Have you ever wondered why it is that you sit down at your desk first thing in the morning, with every intention of being a productive rock star, and instead find yourself doing the same useless things? (How many times does a person have to check Facebook before work gets done?) Well, the reason that our bad behaviors linger like this may come as a surprise. The truth of our bad habits can be learned from heroin-hooked veterans and cocaine-chugging rats:
One veteran reports this startling first moment from when he arrived in Vietnam during the war: as he descended from the plane, a soldier going up handed over heavy drugs. All he asked in exchange was the new soldier’s drug-free urine, so he could cheat on an exit screening test.
This soldier hadn’t even hit the ground and already had heroin in his hand. Though most soldiers in Vietnam had to wait longer than their first steps to encounter the drug, they nearly all ran into it at some point. Heroin was cheap, pure, and ubiquitous in the country, and under the strain of combat many succumbed. John Helzer, psychiatrist and professor of health behavior, explains that they took it up even fully aware of the consequences. If they knew one thing about heroin, it was that it was The Impossible Habit to Break — meaning “even experimental use of this illicit drug was like playing Russian roulette with one bullet chamber empty.” Researchers at the time asked returning veterans “what one drug had done the most harm in Vietnam.” 90% said heroin.
Once news of heroin use among soldiers reached government officials, panic set in. A huge wave of young men were about to return home — and fully 15-20% of them were hooked on a legendarily destructive drug. Even if they received treatment, based on the best results of rehabilitation psychiatrists expected 90% would relapse within their first year. No one could guess what this would mean to the lives of these soldiers, their families, or society at large.
But the scientists who received access to returning soldiers found something astonishing. A year after the soldiers’ return, almost all the soldiers who had been heroin junkies in Vietnam — even those who received no treatment — were now clean. Where they had expected a 90% relapse they found only 5%. This wasn’t just an issue of access — it’s true that heroin was much cheaper and more plentiful in Vietnam, but most of the respondents said they knew of a way they could get some if they wanted to. They just didn’t want to. The results were so unbelievable that . . . well — few believed it.
But research on the question of habit formation since then has made the numbers more believable.
Where do habits come from?
Traditionally, we find two ways to think about addictions and bad habits. Some think of them as moral failings. If your drinking problem, weight gain, or procrastination is primarily considered a sin or a weakness, then the answer is to get tough and straighten out. With personal goals or public policy, violators are shamed and punished.
The other way to think of addiction is as primarily a biochemical process. Some chemicals mix with other chemicals, (or, as in the case of gambling addictions, a sequence of events spurs a neurochemical response) and voila — you’re hooked. Johann Hari, the author of a new book on the War on Drugs, writes of this sentiment: “If you had asked me what causes drug addiction at the start, I would have looked at you as if you were an idiot, and said: ‘Drugs. Duh.’”
Philosophically, either of these might be true. But they still both tend to leave people stuck in self-destructive habits.
So what caused the success of the habit-breaking vets? Looking back on the research, Helzer points out a third way to think of addictions: a response to one’s environment. He believes the Vietnam veterans took up heroin in such numbers because of the context around them — the stress, sense of hopelessness, and lack of loved ones around to disapprove. And they overwhelmingly dropped it when that environment changed. This makes their situation very different from most people going through rehabilitation, who afterward return to the same place the problem started.
And psychologists and behavior scientists think these results aren’t unique to drug addictions — severe addictions simply indicate the power of environment on even the most extreme habits. Context, they say, is equally important for disrupting all of our other bad habits — as well as creating good ones.
Maybe it’s not you: the power of environment to create and disrupt habits
We’re surrounded by food pyramids and red ribbons and billboards telling us to buckle up. But when scholars Wendy Wood and Bas Verplanken summarize several massive, extended meta-analyses of “public education” campaigns to change people’s ideas and goals around habitual behavior, they found that though education is stellar at shaping our intentions and goals, it fails miserably to change performance.
This is because a habit is more than an action: it’s a dance of associations. As an action repeats, write Wood and Verplanken, internal decision-making recedes and the act becomes tied to its environment more and more. These ties might be to a time of day, a place, a person who has been a typical partner-in-crime, or even an internal state, such as a recurring mood or sensation.
In effect, explains psychologist David Neal, when we begin associating an activity with a certain place and time, we “outsource the control of the behavior to the environment.” The location of an activity spurs the impulse to do it — if you typically walk out your office’s front door to smoke, eventually just looking at the door will make you itch to light up.
