Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

How To Change The Habit Of Stress

The Habit Loop

The Habit Loop

Chapter 7: Secure Your Identity Part 6

Prior to his stroke, David was living a life of corporate idolatry, where the company was the top priority to the detriment of his health and family.  After the stroke, David changed his values, and refocused his personal identity.  He was in the habit of deriving positive reinforcement from job-related activities, and shifted his focus to family related activities.  Remembering that a significant portion of idolatry derives from a collection of habits is an important clue to change.

In his book The Power Of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains that in a typical habit, there is some kind of cue that triggers a behavior that has a reward at the end of it.  For example, if someone puts a plate of cookies on the table in front of me, I will take and eat the cookie, even though I am trying to lose weight.  The cue is the cookie, the behavior is eating, and the reward is a burst of pleasure and sugar.  In addition, when my brain sees the cookies, it anticipates the pleasure, and I start craving the cookie, such that it becomes harder and harder over time not to take a cookie.

Habits are mediated by a primitive part of the brain called the basal ganglia which operates independently of rational, cognitive thought.  In other words, a habit is similar to a reflex, something we just do without thinking.  The best way to change a habit  is to disrupt one of the three stages of a habit, which means avoid the cue, change the middle behavior, or change the reward.

In David’s case, the work stress became a self fulfilling prophecy.  For example, Duhigg explains that checking email becomes a habit.  Executives get a reward from the temporary distraction a new email provides.  For me, I got an adrenaline burst from all kinds of work-related issues, and I think that was David’s issue.  The rewards for his people first values were calm and peace.

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Clothes, Idolatry and Habit

The Habit Loop

The Habit Loop

In my recent post Clothes, Identity and Idolatry, I discussed the relationship between personal identity, wearing the company logo after-hours, and excess devotion to the company.  I found that if I stopped wearing clothes with the logo after hours, it helped me think about work less.  At the time, I was thinking about work all the time, so any step to help rebalance my life was important.  And later in this post, I will tell you why it worked.

There was lots of feedback.  Many readers disagreed with the premise, and stated that they proudly wear the logo after hours.  Arguments in favor of wearing the logo included: networking, cost savings by having free shirts, and happy memories, especially from former companies.  Others agreed that wearing company clothes after hours did promote a work-first mentality.  One reader summed it up like this “If in fact your company logo clothes make you feel bad, then don’t wear them; but if they make you feel good, then do!”

But for me it’s not that simple.  For a time, I was very happy wearing the company logo.  But I don’t think it was healthy for me in the long run, and now I understand why – thinking about work and checking email was a habit.

I am reading the Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, the author of the series in the NY Times about the abhorrent working conditions in the iPad factories  in China. (I also wrote a blog post about that topic).  Duhigg introduced me to the Habit Loop.

In a typical habit, there is some kind of cue that triggers a behavior that has a reward at the end of it.  For example, if someone puts a plate of cookies on the table in front of me, I will take and eat the cookie, even though I am trying to lose weight.  The cue is the cookie, the behavior is eating, and the reward is a burst of pleasure and sugar.  In addition, when my brain sees the cookies, it anticipates the pleasure, and I start craving the cookie, such that it becomes harder and harder over time not to take a cookie.  Just writing this paragraph makes me want a cookie.

Habits are mediated by a primitive part of the brain called the basal ganglia which operates independently of rational, cognitive thought.  In other words, a habit akin to a reflex -it’s something we just do without thinking.  Or in the case of the cookies, something I do in spite of my thinking.  In fact, sometimes the harder I think about not having a cookie, the stronger the craving becomes.  At this point, I am really glad we don’t have any cookies in the house.  Which brings us to the solution for habits.  The best way to deal with them is to disrupt one of the three stages of a habit, which means avoid the cue, change the middle behavior, or change the reward.

Lets go back to my experience wearing the ‘clothes of the idolators’. The cue was the company logo, which for me, set up a craving to check email.  The reward?  Duhigg explains that executives get a reward from the temporary distraction a new email provides.  For me, I got an adrenaline burst from all kinds of work-related issues.

So if you are thinking about work all the time at home, perhaps wearing the company logo is serving as a cue to trigger that habit.

And the cookie craving?  I ate some cashews, and played with the cat.  Neither helped.  The lesson for me:  don’t write about cookies any more.