In a hilarious episode of Seinfeld George Costanza takes to saying his last name to the tune of the “By Mennen” jingle as he leaves a woman’s apartment (while also leaving his sable hat). His explanation: if he does this enough she’ll begin to be interested in him without even knowing why. Put another way, George wants to become her habit without her understanding how she got there. The woman of interest will simply, and seemingly randomly, sing “Co-Stanza” to herself and crave his company. Classic marketing.
Last week two things occurred, 1) my family and I went camping on the north shore, and 2) my routine changed. How are these connected to George Costanza? Read on.
In his book Power of Habit Charles Duhigg describes the habit cycle. I’ve written about this book and this cycle in past posts. What follows is my take on Duhigg’s concepts, giving him all due credit.
Quick refresher: this cycle consists of cues which lead to routines which lead us to rewards. Like this:
Cues > Routine > Reward
The cues can be subtle, hence their manipulation by marketing teams around the world. Routines are usually more obvious. For example do you always follow up dinner with desert? This would be a routine. Our family has it, usually at my request. Out of habit. Routine leads to a reward, in the dessert example, sweets and the pleasure of food. Complete this cycle enough times and it becomes a habit. And we know how hard habits are to break.
Hold on a minute. There’s one more key piece to the habit cycle. Cravings. These little buggers are what drives the cycle. For whatever reason we crave something and this kicks the cycle into action. If we understand this we may have added another tool to the over used metaphorical tool box.
Answer this question: Why do you eat? Think about it. Is it because it’s time to eat? Because you’re friends are eating? Kids? Boredom? These are all cues in the habit cycle. I’ll make it personal:
From the time I get up until about 3:00 pm I can control my eating. I don’t seem too hungry, can limit my consumption at breakfast and lunch. However, around 3:00 pm, something happens. The clock is my subtle cue. This cue led me to our university’s marketplace where I could find cookies. I’d talk with Harry, the kind manager, grab my Nutter Butter cookies, and be off. Cookies gone before I competed the 37 second walk back to my office. The cue (clock) led me to my routine (cookies) and I was rewarded (sweet, joyous taste of said Nutter Butters). Habit cycle defined.
Habits are difficult to break because our brain likes them. Saves us mental effort. Duhigg states that over 40% of our daily actions are driven by habit. Habits are what allow me to navigate an unfamiliar grocery store and not get too overwhelmed at the yogurt selection:
Without my habit, I’d spend years trying to figure out what to buy. That being said, we’d better have good habits and we had better understand them. My Nutter Butter habit added 300 calories a day to my weight challenged day. And I was powerless to stop it. Habit.
What I have to describe in my cookie habit cycle is the craving. The true driving force. Is it cookies? Really? Am I really hungry or am I craving something else? In the mornings, I discovered when I thought about my daily pattern, I am usually busy with a variety of tasks. Teaching, conversations with colleagues, chatting with students, etc. in the afternoon however, my world gets a bit more quiet and I am in my office working. Solitarily. I crave distraction. A break. That craving, the need to escape for a few minutes, drives my cookie habit. It’s not the cookie I wanted as a reward, it was the conversation. Time to change my reward.
There are days that I am successful in switching out my routine of cookies for conversation. Some days I fail. Miserably. What I have noticed is that I am conscious of time, think about what I’m doing, I stay away from cookies. It’s when I don’t think and let the old habit return that I struggle.
If we can identify our cues and true cravings maybe we can switch out some routines that lead us to eating better. That would be nice. We’ll experiment in a moment.
What does this have to do with George Costanza and more importantly, our family camping trip? George created a craving before the woman’s awareness caught up. ”Co-Stanza” was the cue. She wanted him before she knew she wanted him because he set the right conditions. During our camping trio my cues changed. In my office I am in control. Camping, not so much. The cooler is right there, full of things we don’t normally have around. The cooler became a powerful cue and I easily succumbed to few yogurt bars, chips, and an extra beer now and again.
Experiment time. Pick a habit you want to change. For the next few find the pattern. Take note of the following when you find yourself succumbing:
Time of day
Your emotional state
Other people around
Immediately preceding action
Writing these five thoughts down will lead us our patterns, our routines. And if we become aware maybe we can change.
Give it a try, we’ll stick to this project and theme all week.
Back to my routine.