What Triggers Our Habits

Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit is all about changing the ways we relate to others by changing how we give advice, listen, question, and generally speak with those around us. Most of the time, as Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler explain in their book, The Elephant in the Brain, we are in a hurry to share what we know, give advice, and speak up. Bungay Stanier suggests that what we should be doing, if we truly want to change our coaching habit to be more effective and helpful for those around us, is spend more time listening and more time asking questions rather than giving advice and speaking. Hanson and Simler suggest that our urge to be helpful by speaking and giving advice is our brain’s way to show how wise, connected, and valuable we are, but the problem as Bungay Stanier would argue, is that this gets in the way of actually developing another person and helping someone else grow.

 

To make a change in our speaking habit, first we must understand what we want to change and we must focus on the why behind our change. Once we have built the self-awareness to recognize that we need to change, we need to understand what is driving the habit that we are working to get away from. This is why I introduced Hanson and Simler’s book above. If the habit we want to change is speaking too much and not asking enough questions, we need to understand that when we are coaching or helping another, we are driving to give advice in part to demonstrate how smart we are and how vast our experiences are. We are driven in other words, to not help the other but to boast about ourselves. Understanding this small part helps us know what we actually want to change and what is driving the original habit.

 

Bungay Stanier references another book, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, and writes, “if you don’t know what triggers the old behavior, you’ll never change it because you’ll already be doing it before you know it.” The self-awareness necessary in changing habits requires us to first see what needs to change, second to identify the why behind our desired change, and third to become aware of the small things that trigger our habit. If we know that having our phone near our bed leads to us being more likely to check Facebook first thing in the morning, then we can remove that trigger by placing the phone in another room and finding a new alarm alternative. Ultimately, in this example, we are more likely to succeed in changing our habit of checking Facebook as soon as we wake up by changing our environment. Similarly, Bungay Stanier would agree, knowing that we provide advice to make ourselves look valuable to society helps us see the mental triggers that encourage us to share bad advice rather than to listen and ask helpful questions. Ultimately, to change our habit we need to further expand self-awareness to recognize not just the change we want to make and the reason we want to make a change, but to also recognize the large or small things that drive us into our old habits. Addressing these triggers and structuring our life in a way to avoid them can help us be more successful in changing habits for the better.
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Building Habits

In my last post I wrote about how much of our life happens on auto-pilot in habitual decisions and actions that often don’t even reach our conscious mind. Not everything we do needs to be a conscious action (think about how tired your brain would become if you had to focus on every step you took and how annoyed you would be if you had to think about every blink), but becoming more aware of our subconscious or unconscious decisions is incredibly valuable if you actually want to make a change in your life. Michael Bungay Stanier looks at the ways we can actually change our habits in his book The Coaching Habit and he identifies five specific components to changing behavior. He writes, “To build an effective new habit, you need five essential components: a reason, a trigger, a micro-habit, effective practice, and a plan.”

 

If we think about the habitual actions that we barely notice, we can see that we will never actually change those habits if we don’t recognize those habits through self-awareness. It is not enough to just think to ourselves that we want to write more, exercise more, or have a more tidy home. We have to actually recognize what habits are shaping the end state that we want to change. We have to have awareness of a problem, issue, or thing that could be different, and then we have to dive deeper to understand what it is that leads to the thing we want to change. It all begins and is shaped by a self-awareness that is like pancake batter poured in a single spot. You focus on one thing but your awareness and recognition slowly spreads outward around that one thing.

 

Changing a habitual action requires steps to avoid our initial habit. You start with a recognition that there is a habit, but from there you have to recognize what that leads you into the original habit that you want to change and why you want to do something different. Do you automatically roll out of bed and grab your phone as a flashlight and then find yourself checking emails or Facebook for 30 minutes instead of making your coffee? What can you do to prevent yourself from grabbing your phone? Perhaps getting a flashlight by your bed, leaving your phone in another room, or maybe installing the clapper. Each of these solutions can be thought of as a micro-habit to try to replace the trigger. It is not a huge change on its own and may not even seem related to your original barely recognizable habit, but it may shape your behavior in a powerful way. And finally, you have to practice your new habit and trigger avoidance and have a plan for how you will pull it all together.

