe they don’t believe me?) then say, more or less, It’s not for me. That’s a little too radical. I was motivated to change my eating habits because the reward – better hearing – was something I craved.
A couple of years ago I was listening to a radio broadcast about the book, The Power of Habit: Why we do What we do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg. Duhigg says that habits “emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost anything routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often… an efficient brain also allows us to stop thinking constantly about basic behaviors such as walking … so we can devote more mental energy “ to other things.
If you understand how habits work, then chances are better that you will have success in changing a habit. There are three parts to what is known as The Habit Loop: – the cue –a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode; the routine – which can be physical, mental or emotional; and the reward, which helps your brain decide if the loop is worth remembering. Over time the loop – cue, routine and reward — can become automatic. (One study indicated that 40 percent of what we do is habit, not based on active decision-making.) When a habit emerges the “brain stops fully participating in decision making . It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit – unless you find new routines – the pattern will unfold automatically.”
As I’m writing this I am trying to understand how I developed this habit of biking into work because it is a long ride – ten-plus miles – and there are long hills to climb. It’s true that I don’t want to unnecessarily combust gasoline—I do think about being a good steward of the earth — but there had to be something personally at stake.