What makes a bad habit? I mean, some people (probably most people) are perfectly okay with their coffee habit. Some mornings, I just have to think about my hands wrapped around the warm cup, the familiar smokey-brown smell, the resulting jolt, and I am compelled to get out of bed. I guess I am in the okay-with-it camp. But I know a couple cups are my limit. After that, I get jittery, irritable and snippy. I can see why lots of folks may think it is not good for them. But Jillian Michaels (yes Biggest Loser trainer) advocates small amounts of caffeine (in whichever form you desire) for the benefits of appetite suppression, boosting calorie burn and even it’s antioxidants. Who knew!
This past week was Spring Break, and we flew for a little mini-family reunion in San Francisco. During that time, and every time I am on vacation, I am aware of how we all have to relearn little things that we take for granted in our own homes. Where the hell is the light switch? How do you work the microwave? How do we get from point A to point B? And the most mind blowing, where are we going to eat? (The making of this decision is particularly painful. There are literally thousands of amazing restaurants, how do you choose one? And all ten of you agree on it?) Some people just roll with these little difficulties, others are more anxious. But it’s all just part of being in a new place.
And also, you know that feeling after vacation, no matter how great it was, when you wake up snuggled in your own bed and you are just really comfy-cozy? Why is that? I have stayed in some really amazing places, but, Dorothy was right. There’s no place like home. Why? Author and New York Times columnist Charles Duhigg wrote a book about this very phenomenon. It’s called habit. And you have lots of them. Me too.
Inside your brain is a tiny structure called the basal ganglia which really loves being on autopilot. I mean, think about all the things your brain has to think about. You can’t, because your basal ganglia protects you from being overwhelmed by relearning the mundane things you have to do every day like find your underwear drawer and shave your armpits. As Duhigg says, this is the reason why you can get up in the morning, shower, go to work and find yourself not even knowing how you got there. Your brain, brilliant little pile of mush that it is, has put you on a trajectory of familiar actions so seamlessly that you don’t even know it’s happening. And also so you don’t go insane.
Okay, so then you go on vacation. And you have to relearn everything. But, as Duhigg states, it’s the perfect time to break a habit. So, there I am in San Francisco, going about my business. Riding in boats. Visiting closed penitentiaries. Walking the Golden Gate. And all of a sudden, I realize I haven’t had any diet soda. Not ground-breaking I know. But drinking diet soda is a bad habit that I have been trying to break for some time now. It’s full of chemicals and nasty stuff but I can’t seem to shake it. It’s just so fizzily good. But I hadn’t had any in 5 days and didn’t even realize it. Now I’m home and still haven’t had any thanks to Duhigg’s insights.
But what about things that really matter like parenting and building your marriage? Yep, vacation can help those things too. Duhigg says you establish habits in a cue, behavior reward continuum. So first a cue is established, then you establish a behavior to deal with it and then you receive a reward. (Like first hunger, then you eat and then you feel satisfied). But in our relationships, those habits can lead to people feeling bad or to making assumptions which aren’t true. Like on vacation, I realized that I wasn’t giving my husband credit or complimenting him in front of his family. Then I realized I don’t do that enough at home. So from now on, I am going to search for cues to give more compliments. Because who doesn’t love a compliment?
Fast forward through that vacation, all those great memories, photos, laughs and fun, to that moment when you wake up on your own pillow. The reason, Dorothy, that it feels so damn good is that your brain gets a rest from all that planning, negotiating, problem solving and relearning. Now the work is to kick that bad habit to the curb once and for all. To not go on autopilot.
What’s your bad habit?
Thanks Barbara Paulsen for the coffee mug image. It makes me feel all cozy.