Innovation/Global Risk

Breaking the Chains of Habit

By Shlomo Maital



  The guru from Omaha, Warren Buffett, famously said this:  “The chains of habit are too light to be felt – until they become too heavy to be broken.”  How true!  We live not by free will and conscious choice, but by inertia and by habit. And when we come to innovate and create – again, the rutted conventional thinking of habit dominates, without our realizing it.

   In his March 7 column, in the Global NYT, David Brooks summarizes a new book by his colleague Charles Duhigg,  The Power of Habit.  Duhigg cites evidence from Duke Univ. research, showing that “more than 40 per cent of the actions we take are governed by habit, not actual decision.”  “Habit” is defined as something we do because we have done it in the past, not because we have thought about it and made a clear conscious decision.  “Habits are ingrained so deep in the brain,” observes Brooks, “that a patient with brain damage sitting in his living room can’t tell you where the kitchen is, but if he is hungry he can get a jar of peanut butter out of the pantry.”  That’s me.  I LOVE peanut butter and head for it without thinking.

    Duhigg writes about how to instill good habits, or how to remove bad habits.  And this turns out to be immensely difficult.   We are supposed to “coolly appraise our own unconscious habits, and devise oblique strategies to alter the triggers and the routines.”   The key to this is:  cue, routine, reward.  All of those three can be structured and controlled – but it is not easy.   

    I think the issue of habit is one of the toughest ones innovators face.  Some habits are good – for example, regular waking and sleeping hours, or regular (long) working hours.  Many habits are not good, just because they are habits.  How can we break unnecessary habits while retaining a few constructive ones?  How can we bring non-habitual thinking to creative endeavours, while using habitual thinking in other realms?  Can the brain be partitioned in this way? 

    The key to this tough dilemma is, I believe, awareness.  Try to make yourself aware of choices that are driven by inertia and by habit.  Once you are aware, when you seek to be creative, you can spot habitual thinking and say to yourself,  uh uh, no way,  this is what everyone does, this is what I always do,  not this time.  Try ‘reversal’ (thinking and doing the opposite).  Try the Drucker system of listing the ‘assumptions’ (especially unwritten ones) that drive habit thinking and action.  And, finally, exercise your brain.  I am writing a book titled Build Your Creativity Muscles, with 100 exercises for smashing habit-driven thinking.  More about this later….