AIF Blog

How to Diagnose and Break a Habit

Jan 10, 2018
CATEGORY: Society, Health
Charles Duhigg, author of "The Power of Habit," speaks to an audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
When you wake up in the morning, do you roll over in bed to kiss your partner? Or, do you grab your smartphone?  “How many of you checked your iPhone within the first five minutes of waking up?,” New York Times columnist Charles Duhigg asked an audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Most hands reluctantly shot up. “So I would suggest that if you have a more intimate relationship with your iPhone than with the person who’s in bed with you, this is a problem,” Duhigg said jokingly, “This is a habit that I think we can do a bit of diagnosis on.”
Your brain powers down when a habit takes over.
A nervous habit that many people share is biting nails. Luckily, Duhigg says, we live in a “golden age of understanding the neurology of habit formation.” For the first time, scientists have learned how habits work in our brains. They’ve discovered all kinds of subtle, hidden parts of habits, so you can “fiddle with the gears,” says Duhigg of how a habit works. Some findings come from MIT Professor Ann Graybiel who witnessed the formation of a habit when she dropped a rat into a maze.
Dr. Graybiel’s research shows the more automatic something becomes, the less we have to think about it. So a habit is our brain’s ability to turn off when we’re engaged in an activity that we’ve done before. Nearly half of the activities we do are habit, says Duhigg. “When you leave home and suddenly you’re at your desk at work and you don’t remember exactly how you got there, that’s because a habit took over.” The reason an activity becomes a habit is because there’s a reward.
How do rewards work?
What’s the reward of biting your nails? Maybe it provides a sense of calm or comfort. “Rewards are so complicated,” says Duhigg, “Oftentimes when we’re trying to diagnose [a reward], there are six, seven, eight reasons we identify.” Tension in the form of stress or boredom typically drives nail biting, and the brain hates tension. To eliminate tension, our brains choose pain. ”You’re stressed because you’re trying to meet a deadline,” says Duhigg, “and your hand goes to your mouth, and you don’t even notice it at first. Then there’s a brief burst of pain....Your brain is so thankful that you’re not feeling tension for a minute. It sees pain as a reward.”
How do you change a habit?
If you’re a nail biter, wear a rubber band on your wrist. Everytime you catch yourself in the middle of the habit, snap the band. Or try another painful option, suggests Duhigg. If the pain is greater than nail biting, like a scratch on the arm, then you’ll eventually stop the habit altogether. ”Once you disrupt this delicate habit loop, once you start substituting things for queues and rewards, your brain seems to gain control over them, and as a result, they just kind of fade away,” says Duhigg. But there’s got to be a way to avoid pain to stop a habit, right? In the clip below, Duhigg explains how to resolve tension in a healthier way.
Recognizing your habit can be the trickiest part. How do we put ourselves in a mindset where we’re aware enough to be able to pick up on our habits? “It’s hard,” says Duhigg, “Our brain power is down at the moment when our habit takes hold.” He suggests cultivating a contemplative routine around almost-eternal questioning.
Written by Marci Krivonen, Editor/Producer, Aspen Ideas Festival
Related speakers: