Tag Archives: Habit

Would You Go to the Gym, If It Would Save a Life?

That’s what Jen-Hsien Chiu thinks.

Chiu, a graduate of the Royal College of Art in London, developed Phabit – a “smart pot” that will nurture a plant, depending on whether or not you stick to your habit.

There’s actually some nuance to it. Users of the app complete a personality quiz that puts them into one of four buckets: obliger, questioner, rebel, and upholder. The idea being that the app will challenge each group of people differently.

On its face, it certainly seems like an innovative way to help us form better habits. However, I’m not sure how I feel about the idea of “holding something hostage,” especially another lifeform. I realize that to some, it’s just a plant, but there’s a growing body of evidence substantiating the sentience of plants.

Plant sentience aside (for the moment), let’s look at it purely from a habit forming perspective. Recall from Charles Duhigg’s excellent book, The Power of Habit:

Studies have shown that if you can diagnose your habits, you can change them in whichever way you want.

As I said previously:

That’s really important because this thinking wasn’t always the case. Sometimes, folks will tell you that you need to focus on the cue, while others will say you need to focus on the reward. As Duhigg suggests, you can focus on whichever aspect you want, so long as you’ve diagnosed the habit.

Now returning to Phabit – do you think seeing a wilted plant on your desk would raise your level of awareness, with regard to your shirking your goals? If I had to say, I’m probably going to guess the answer is yes. So, purely from a “science of habits”-perspective, Phabit certainly seems like it’s a great way to get people thinking about their habits.

Let’s revisit the plant sentience aspect.

If we presume that plants are sentient (and the evidence certainly points in that direction), then we must consider the ramifications of literally holding another life hostage to our actions. There are two possible outcomes I want to mention: empathy and PTSD.

Empathy. One might argue that by subjecting one’s self to this could foster a sense of empathy (i.e. I feel bad because *I’m* hurting the plant). One might also argue that the “continued killing of plants” (through not completing one’s daily goals) could potentially promote emotional numbing and maybe begin to strip someone of their empathy.

PTSD. Dovetailing with the point on empathy above, I suppose it’s possible that someone might begin to exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress from “killing” a plant (or multiple plants, depending on how things go). I realize that this might sound absurd in the abstract, but if we presume plant sentience, killing a plant would fall on the same continuum as killing another being. Granted, the ramifications to one’s psychological wellbeing might not be as severe as if one were to kill an animal or another human being, but when we invent things, it’s incumbent upon us to consider the possible ramifications from as many sides as possible.


Wanna Lose Weight? Get Some Sleep!

There was some research published within the last year that you might be particularly interested in, should you be in the middle of or about to go on a diet (or you’re interested in your health in general):

This article provides an integrative review of the mechanisms by which sleep problems contribute to unhealthy food intake. Biological, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral mechanisms all underlie this relationship.

When I first came across this headline — the less you sleep, the more you eat — immediately, I was interested. After reading the source article (which I quoted from above), I’m heartened by the possibilities for progress in this area.

Naturally, the food we eat has an effect on how we sleep, but the insight that the fewer hours of sleep we get having an effect on how much we eat, is really important. While anecdotal, I’ve experienced this phenomenon firsthand. If I find myself up past my “bedtime,” I almost always am hungry. And because it’s late at night, my executive function is impaired. Put differently, my ability to make good choices might be compromised. In this case, a good choice would be to not eat a bag of chips or a tub of ice cream (or anything sugary, for that matter). A good choice might even be to reach for a handful of nuts or maybe an apple.

The thing that I wanted to mention in conjunction with this research is my suspicion that there’s a cumulative effect. If you stay up late and then pig out on snacks too close to bedtime, invariably, you’ll probably be waking up with less sleep than you need. As a result, your executive functioning (willpower, decision-making, etc.), will be impaired for the duration of the day. By the time you get to the end of the day, you may find yourself more tired than usual such that when it gets to the time when you’d rather go to bed, you might prefer to “reward” yourself or (decompress) by eating some sweets and staying up late… and then it all starts over again the next day. Once you’re out of balance, Newton’s laws have a way of keeping you there.

This reminds me of something I shared a few years ago about Aikido:

One of the exercises we would often do to practice this sense of blending involved our partner (or partners as it was usually in groups of three or more!) to approach us as if they were attacking us. It was our job to then move out of the way, whilst staying centered. The tempo of this exercise usually started out really slow (intentionally). Though, as time passed, our partners would then speed up. You can imagine how it might be challenging to stay centered in this kind of an activity.

During these times of practice, I remember having a bit of an epiphany.

As my partner would approach me and I would step out of the way, I noticed that the quicker (and the more out of balance!) I was, the more out of balance I would be when stepping out of the way for the next partner who was approaching. Think about that for a second: as I stepped out of the way of one partner and I was off-balance, I was that much more off-balance when stepping out of the way for the next partner. It’s almost akin to the Bullwhip Effect.

This idea of eating “after hours” seems to be a mirror image of the off-balance I experienced during the Aikido exercise. So, if you find yourself on the cusp of a diet, I suggest you consider setting (and keeping!) a strict bedtime for yourself. If you’re curious about how to start this new habit, I strongly suggest Duhigg’s book: The Power of Habit.

ResearchBlogging.orgLundahl A, & Nelson TD (2015). Sleep and food intake: A multisystem review of mechanisms in children and adults Journal of Health Psychology : 10.1177/1359105315573427

The Habits of Successful Organizations: The Power of Habit, Part 2

In Part 1a, we had an introduction Duhigg’s book on habits. In yesterday’s post, we looked at some of the highlights and the key points from the first section (on individuals) of the book. In today’s post, we’ll look at the second section of the book and pull out some of the key highlights on successful organizations.

Upon reading the first chapter of this section, I was a bit surprised that there was a story about Michael Phelps. Although, in the context of the information on keystone habits, it makes sense. In fact, like with Tony Dungy in yesterday’s post, I was surprised that I’d never heard about Michael Phelps winning a gold medal in the 200m butterfly in the 2008 Olympics without the use of his vision. Duhigg’s retelling of the story is actually quite compelling and helps to illustrate the point of “small wins.”

There’s also a great story of Paul O’Neill a former Secretary of the Treasury who was also the Chairman amd CEO of Alcoa, one of the largest aluminum producers on the planet. When O’Neill took over as the CEO of Alcoa, it was worth $3 billion. When he left, it was worth almost ten times as much ($27.53 billion). Many folks would be interested to know how he did it. The short answer: safety. O’Neill used this focus on safety to change the culture of the organization (and the by extension, the habits!), which allowed profits to soar.


If you’ve ever worked at Starbucks, you know some of the secret ingredients: service with a smile and the LATTE method of handling unpleasant situations. Duhigg explains how becoming a Starbucks employee changed someone’s life by giving them the life skills they hadn’t learned elsewhere. This made me think: why don’t we teach students these kinds of skills in school? This kind of emotional intelligence is just as important as learning about history and science. Some may even argue that it’s more important.

There were three other really compelling stories in this section: there was one about the King’s Cross fire in London Underground over 25 years ago, there was one about issues between nurses and doctors in the Rhode Island Hospital, and the last was about how Target is able to know when someone’s pregnant before they are. You probably read about the Target story last year and if you’re old enough, you probably remember the King’s Cross fire and some of the aftermath that ensued. Reading about the King’s Cross fire was particularly compelling for me because of what I perceived as common rifts that are seen in organizations all the time. The problem with the rifts of the workers at King’s Cross was that it cost people their lives. The story of the Rhode Island Hospital had a similar vein in that it *potentially* cost someone their life because of the rift between the nurses and the doctors.

Some of these stories of tragedy reminded me of the idea I had about treating one’s workforce not as liabilities, but as assets. I wrote about this a couple of days ago with some help from Henry Blodget.

In tomorrow’s post, we’ll look at the habits of societies.

The Habits of Individuals: The Power of Habit, Part 1

One of the great things about road trips (when you’re not the driver) is that you can read. Of course, presuming you don’t feel sick when you read in the car, it’s a great thing you can do. Several weeks ago, I was able to get through a book that’s been on my desk for too long: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. I first wrote a little something about the book in May after I saw a post about it on Farnam Street. Let’s call that post Part 1a and this one Part 1b. Over the next three days, I’ll look at the three sections of the book: the individual, the organization, and society.


Having had training in psychology, I really enjoyed the first section of this book. Duhigg delves into some of the psychological factors of habits and I was pleased that I was still able to remember much of the terminologies and functions from neuropsychology (hippocampus, amygdala, etc.).

