Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

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.

Clothes, Identity, and Idolatry

email head

Who am I?

This week is my younger daughter’s ninth birthday.  She is amazing.

Several years ago, she bought me the best gift I have ever received: a shirt with her picture on it with the caption “World’s Best Dad 2005.”  The picture itself is all ratty and peeled today, but I still wear it at night and to the gym because of what it means to me.  Today I am wearing it under my other shirt right now.

2005 was an interesting year for me. It was the height of my corporate idol worship, and the year I  decided to change my life.   My identity at that time was all wrapped up in my company.  My daughter gave me a present that refocused my identity from “marketer of products that are revolutionizing genetics” to “world’s best dad.”  No wonder I was so happy.

Clothes played a part as I detached my identity from the company over the next few years. The twelfth century Rabbi Maimonides’ taught in the ‘Laws of Idolatry,’ that it is forbidden to wear the clothes of idolators.  Maimonides reasoned that wearing the clothes of idolators was a way of giving tacit approval to the idolator’s value system, and made it more likely that the wearer would start to follow this value system.  On a lark, I stopped wearing company t-shirts on weekends, and found it helped me keep my mind off of work.

Why did this work?  In my opinion, it is one thing to wear a company shirt in the office or at a trade show – it’s like a uniform.  And I had some really cool work shirts.  But what is the purpose of wearing a company shirt after hours?  I was a marketer, and I made cool shirts for my customers to remind them of my product.  The more they thought of my product, the more likely they were to buy it.  So when I wore a work shirt on the weekend,  how could it not make me think about work?  As it was, I thought about work all the time, and the last thing I needed was a reminder to check my email when I was at the park with my kids.

It took me about a year to separate my identity from the company and reorient myself towards the family.  It wasn’t as hard as I though it would be, because it was a series of small steps, each of which brought me closer to my family and friends.  And casting off the cloths of the idolator was an important step in the process.