 

This is a very quick and simplified version of changing a habit, but throughout you can see the importance of self-awareness in making changes in your life. Habits stick because they go unnoticed. We don’t recognize what it is that drives our unconscious habitual decisions, so we end up with the same habits shaping our same behaviors and actions. We must be aware enough to recognize the change we want, what leads to the behaviors we want to avoid, and be aware enough to plan ahead to make those changes easier.

Translating New Insights Into Action

A challenge in my life lies between my routines and adjusting to implement changes that I want. Routines help me get more done, help me make sure I get a workout in, and allow me to build a productive flow to my day. They also take some of my agency away and put me in a place where I am just reacting to the world flowing past me on auto pilot. I want to be engaged in the world and like anyone I crave change from time to time, but I also like the stability and comfort that comes with routines.

 

The tension between routines and the changes we want to make came up in Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More, & Change the Way You Lead Forever. Stanier has three reasons why training and coaching sessions likely fail to make a big impact in our lives and fail to change our actual behaviors. First he argues that training is often overly theoretical and doesn’t get into the practical realities of life and the changes we want to make. Second, he writes, “Even if the training was engaging — here’s reason number two — you likely didn’t spend much time figuring out how to translate the new insights into action so you’d do things differently. When you got back to the office, the status quo flexed its impressive muscles, got you in a headlock and soon had you doing things exactly the way you’d done them before.”

 

For us, change needs to be concrete and practical. Theoretical ideas and assumptions about change just wont do, and ideas about change that require us to alter our behavior on our own often fails to make an impact. The routines that we build are important and need to be continuously monitored and evaluated. When we see that we are becoming too set in our ways, it is important to make adjustments. When we sense that we are too comfortable or that something we have adopted into our routine is not helping us be the best that we can be, we must find a way to remove that thing.

 

Doing this however, is not an easy task and requires that we change more than just an individual item in our life. For example, I like to write in the mornings when I wake up, but I have had a habit of being distracted on my phone rather than getting my writing in. Simply deciding I won’t be distracted by my phone has not been successful, but what has helped move the status quo is leaving my phone plugged in when I wake up, so that when I write it is not in the same room as me. I had to alter the status quo and my physical environment to ensure my routine functioned as well as possible. Even then it is still a challenge since I use my phone as a light to walk out of my room in the morning. A small flashlight has been the other key change in my routine, but simply deciding that I would change my behavior by not looking at my phone was not the change that worked for me as well as changing the system and environment.

 

Awareness of our routines, of what we are happy or frustrated with, and of concrete actions that can change our routine are key if we want to function at our highest level. If we want to make a change we need to be self-aware and understand our routines and habits. Without awareness, we can only ask ourselves to adopt a different behavior while the status quo remains the same and pushes us back to our old habits.

The Solution to Non-Functioning Politics

In the United States we don’t like the way our politics looks from the outside. We don’t like the fact that special interests lobby and seem to buy legislators. We don’t like that it is hard to have a voice and have a say in what happens. We don’t like that political families seem to stay in power for long periods of time. And our primary solution to all of these problems is to try to make our country more democratic and to increase participation in our governing process.

 

We have focused on increasing participation because it feels like the right thing to do.  One way to increase participation and expand democracy is to increase voter turnout and make it easier for people to vote. Another strategy we have pushed for has been to encourage more political outsiders to run for office and to support their candidacies through individual donations and through our actual votes. These strategies however, do not necessarily address the problem that we face with governance and the things about government that frustrate our public. Changing the mix of people participating in governance may chance some of the optics and signal something different to our population, but it does not necessarily address the problems and challenges that people dislike about our government.

