A Routine Matter
March 15, 2012 | by Andrew Palmer
I recently turned thirty, the age by which, according to William James, “the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again.” But he wrote that in 1890, before mobile devices and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and Lana Del Rey and the fragmentation of the self, and I’m happy to report that my character is as soft as unhandled Play-Doh. For the past year I’ve slept mostly in well-worn twin beds generously provided by writing colonies, my life a new kind of nomadism made possible by America’s patrons of the arts. Every morning I get up at seven, or seven thirty, or eight, or eleven, and record my dreams, or forget them, then make my bed, or not, after which I proceed immediately to take a shower, or start the coffee, or eat breakfast, or go for a walk, then sit down at my desk to begin the day’s work, or write e-mails, or stare out the window, or do absolutely anything else. I usually end my day by reading a book, or talking on the phone, or watching basketball highlights on ESPN.com, or wondering why I keep the channel on Jimmy Fallon when every instance of empty enthusiasm makes me loathe him a little more.
William James again: “There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation. Full half the time of such a man goes to the deciding, or regretting, of matters which ought to be so ingrained in him as practically not to exist for his consciousness at all. If there be such daily duties not yet ingrained in any one of my readers, let him begin this very hour to set the matter right.” This very hour.
Habits are for squares, is what I’ve always felt. Emerson, foolish consistency, hobgoblins, et cetera. And yet I’ve long understood also that this is in large part a semiconscious self-justification for a life lived without a set of habits commensurate to my ambitions. I get stuff done, but never as much as I’ve planned and rarely as well as I’ve hoped. The disappointment I feel in the wake of such failure often spurs me to reconsider my attitude toward habits and sometimes even to commit to certain important-seeming ones, occasionally for as long as two or three days.
Even if your life is more structured than mine, the chances of your being completely satisfied with your daily routine are slim at best—something Charles Duhigg, author of a new book with the wonderfully inclusive subtitle “Why We Do What We Do and How to Change It,” clearly understands. We don’t like what we do, do we, never quite. The book’s title proper is The Power of Habit (a clever mashup of The Power of Now and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People), and its purpose is to make us all healthier, happier, and more successful in our personal and business lives.
There are of course good habits and bad habits, and Duhigg is interested in the bad kind—nail biting, chewing with your mouth open, alcoholism, and the like. Duhigg himself once had a bad habit: every afternoon around three thirty, he used to eat a cookie. He somehow calculated that this vice had contributed eight pounds of flesh to his body. Fortunately, it was around this time that he began his study of “the science of habits.” He developed a plan, or, rather, an “implementation intention.” He implemented his implementation intention. Now, most afternoons Duhigg doesn’t eat a cookie. How, you are wondering, did he do it? What was the nature of his implementation intention? How big were the cookies that caused him to gain eight pounds? How, most pressingly—this is, after all, about us—can we get rid of our bad habits and/or create new, good ones?
“William James,” writes Duhigg early in the book, “—like countless others, from Aristotle to Oprah—spent much of his life trying to understand why habits exist. But only in the past two decades have neurologists, psychologists, sociologists, and marketers really begun understanding how habits work—and more important, how they change.” I admit I was skeptical of Duhigg’s claims on behalf of contemporary science and advertising, so I decided to read for myself James’s chapter on habits in his Principles of Psychology, to see if he hadn’t reached insights about human behavior deeper even than Oprah’s. He’s pretty good, I have to say, on the critical importance of habits in our lives—all living creatures are “bundles of habits,” he writes—and even beats today’s neurologists to the punch by insisting on habits’ material essence. But when it comes to helping us with our habits, James is alarmingly curt. He gives advice, of a sort, but it’s vague and Victorian schoolmasterish. “We must take care to launch ourselves with as strong and decided an initiative as possible,” et cetera. Change! he basically implores. How? we ask. Now! he responds.
Enter our twenty-first-century sages—the neurologists, psychologists, sociologists, and marketers. Duhigg has studied their studies, watched their commercials, held court with their leaders. He has returned from their lofty realm to give us the Good News. Here it is. Every habit can be broken down into three parts: a cue, a routine, and a reward. The cue can be a location, an emotional state, a person or group of people, an event—practically anything. For Duhigg’s cookie habit, it was the time of day. The routine is the action that constitutes the habit: eating a cookie or whatever. The reward is the pleasure associated with the habit. To change a habit, all you have to do is “keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.” That’s it, more or less. That’s the secret.
On having this mold revealed to me, I was naturally eager to wedge myself into it. My bad habits: beyond the habit of embracing then quickly abandoning habits, the habit of procrastinating on the Internet, the habit of staying up later than I’d like to, the habit of eating a snack at the exact time in the afternoon I’d planned all day to go for a run, and more. I wrote each of my bad habits down in a little notebook. For each I tried to identify a cue and a reward. I made diagrams of my bad habits imitating those in Duhigg’s book. I felt like Benjamin Franklin charting his daily virtues in order to “acquire the habitude of all these virtues.” Franklin realized that “the previous acquisition of some might facilitate the acquisition of certain others.” Duhigg, too, recommends singling out one especially significant habit that will, once established, make establishing others easier. This he calls the “keystone habit.” It’s good to name these things, I found myself thinking, good to write things down, good to think of your life in terms of patterns. I suspected my keystone habit might be getting up at the same time every day, and decided on seven. Early to bed, early to rise, and so on. My cue would be my alarm clock. My reward would be a larger cup of coffee than usual. If I could establish this habit, I thought, all the good things I deserved would finally come to me.
It’s too soon to tell whether my implementation intention is panning out, but for the past two weeks I’ve gotten up at seven every day, except for a few hungover weekend mornings, which don’t count. I think I might, though, be feeling a little less amorphous, a little more like a self, like myself. Healthier and wiser, if no wealthier, yet. You will be relieved to know that I’m keeping in mind as I proceed with this experiment one of Benjamin Franklin’s conclusions from his self-monitoring project: “That a perfect character might be attended with the inconvenience of being envied and hated; and that a benevolent man should allow a few faults in himself to keep his friends in countenance.” Don’t worry, friends, I’ll keep as many flaws as it takes for you to like me.
Andrew Palmer’s writing has been published in The Times Literary Supplement, The San Francisco Chronicle, Kenyon Review Online, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.