Breaking Habits

Futures Rambling # 74

By Laurie Aznavoorian


Recently I had dinner with a group of colleagues who all travel frequently for work. Perhaps it was due to my overnight bag parked adjacent to our table that our conversation drifted to amusing tips and tricks each of us had to make being a road warrior a bit more manageable. Most of these fell into the George Clooney ‘Flying High’ category ranging from knowing which shoes set off the X ray machines, outfits that require no ironing, to the times and airlines that are best to fly on.

The banter highlighted a number of odd habits we had each formed, such as wearing glasses in the shower. I do this after having a rather unfortunate experience of washing my hair with body lotion because I can’t see the print on the tiny bottles hotels provide and I never wear contact lenses to bed. Another frequent traveler brings her own pillow case; she also always puts her suit case on the bed, unpacks and hangs up her clothing in the closet on every trip, she repeats the process when she arrives home.

This is a bad habit – why? Once, and only once, she decided to stay at a cheaper hotel, put her bag on the bed as she always does and Kiwi bedbugs from the Auckland hotel hitched a ride to her home in Sydney. By the time she got done tossing out her bed linen, washing and fumigating the house, it cost her thousands of dollars to be rid of her new friends. DON’T PUT YOUR LUGGAGE ON ANY HOTEL BEDS, it is suggested you put it in the shower, seriously.

Offering advice on how you should just stop doing something that is a habit reminds me of former US President Regan’s wife Nancy. When she was the first lady her response to drug addiction was to “just say no”, as if breaking an addiction was as easy as choosing red or white wine. Most people, particularly addicts, paid no attention to her because she wore a twin set and string of pearls that went with her bouffant hairdo.

It is a bit of an oxymoron to say habits are very hard to break, we have all suffered through the pain of attempting to stop something that has become routine: drinking coffee, grog, smoking, watching too many episodes of The League in one sitting. One of the reasons it is so hard for us to break a habit has to do with how our brains work.

Before we get snarky with our grey matter, it should be noted that if our brains didn’t behave in the way they do, we would be incapable of functioning. Every minute of the day we reflect, ponder and choose, it’s what makes us human, but with much information to process and decisions to make, we would be incapacitated if we had to think about them all.

Lucky for us our brains assist by allowing us to go on auto pilot; we perform more mundane activities in life like putting toothpaste on the toothbrush, or for boys putting the Y in your undies in front, with little or no consciousness. This unshackles us to think about other more pressing issues such as why Senator Ted Cruz, a republican from Texas (go figure) spent 21 hours talking about Dr. Seuss and Duck Dynasty. His goal was to persuade members of Congress to vote for defunding Obama’s Affordable Care Act. What a travesty of ‘Green Eggs and Ham”, didn’t he realise the book is about trying new things.

The interesting and very challenging aspect of habits and brains is the part of the brain that accounts for habit formation, the basal ganglia, is buried smack dab in the middle of your head. It is so deep inside that you could get hit over the head with a shovel and damage an exterior section of your brain causing you to  forget who and where you are, but you would continue to chew your finger nails.

There are different types of habits we form, we cannot attribute all to the structure of our brain. Repetition forces us into habits and engrains them in our brains like grooves in old vinyl records.  This type of habit is hard to change because it is so well worn in our minds; we need to practice to allow new grooves to form in our brains. Other habits involve dependence and require a different tactic for change, in these instances we must replace one activity with another that is equally rewarding.  A third type of habit begins by obeying social norms, like wearing your seat belt.

There is another type of habitual behaviour that involves cognitive activity, this is the trickiest because it involves our interpretations of a situation according to what it means to us and fits into stories we tell ourselves. These behaviours become habitual because people develop a chronic way of interpreting the world that is repeated. Only through learning new stories can we shift their mindset. 

This one is the one we must take note of as work place designers, because we mess with people’s interpretations of their notions of work and themselves.  Our environments require occupants to change deeply engrained habits and behaviors they have built up over decades on the job. I for one am guilty of pulling a Nancy Regan and with a glib self-righteousness suggest workers get rid of their stupid little desk chachkies , their snack drawer and their cat photos, and join the ranks of evolved contemporary workers.

So where does this leave our poor clients, and indeed all of us who wrestle with annoying habits? In the book “The Power Of Habit – Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” author Charles Duhigg is very optimistic. He maintains once we understand our habits we can change them. To do this we must understand the nature of habits that will not only help us unload our own personal bad habits, but can also influence group behavour. This is critical for turning around companies that do dumb things just because they always have.

Duhigg cites multiple studies that have shown the only way to break a habit is to replace it with another activity that will respond to the same environmental cues that instigate the ‘habit loop’ and provide the same reward at the end. In other words, your brain will allow you to change the middle part of the loop, but not the beginning and end.  

Additional good news on breaking habits can be found in a new study from MIT where neuroscientists have found that a small region of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, the infralimbic (IL) cortex, is responsible for moment by moment control. The IL cortex therefore has the ability to determine which habits are switched on at any given time.

What is very cool about this research is the MIT crowd discovered they can force the brain to break the signal from the IL cortex using light. The technique, known as optogenetics, could pave the way to help us stop smoking, drinking, over eating and in my case acting like a jerk. The only problem is that today optogenetics is only available to you if you are a lab rat. 


Duhigg, Charles; The Power Of Habit – Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Random House

Kearney Christine; The Brain Controls Our Ability To Stop Habits; Medical News Today; November 1, 2012

Trafton, Anne; How the Brain Controls our Habits; MIT News Office; October 29, 2012

VanSonnenberg, Emily;  This is Your Brain on Habits; Positive Psychology News Daily; February 1, 2011







One thought on “Breaking Habits”

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