Duhigg’s habit loop: Cue, routine, reward

What is a habit, beyond the dictionary kind of definition? According to Duhigg, it’s a loop of cue, routine, and reward, a loop that if repeated ossifies into “a powerful sense of anticipation and craving.” The brain automates. By understanding this loop, Duhigg insists, “you can fiddle with the gears.” Early on in the book, he specifically mentions two areas of habit close to my heart:

This explains why it’s so hard to create exercise habits, for instance, or change what we eat. Once we develop a routine of sitting on the couch, rather than running, or snacking whenever we pass a doughnut box, those patterns always remain inside our heads. By the same rule, though, if we learn to create new neurological routines that overpower those behaviors—if we take control of the habit loop—we can force those bad tendencies into the background . . .

Over the decades, I’ve exercised reasonably regularly, but never, repeat, never habitually. Will my Jogging Big Year instil a genuine habit? I’m hopeful.

Might you do some walking, a Big Year even?

Suppose you’ve let yourself go a bit, or maybe a lot, so much so that a tendril of terror rests in your gut whenever a shopping trip leaves you a bit exhausted. You tell yourself to “do regular walking” but each attempt peters out. Life “is too busy.”
What would a Walking Big Year look like? So many options suggest themselves! What if you were to decide to walk thirty minutes, on a prescribed route (let’s call it the Honey Blossom Road circuit) from home, every single day of 2017, from January 1 to December 31? Too easy, eh?
Plan out your Honey Blossom Road Big Year. Is thirty minutes exactly the right challenge, or should you go longer (surely you’ll grow in strength and confidence) or shorter (let’s make squeezing this in a breeze)? How will you measure progress – crossing off calendar pages or employing Strava? What about travel intervals – take a break or (you think not) come up with an equivalent walk wherever you are? What about 40 degrees or windstorm – be clear with yourself.
Over the rest of 2016 you walk now and then, tweaking the concept. You inform some friends, not others. What about Sunday, January 1, 2017, the day after the big New Year’s Eve bash, the day the hordes descend upon you for a BBQ? You steel yourself and actually set an alarm for 8 AM on the Sunday and drag yourself around Honey Blossom Road. Tick one.
As January melds into February and into March, the novelty wears off. You’d decided to walk in the best part of the day, just before lunch, but your busy life threatens and stresses, so you’ve switched to 7 AM. It can seem boring, except sometimes it feels transcendent, not often but maybe enough. In May, a family crisis derails you until 11:38 PM and the rain is pissing down – with the greatest reluctance, you amaze yourself by walking in the dark with a head torch! Can you believe it?
July stresses you because that Intrepid Tuscany tour in August surely requires a Big Year break. Instead your husband urges you to keep it up during the tour, so, quite ludicrously, on August 24th you find yourself setting a 4 AM alarm and walking half an hour from your airport hotel. That night, you reflect how much springier you are on your feet than the other tour participants (including your husband) and you turn down the tiramisu dessert.
In September you trip on your grandson’s tractor and bang the right middle toe. You limp Honey Blossom Road. The physio offers you the choice of a week’s rest and your truculent riposte startles you. With seemingly the greatest of ease, you add half an hour’s stretching to your routine – my God, you’re regularly rising with the dawn! Your original Honey Blossom Road loop amounted to only a little over a kilometre over the half hour, and you’ve steadily added little extras and detours, so by now you’re clocking up two kilometres a day. You began marking ticks on a sheet of paper, now you’re Strava’ing like a champ, and it tells you your accumulated 2017 kms are 467. After a lunchtime Prosecco on September 30, you suddenly aim to walk 800 kms by December 31 – Honey Blossom Road now means an hour on the road, sunshine or rain.
A funny feeling fills you on December 31. There’s nothing special about the walk – it’s a mild New Year’s Eve day and the fact that you need to cover an hour and a half to clock up the final 800-km prize is no imposition – but you’re simultaneously yearning to take a break from the yoke of the daily trudge and almost weeping with anxiety about tomorrow. You drink too much at a rooftop party.
January 1, 2018. The head pounds. You’re miserable throughout the BBQ. At 4:36 you sneak out the back, lace up your Brooks walkers (you upgraded), and enjoy the New Holland Honeyeaters (you know seventeen garden birds by now) in Honey Blossom Road.
After family has gone, sitting with hubby in front of the television, you pull out that embroidery you began in 1985. “2018 is a Craft Big Year,” you announce, almost apologetically.

Diet is the new sin

Yes, diet seems like how Catholicism treated (and still does?) sex – the taboo we lie about, feel most guilty about. For me, what I eat and drink has been a source of existential exploration for four decades. I’ve previously posted that diet is NOT something my Big Year folly can tackle well, so why raise it now? Because I’m still groping. So here are words of wisdom from my friend Shane:

How much should one worry about this stuff? Maybe the most sensible approach is to hove to the basics: exercise, don’t smoke, pursue a whole foods, vegetarian/vegan diet

More from Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit”

I continue to re-examine this wonderfully written book – can it teach anything fresh? He writes:

How do habits change? There is, unfortunately, no specific set of steps guaranteed to work for every person. We know that a habit cannot be eradicated—it must, instead, be replaced. And we know that habits are most malleable when the Golden Rule of habit change is applied: If we keep the same cue and the same reward, a new routine can be inserted. But that’s not enough. For a habit to stay changed, people must believe change is possible. And most often, that belief only emerges with the help of a group.

I find this sobering but realistic. After skipping sections on the “habits” of organizations and societies, subjects of little interest to me right now, at the tail end of the book I focus on his  “advice” chapter, but even then he counsels:

The difficult thing about studying the science of habits is that most people, when they hear about this field of research, want to know the secret formula for quickly changing any habit. If scientists have discovered how these patterns work, then it stands to reason that they must have also found a recipe for rapid change, right?

I first read “The Power of Habit” two years ago with precisely that hope in mind. “If only it were that easy,” writes Duhigg. “It’s not that formulas don’t exist. The problem is that there isn’t one formula for changing habits. There are thousands.”

I remain hopeful . . . more to come . . .

Cycle? Read this?

To you, the perennial non-cyclist, does cycling seem imbued with romanticism, the allure of effort, speed, ascent, ground covered, the world all around? It does to me. David Coventry’s The Invisible Mile fictionalises Australia’s participation (with one New Zealander) in the 1928 Tour de France. Our book group Novel Men struggled somewhat with the feverish eloquence of the author, but the novel sure does convey the risks and sacrifices of long-distance cycle touring!


Foer’s Eating Animals made a huge impression on me and now, after a decade, he’s back with a “big” novel a la Franzen, etc. I have a “big novel” in me also (doesn’t everybody), the hard part is getting to it (and doesn’t everybody say that?). 2019 is tentatively the Writing Big Year when I hunker down to draft it. In the meantime, I’ll buy Here I Am and swoon. (By the way, Alex Shepard’s GQ article is way neat.)

What is a Big Year?

Besides the fun of doing Big Years, I feel a need to derive real benefit, be it enjoyment or understanding (perhaps they’re the same thing), from the actual concept. So let me, for my own benefit, restate what a Big Year is, or may be.
A Big Year is a calendar year spent obsessing on something, anything, amidst real life. It is a structured exercise with five characteristics:

  • Everyday, or nearly every day, focus over a long period of 365 days. I picture commencing at dawn on January 1 and concluding at dusk on December 31. (Quite what “everyday” means remains up for grabs. For my Jogging Big Year, I ruled off travelling periods, though in practice I’ve jogged when I could on the road. Also, I’ve noticed that what really excites me is the notion of insisting on activity each and every day; this was not part of the original idea.)
  • Finite duration. No matter how tough or irksome the Big Year is, I know the end will come. I picture a huge sigh of relief on New Year’s Eve.
  • Demanding but not impossible. Setting the bar is what makes the Year thrilling. Too low and the challenge is ho-hum, too high means you can lose heart when you slip up. I picture gritting my teeth, maybe even complaining, but enjoying confidence deep down in my chest
  • Demonstrably measurable. A vague challenge quickly withers. Being able to tell others what the goal is, and whether I’m on track, seems important to me. I picture an app that anyone can consult; indeed for my jogging Big Year, the app Strava is all I need.
  • Complex. Planning is needed months before January 1, every half year, every quarter, every month, every week, yes, even every day, to ensure I can fit this into daily life. I picture a corporate project plan.

So there it is. What I need to do, not now but before too long, is to pare the above description down to something much more pithy.

An unexpected reward from a Big Year: More creative urges

Nearly two-thirds of the way through my first two Big Years, I quiz myself: worthwhile or not? I’m not sure whether it’s this self enquirer or the stimulus of a certain kind of travel (I’ll write about this stimulating topic sometime soon), but weird ideas have begun popping up.

Sitting in a Lake Como cafe, at an outside seat under a white umbrella, tourists promenading before me, fat middle-aged local men behind me gassing on, leg still sore from yesterday’s fall, I read the 20th of 50 interviews in Danielle Krysa’s Creative Block: Get Unstuck, Discover New Ideas. Why I’m reading this is a mystery, because it doesn’t consider writers but visual artists, and not only am I a Pictionary disaster, I’ve struggled all my life to “understand” paintings, drawings, images, etc. But then I find this piece of “unblocking” advice from illustrator Justin Richel:

Take a couple large pieces of paper and cut them down into smaller parts between 5″ × 5″ and 10″ × 10″ (12 cm × 12 cm and 25 cm × 25 cm). You should have somewhere between twenty-five and fifty small pieces of paper. Without spending too much time on content, begin making marks or drawing loosely with your preferred medium on the paper. As you complete the marks, you may need to set them aside to dry; simply move to the next piece of paper and repeat until you have moved through the entire stack. Once you have moved through the entire stack, sort the pieces into three different piles. Ones that work , ones that don’t work , and ones that need work . In no particular order, finish the ones that work by adding the final touches. Work on the ones that need work and continue by making the ones that don’t work, work, by discovering what went wrong and how it can be “saved” if possible. Continue to work on the pieces until all or most are finished. You should now have a pile of fun starts, finished pieces, and some failures to learn from.

Flash . . . could I contemplate a Sketching Big Year even though my drawing/painting talent is demonstrably zero? Why does that thought excite me like it does? If contemplated, should the notion be pursued? Is 2017 a suitable candidate?


Meditation & the Headspace app

Meditating is meant to do good in so many ways but me, I’ve adored my busy monkey mind. Who wants to quieten the buzz?

Well, for some reason (a specific reason I won’t discuss now) the notion of being more mindful has beckoned. There are no yoga or meditation or mindfulness classes nearby, so on impulse, I picked up a free app recommended by Doctor Michael Mosley, whose ideas I value. The app? Headspace, 10-minute meditation “lessons” by Andy Puddicombe.

Shouldn’t meditation be more serious? Isn’t ten minutes frivolous? Surely this is just the territory of shallow apps!

In fact Headspace works a treat with me, some two months in. The sequenced “meditations” always succeed in leaving me relaxed and strangely self-aware, beyond what my normal fizzing mind can. Puddicombe’s intellectual framework seems true enough. I’ll keep going (but it’s not going to be a Big Year, okay?).