Changing habits

IMG_2369Hundreds of habits allow us to live successfully through the weeks and years of our lives. Except when they don’t. That is, when they hurt our health, our relationships, or our careers. If you think that habits are difficult to change, whether they’re attached to individuals or groups, you’d be right. But Charles Duhigg’s, “The Power of Habit,” makes trying to change them sound like fun, or at least an interesting challenge.

Let’s start with an easy one (haha):  weight loss.  Researchers know that some habits, called ‘keystone habits,’ “have the power to start a chain reaction,” and influence other habits.  The keystone habit for weight loss is to keep a food journal.

National Institute of Health researchers tested this out with a group of sixteen hundred obese people, whom they instructed to write, just one day a week, what they ate. In time and without urging, many of the study’s subjects recorded this information more often, and keeping track eventually became a habit. From there, some used their journals to plan meals, find patterns in their eating and make other lifestyle changes, which demonstrated that “keystone habits start a process that over time, transforms everything.”  (Anyone who’s ever joined Weight Watchers knows how effective recording food intake is.)

From January 1 on, I skipped the daily glass of wine, certain that the loss of those calories would cause a dramatic dip in weight. But it didn’t. Some days my weight went up and once or twice it dropped by half a pound.  A week ago my husband and I began to write what we ate, consulted with an old Weight Watchers points counter (so many calories equal a point), and limited ourselves to the total points WW recommended for our current weight. Voila!  We eat more veggies, exercise about the same amount, and think twice before we put something in our mouths that has more points than the value it provides.

What I read about how to change dietary habits, it reminded me of information I once knew and either forgot or ignored.  What excited me more were the chapters on strategies organizational leaders, from CEO’s to coaches, used to change the habits of groups.  It’s no accident that you get great service in any Starbucks you enter, or that pregnant women receive coupons in the mail for baby items from Target. (Forget imagining that any of us has any privacy).  When patients recovering from hip or knee surgery change keystone habits, that is, when they write down their rehab plans, they increase the odds that they’ll commit to regular physical therapy and hasten their recovery.

Duhigg takes volumes of research on habits and makes it readable and fascinating.  I plan to recommend it to two friends, one who wants to make changes in an organization and one who wants to change the world. And did I mention that it’s a nonfiction book you can read in bed and not fall asleep midway through a paragraph?

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About stillalife

I retired June 30, 2010 after working for 40 years in the field of education and most recently doing school public relations/community outreach in a mid-size urban school district. I wrote for superintendents and school board members. Now I'm writing for me and I hope for you. In this blog, I offer my own views coupled with the latest research on how to preserve our physical and mental health as we age, delve into issues most of us over 50 can relate to like noticing wrinkles and forgetting where we left our keys, discuss the pros and cons of different ways to engage our minds and bodies after we leave the workplace, and throw in an occasional book review, all peppered with a touch of humor, irony, and just plain silliness.
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