Afternoon Inquisition

Sunday AI: The Power of Habit

It’s been too hot here to do anything, including going to the library, so I found myself finally getting around to reading deeper in the pile of “books that look awesome and I am going to read any minute now. Really. ANY MINUTE NOW” that were sitting next to my bed.

On top of that pile was The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg.

I’ve heard from several folks that it was quite good, and I certainly have many, many bad habits that I would like to shed.  The book turns out to be a fascinating review of human learning.  The basic thesis is that you can’t get rid of old habits, but you can replace them with new habits with a little effort.

Habits are our brain’s way of saving processing power–if we can put some things on autopilot, then we can use our brain power for more complex tasks.    If you’ve ever set off on a trip and suddenly found yourself at the grocery store, when that wasn’t your actual destination, you’ve experienced the brain’s ability to create little subroutines to make work easier.

From an interview with the author: 

“Neuroscientists have traced our habit-making behaviors to a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which also plays a key role in the development of emotions, memories and pattern recognition. Decisions, meanwhile, are made in a different part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. But as soon as a behavior becomes automatic, the decision-making part of your brain goes into a sleep mode of sorts.

“In fact, the brain starts working less and less,” says Duhigg. “The brain can almost completely shut down. … And this is a real advantage, because it means you have all of this mental activity you can devote to something else…..You can do these complex behaviors without being mentally aware of it at all,” he says. “And that’s because of the capacity of our basal ganglia: to take a behavior and turn it into an automatic routine.”

I used a grocery store example above, because it’s happened to me more than once. I also look forward to trying to re-wire my tiramisu gelato addiction, although it’s a bit humbling to realize that the methods proposed in the book are about the same as that used to train a bright dog.  And they work.

What sorts of silly things have you found yourself doing by habit? What habits are you in the process of breaking? What did you think of the book?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Tuesdays and Thursdays at 3pm ET, and occasionally on Sundays when Bug Girl gets off her lazy ass.


Bug_girl has a PhD in Entomology, and is a pointy-headed former academic living in Ohio. She is obsessed with insects, but otherwise perfectly normal. Really! If you want a daily stream of cool info about bugs, follow her Facebook page or find her on Twitter.

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  1. I often find myself visiting the same blog or webcomic a hundred times a day regardless of the fact that I know there will be no updates. It’s gotten so bad I have to keep the sites on a block list so I don’t waste all my time:)

  2. @angrymonkey: I’d suggest a feed reader. Once you get so far behind that you know you’ll never catch up, you’ll find you lose that urge to keep checking it. ;)

    If I have a passenger in my car and get distracted by conversation, I’ll invariably find myself driving toward work. And even though it’s been nearly a year since I moved, I still turn to the drawer on the wrong side of the kitchen when I need cutlery. And I’m so accustomed to turning lights off when I leave rooms (I’m obsessive about it) that I’ll do it even if there’s someone else still in there.

    1. yes @angrymonkey feed reader! plus it allows you to follow blogs that might update rarely.

      I also turn off lights automatically, worst is when their is a power failure, still walk around attempting to turn things off and on.

      It is great to use this sort of stuff to make a work outs easier, if I do a routine regularly it allows me to zone out and listen to a podcast. Will look out for the book.

  3. Haven’t read the book yet, so I can’t tell a thing about it.

    Visiting websites and blogs tend to be a habit. Sometimes I visit them more than once a day.

    I’m trying to break the habit of fast food and frequent eating.
    Really sucky habit that I have little idea how to break.

  4. I have a large number of web comics, blogs, and other sites that I read frequently. Sometimes, when I have just closed one, I will try to think of the next one I want to check, and habitually start to check one that I had already checked that day. Sometimes within a few minutes.

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