Very early on, we learn about how brushing our teeth wasn’t as common 100 years ago as it is today. Thanks to some brilliant executive who, in a sense, tricked us into wanting to brush our teeth. As I was reading through this chapter, I was reminded of Edward Bernays. I kept thinking that Duhigg was going to bring him up, but I guess his work wasn’t exactly having to do with habits, so it would have been unnecessary. Nonetheless, for those of you who read Chapter 2 and find the discussion of toothpaste and Febreze interesting, I suggest doing some reading on Edward Bernays.

In the last chapter of this section, we learn about Tony Dungy and his excellent work with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Indianapolis Colts. I was surprised I hadn’t read about Dungy’s methods prior to this book. I guess it goes to show you just how much there is out there to read and process. Dungy used principles of habits to improve the success of his teams. We also learn a little bit about Alcoholics Anonymous in this chapter. Having never been to a meeting, it was illuminating to hear the story of how AA got started (a story that’s been told many times over). It’s also amazing just how embedded within the 12 steps are principles of habits.


The main takeaway for me from this first section was Duhigg breaking down the habit loop and explaining how to change a habit. There are important things to remember like the fact that even long after you think you’ve changed your habit, the neural pathways are still there such that you could slip back into your old habit. For a good recap of how to change your habits, I recommend checking out the short video of Duhigg in Part 1a.

In tomorrow’s post, we’ll look at the habits of successful organizations.

How Do I Break a Habit? First, Notice

Last year, Charles Duhigg published a great book called, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. It has been really well-received garnering almost 900 five- and four-star ratings out of 1050+. I haven’t had the chance to read it, yet, but I have seen many interviews with Duhigg explaining the principles from the book and videos like the one I’ve embedded below with some animation.

A few days ago, I noticed the video embedded on Farnam Street and I thought it’d be a good idea to share it with all of you. It’s one of the best summaries I’ve seen Duhigg give on the principles from the book. In fact, it’s one of the best summaries I’ve seen on habits, in general. If you’re interested in habits, another good person to read (or listen to) is BJ Fogg. Without further adieu, here’s the clip from Duhigg:

There’s so much good information in there, but the piece I want to draw your attention to is near the very end:

Studies have shown that if you can diagnose your habits, you can change them in whichever way you want.

That’s really important because this thinking wasn’t always the case. Sometimes, folks will tell you that you need to focus on the cue, while others will say you need to focus on the reward. As Duhigg suggests, you can focus on whichever aspect you want, so long as you’ve diagnosed the habit. Happy habit-breaking!

Trying to Form a New Habit: Take a Vacation

Have you ever wanted to make changes in your life, but haven’t been able to stick to those changes? What about a New Year’s Resolution? If I’m being honest, there have been changes that I’ve tried to make that I haven’t been able to keep up. However, I think I may have discovered a trick to making it easier to stick to a new habit. (Truth be told, I’m probably not the first person to make this discovery, but I don’t remember reading it in any of the literature on habit-forming and/or making changes. Of course, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t.)

There have been some new habits that I’ve tried to form over the past couple of weeks. One of those habits is practicing French. (I’m Canadian and I think I ought to know both of the national languages. Plus, it makes good sense to be able to speak more than one language and since I had some training in French, I thought it was the best one to start with.) Anyways, I’ve tried to practice French. At least once I day, I make a point to practice French. Although, this hasn’t been as easy as I thought it would be.

If you’ve ever tried to create a new habit, you know what it’s like: you’re used to doing certain things throughout your day and as a result, it can be difficult to try to squeeze something else into the day — even if you’ve removed some of the other things that you used to do!

I recently returned from a trip this past Monday. As a result, I thought that this was a perfect time to try and carry out a new routine. Having been away from my “regular” routine for the last 10+ days, I can now impose a new routine. I’ve only been doing it for a few days, but so far, it’s been working great. If we look at it from a physics standpoint, it makes sense. The way I went about my day was an “object in motion,” and until that “object in motion” was acted upon, it was going to maintain its course. My attempts to affect its course weren’t strong enough to move that object in motion, but when I left the country, the object was acted upon strongly enough. Inertia is also another concept that applies here. Inertia is the idea that an object will resist a change to its state of motion (or rest).

So, if you’re trying to make some changes in your life, consider going on vacation or getting out of town for a few days to shakeup your routine. It just may be the change you need to make the change you need!