 

Jonathan Rauch looks at what can happen when government is directed by political amateurs rather than career politicians in his book Political Realism. He is skeptical that political amateurs can navigate the political landscape and build necessary coalitions to help move good legislation forward. Rauch quotes a New York University School of Law professor to demonstrate his fears of increased participation from political outsiders, “In the midst of the declining governing capacity of the American democratic order, we ought to focus less on ‘participation’ as the magical solution and more on the real dynamics of how to facilitate the organization of effective political power.”

 

Stability is underrated yet drastically important in any political system, and often times stability comes from relationships and coalitions within government. Political outsiders and amateurs are focused on specific issues and often brand themselves as being outside the normal relationships and spheres of influence within the political system. There are certainly times to inject politics with new faces and new relationships, but to continually stock legislatures with amateur politicians makes the overall process of governing more difficult and makes the organization of political power a greater challenge and battle. Changing the “who” of politics does not solve all of our problems alone.

 

This does not give us a perfect solution, but it is clear that simply encouraging more people to vote and encouraging more political amateurs with strong political opinions to run for office won’t solve how we distribute and organize power in government. It is important that people recognize that more passion and energy is not necessarily the answer they want. Unfortunately, however, I think we may be stuck with this increasingly angry and outsider political ethos for some time. Very few of us have coherent political ideologies about many issues, but all of us are good at analyzing identities and finding where we fit. Once we have staked our identity claim, we learn what ideologies to support and begin to push toward greater participation among people who share our identities and use the right ideological words to signal their faithfulness to our identity. Breaking this system seems to me to be the place to start to change government as opposed to trying to break the participation structures we dislike inside government.

Ready to Grow

In his book United, Senator Cory Booker shares a quote from W.E.B. Du Bois, “The most important thing to remember is this: to be ready at any moment to give up what you are for what you might become.” Booker used this quote to start the second chapter in his book, and to begin discussing the important moments of change that we experience.

 

This quote to me refers back to the reality that our lives are often best described by the theory of punctuated equilibrium. We may constantly evolve and change throughout our lives, but often times we are pretty stable and follow predictable routines and patterns until at some point we go through large changes. For many people there are predictable points of change such as graduation and retirement, but often times the changes can be less predictable such as the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, or on a more positive note an unexpected promotion within a job or a chance meeting that leads to a new opportunity. The quote from Du Bois is about living in such a way as to be ready to adapt during these moments of change. We can be successful in our routines, but we should also be ready to embrace change when it occurs.

 

The quote also reminds me of a conversation I had last weekend with my wife and a very close friend of her’s from college. We were discussing plans and trying to predict what she should do as my wife’s friend tries to find the right path in life. I shared ideas of being prepared and engaged in the world for unpredictable changes and ended up searching Google for a quote about planning from Dwight D. Eisenhower, “plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” The quote from Du Bois aligns with the quote from Eisenhower by connecting with the reality that our plans for the future will never play out in our complex and connected world, but it is important to be planning our growth and thinking about how we can take advantage of future opportunities. When we have a plan we have something to work toward, but we must be ready to give up that plan and take advantage of the opportunities that actually arise in our lives and allow us to become something we could not have predicted. We must give up who we are to take advantage of the chance to pursue who we might become.

Unpredictability

Come Back Frayed is Colin Wright’s book about his time in the Philippines and his evaluations of the way that people exist within and between cultures. He focuses on his personal reactions to changing environments and life in an area of the world that sounds amazing, but can actually be quite inhospitable for long stretches of time. Addressing how we react to the places we live and the order in our lives, he writes, “We all have a different level of tolerance for unpredictability and incomprehension. Some of us have a tolerance that is almost a need: we require novelty and a regular dollop of confusion and disorientation to feel complete. We need to have our world set spinning so that we can ever so slowly bring it back to a more regular rotation on a sturdy axis.”