This network of associations is a habit’s strength — and its vulnerability. The more you can disrupt the context, the better you’ll be able to listen to your conscious intentions, rather than the subconscious rumblings of addiction.
On the other hand: sometimes outsourcing control of our behavior is just what we need.
David Neal, Wendy Wood, Jennifer Labrecque, and Phillippa Lally teamed together to research the causes of habitual behavior. In one study, they asked people who exercised regularly what caused them to do it every day. The answers, predictably, all centered around the idea of meeting a goal (to get fit, to be strong, to live long, to look good). However, when their actual behavior was tested, their good habit was found to be just as context-dependent as bad habits. These people were also essentially on auto-drive as they prepared to exercise, paying minimal awareness to what they were doing, and going through the steps efficiently, without needing to resort to conscious intention. Disruptions in their environment or routine shut down the automatic response — and made it less likely they would meet their exercise goals, until they had established a new routine for the changed environment.
While we say “I exercise today because I want to be healthy,” the truth may be “I exercise today because this is the time I always exercise.”
While we say “I exercise today because I want to be healthy,” the truth may be “I exercise today because this is the time I always exercise.” We think our steps are: 1) make plan; 2) follow plan. But in truth we need an intermediary step of building a supporting scaffold — an environment that supports the habit.
What Does This Mean in Practice?
Manipulate Your Cues.
If you’ve identified your bad habits, try to excavate their environmental cues. When and where are you most likely to do them? Are there certain people you associate with them? If you can identify some of the triggers, you can begin experimenting with disrupting them. If you always fall into a spate ofunproductive multitasking following lunch, try changing when and where you have your lunch; or, if possible, work at a different location after lunch, or reserve that time for doing a radically different kind of task.
For good habits you want to build, make the environmental cue an explicit part of your goal. Wood and Verplunken studied a group of people who all wanted to get in the habit of flossing daily. While they all put down the same goal, half added an explicit time and place to their goal. As expected, they became more regular flossers than those who set out the goal without environmental cues.
Considering that 45% of our day is spent in repeated behavior in the same environment, we are surrounded by potential cues for a good habit. Some possible cues could be:
- When I walk in my office doors I will ___________
- After my morning cup of coffee I will ___________
- Right before I leave I will ___________
Don’t Let a Good Disruption Pass You By.
Are you moving? Switching offices? Getting divorced? Any change life throws at you might disrupt the automatic cues for destructive behavior and thus hold the key to sloughing off old habits. Even an extended vacation could give you a boost in weeding out obnoxious behavior.
A new context is also the perfect time to create new habits that stick. This is the reason retailers target pregnant women — the life transition of having a child, which disrupts old habits, is just the time when new habits (like doing all your shopping at one megastore) can become ingrained.
All of this still requires willpower, to make sure you don’t allow old habits to build up another nest of associations in this new situation. But this will be a stronger willpower, loosened from the grip of environmental control.
Remember Beauty, Fun, and Human Connection.
Is it just a change in environment that we need to progress, or do we need an improvement of our environment?
Analyzing addiction in America, author Johann Hari looked at the same study mentioned above with Vietnam vets and heroin. While others have noted that when the context changes habits are easier to break, Hari looks at the nature of that context, pointing out that certain environments are more supportive of healthy behavior than others.
He explores a study in which rats were put alone in the cage, with the option of drinking plain water or water laced with cocaine. Each rat consistently chose the latter until it killed itself. But when psychology professor Bruce Alexander revisited the study, he placed some rats together in a luxury “Rat Park.” In this rodent resort, the rats were socializing with others in a place filled with interesting tunnels, good food, and colorful toys. The rats in this experiment tasted the drugged water, but mostly avoided it. While the rats alone in austere metal cages died of overdose, none of the residents of Rat Park did.
This and other studies suggest that beauty, fun, and human connection are all crucial parts of fighting bad habits and nurturing good ones into existence. Figure out what excites you, or members of your team, and see if there’s a way to implement it into your work. For example, if you’re energized by trying new and exciting technologies, don’t be afraid to try them out in a work setting. The excitement of getting a new system to work with your business may be just the thing that jump-starts your productivity. This is especially true if you’re doing it as a team. Learning new skills, methods, or systems together can improve your group’s work habits collectively.
More than any other species, humans are capable of shaping their environment. It’s time we use those skills to nurture ourselves and others into becoming the kind of people we want to be.