The Sheer Power of Habit

I’ve mentioned before that I started kung fu (gongfu) when I was 12.

There was a large part of the training that involved discipline and respect for your teachers and your partners.

In short, we bowed a lot. You have no idea how much we bowed.

"If in doubt, bow” my teacher, Martin, once told me.

We’d bow as we entered the training room and to start and end the session. We’d bow when the teacher spoke to us and when he finished speaking to us and we’d bow to each other before beginning and ending practice sessions.

Failure to do so would result in admonishment of some kind. It could simply be a look that said “you should know better”, or a monetary fine and even (given the nature of what we were doing) a damn good thrashing.

Aahhh such fun we used to have.

No, seriously. We did. Honest.

I got so good at bowing that I was once in a technical drawing class in school and had completed one drawing so I was in need of another sheet of A1 paper for the next project.

I approached the teacher (Len Morris, also the woodwork teacher) and said,

“Could I have another piece of paper please, sir?”

He said, “Yes, in the cupboard at the back of the room.”

“Thank you”, I replied, bowed to him with my hands on my thighs as I would to my gongfu teacher and walked off to get my paper, cringing at what he must be thinking about me and also wondering just how many of the rest of my class had noticed that bow.

I lost count of how many times I bowed as I walked into a classroom for maths, English, geography. The list goes on.

As you may have gathered by now, bowing had become a habit. It didn’t matter where I was, when I got a cue I went through a routine.

This is the structure of a habit: cue, routine, reward.

I know you realise that we cultivate good and bad habits. But why?

In essence our brains learn habits to free up space, otherwise we’d become overwhelmed.

Think about it for a sec. Most everyday routines you do, you don’t have to think about. It’s like you have two selves:

A conscious self and

An automatic self

Getting up in the morning and brushing your teeth, getting in the car to go to work, making your breakfast, riding your bike, are things you’re aware of doing but you do them automatically. You don’t have to think of every single step. If you did, it would take w-a-y t-o-o l-o-n-g.

You go through an automatic routine, or habit.

For example, while brushing you teeth, you could be planning your morning, where you’re going to go what you have to do and so on. Yes, you’re aware that you’re brushing your teeth but your automatic self takes over and implements the routine. Your teeth get cleaned while your brain is freed up to sort out other matters.

Make some sense so far?

It’s a very efficient system. Your brain is always looking for a way to save effort and it looks for any regular routine to make a habit, freeing up energy in the brain because it’s then on autopilot.

But that works for good and bad habits.

And here’s something interesting. A study at Duke University in 2006 discovered that over 40% of what we do each day is habit, not actual decisions.

Frightening, eh?

If over 40% of what you do each day is a habit, it would make good sense to make sure that they were good habits.

Wouldn’t it?

Great! I knew you were with me. So what we’ll explore in the next email (or maybe two) is how to begin to create new habits, good habits. And we’ll look a little more into the habit loop and some basic science behind it (not too much science though, so don’t be scared off)

Till next time

Mike