 

The quote above seems to very accurately describe Wright himself, and it resonates strongly with me despite the fact that I am incredibly routine focused. I do not do well when it comes to planning long term for vacations and I feel that I really perform well when I can build a set schedule that incorporates the things I love like, running, reading, writing, and listening to podcasts. But despite my love for routines and the benefits of performance and success that routines bring, I also recognize the human need to get away from what Tyler Cowen calls “the status quo bias”, and wright is an excellent example of how manage such a feat, and why shaking up our worlds can be so important.

 

Wright explains that he also thrives with strong routines, particularly in regards to health and writing practices, but by traveling consistently and exploring the world, Wright has been able to incorporate vastly different perspectives of the world into the frames from which he understands the universe. He has allowed his travel destinations and living places to be directed for him by his fans, and it was actually his fans’ suggestions that sent him to the Philippines. Along the way, Wright has been able to expand his thought processes and tolerance for change while also recognizing how routine actions, such as simple exercise and writing habits, can allow one to stay grounded, disciplined, healthy, and proficient during times of change in wildly different social and cultural environments.

 

My life in Reno, Nevada is not the most exciting of all time, although in a recent episode of the Ezra Klein Show, Tyler Cowen argues that boring environments can push one to explore in greater depth the online world (for example blogging), but I enjoy the region and the routines afforded to me. Learning to incorporate Wright’s strategy for travel would help me shake up my world in a way that would give me new perspectives. Wright would argue that changing my routine and challenging the comforts and consistency it offers would push me to grow and discover new parts of myself, creating engaging and exciting experiences to help me feel more connected to myself, society, and perhaps all of humanity. From the interview I listened to I think Cowen would agree that efforts to avoid status quo bias can pay off in the long run and satisfy some part of our humanity that craves change, even if we have a small tolerance for the novelty and uncertainty it brings.

Deliberate Growth

In his book, The Obstacle is the Way, author Ryan Holiday discusses the ways in which we often look at our selves, our abilities, and the situations in which we find ourselves.  We tend to think that who we are is set in stone and shaped by forces beyond our control: I am naturally good at writing, I was not born with a good singing voice, I like to go to the gym, I don’t know how to do computer programming. In some way with all the examples above, we are looking at the things we do and do not do as if they are given parts of life, and not conscious choices that we make. When we look at who we are, what we excel at, where we struggle, what we like to do, and what things are not part of who we are, we begin to narrow our lives and place ourselves in a box. We define ourselves not by our ability to grow and change, but rather by who or what we perceive ourselves to be during a point in time. Holiday challenges this thinking, “We craft our spiritual strength through physical exercise, and our physical hardiness through mental practice (mens sana in corpore sano — sound mind in a strong body).”

 

His quote on its own speaks to the importance of mental and physical fortitude, but the section in which he includes the quote speaks to more than just the idea of mental and physical strength. The focus of Holiday in the quote above is on the word craft. We do not simply have mental strength by chance, and we do not simply have physical strength without working out. As Holiday explains, we must put in the effort, work, and focus to build our lives to match the quote above, to have a sound mind in a sound body.

 

Deliberate action and focus are the only things that will lead us to the growth we wish to see. We will have to put in real effort and work to develop the person we want to be, and if we do not strive to improve ourselves, we will only atrophy, and wither away as a result of the limitations we accept. Holiday continues, “Nobody is born with a steel backbone. We have to forge that ourselves.” Looking at the qualities we want to develop, and preparing ourselves for the challenging road to acquire those qualities is a must if we want to find growth. From Holiday’s perspective, self-reflection and awareness are key, as a greater understanding of self and vision for growth will build and shape who we are and the actions we take, opening opportunity and improving experiences.

 

Holiday’s advice in forging ahead on our path is similar to the advice of Richard Wiseman, who wrote in his book 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot, encouraged journaling and reflection on the challenges we expect to face along our journey. By explaining how we will plan for obstacles in life, we can develop our sound mind, propelling us beyond our challenges. Thinking ahead and reflecting on not just our success but our failures and difficulties can help us build the strength necessary to develop our steel backbone.