Lockdown Lounge #5 – Habits – Love Them, Hate Them, Use Them, Change Them

In Gabriel García Márquez’ landmark novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, he writes:

“One minute of reconciliation is worth more than a whole life of friendship!”

It was the 1st of July 2020.

One hundred days of lockdown.

One hundred days of this strange new world.

The Loungers were reconvening to renew friendships that were starting to blossom – some Loungers were on their fifth visit – and to welcome new friends, entering the open doors of the Lockdown Lounge for the first time, all aiming for ninety minutes of reconciliation.

To reconcile ourselves with the challenges and opportunities that lockdown had brought. To reconcile ourselves with our need to make sense of the new world that was inexorably unfolding around us. To reconcile ourselves with the distance between our lived realities and our potential.

Slip off your shoes, unbutton your thoughts

The Lockdown Lounge, curated by the Guildhall Coaching and Mentoring Faculty, was formed with the concept of allowing people who have creativity in their lifeblood to share their experiences.

Each Lounge takes a model from the world of coaching and mentoring, and uses it as a prism through which to view our life in lockdown, as well as allowing us to reconnect with other creatives in a friendly and supportive environment.

Today, JaneJoCarlosPat and Trevor were our stewards, sommeliers and waiters, with Chris as the Maître d’. The tables were dressed, the glasses were shining and the welcoming aromas of good conversation were ready to be savoured.

The Loungers entered and, after the customary slightly unsettled opening to almost every Zoom meeting ever, prepared for the appetizer.

It is a vital and understood part of every Lockdown Lounge that we have mutual respect for each other, that the space is confidential and that we each take responsibility for our personal GDPR. Let the atmosphere be positive and reflective.

Chris called for the first toast of the afternoon. A toast, to habits.

Habits

What exactly is a ‘habit’? Unfortunately, the definitions available are varied and sometimes contradictory.

An article on the British Psychological Society website has this definition:

Research by British Psychologist Wendy Wood shows that over 40% of the decisions we make every day aren’t actually decisions, they’re habits. We can’t really function without our habits. The part of the brain that makes decisions, the basal ganglia, would quickly become overloaded. Habits free up our mental bandwidth to give us space to consider more important matters.

But what’s useful in this context is to look at habits that we’re trying to lose or, conversely, build.

You are what you repeatedly do

As ever, Aristotle was there first. You are what you repeatedly do.

In almost all circumstances that coaches are asked to consider habits, habit change equals behaviour change. Most of us have habits that get in the way of us becoming our best possible selves, and a whole industry has grown up around losing your habits.

The hypnotherapy industry, the mountains of self-help books, the rise in the status of wellness gurus all testify to the fact that we want to live better lives and we believe that the most efficient way to do that is to inculcate good habits.

The good news, though, is that 90% of people ditch their habits without any professional intervention. So what’s going on here?

The Prochaska cycle

In the 1980s, two alcoholism researchers, James Prochaska and Carlo Di Clemente developed a model of behaviour change, the Transtheoretical Model. These are the steps of that change.

In trying to modify or change a behaviour, you go through the steps from precontemplation all the way through to maintenance.

At this point, there are two ways to go.

Perhaps there is a lapse into the old behaviour, and you return to step one, Precontemplation. But this time is different. Now you have more information about the process and your reactions, so that next time you are better prepared to maintain the new behaviour.

Or, you maintain the new behaviour, it becomes a habit, and the process ends.

Think of it as spinning round in a circle, building up energy until you have enough power to escape the cycle and never return.

This is all well and good, but it only describes the process and doesn’t give us any information about how to escape that cycle.

Changeology

About 10 years later, an American clinical psychologist called John C. Norcross worked with James Prochaska and subsequently wrote the book Changeology. This is a practical, 90 day method for behaviour change that builds on, but modifies, the Prochaska cycle.

Action and Maintenance become Perspire, Persevere and Persist.

Precontemplation was no longer part of the cycle.

Why?

Because if you’re in precontemplation, you’re actually unlikely to change.

You’re unmotivated.

You know you ought to change, but the pressure to change comes from other people, or from some sense of duty. At the Lockdown Lounge #4, Jo talked us through those ‘ought’s.

If you’re in pre-contemplation, it’s not that you can’t see the solution, it’s that you can’t really see the problem.


Chris invited the Loungers to take a moment to think about a behaviour that they’d like to change. Ask this simple question:

Norcross stresses very strongly the ‘psych’ part of the process, separate to planning. Visualise the change; see how your life would be different; think about the impact that change would have.

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four hours sharpening the axe.”

President Abraham Lincoln

What’s your habit?

Time for the Loungers to take over the menu.

Chris asked them to consider four questions to take away into the breakout rooms. These were merely starting points and the Loungers were free to take the ideas for a walk and to see where it might lead them.

When the Lounge reconvened 20 minutes later, the conversations had been wide-ranging and had wandered delightfully far from the starting point.

“As performers we have the habit of saying ‘yes’ to everything – then we can lose a sense of self”

“Social media is the worst – I feel I have to keep up with everyone else’s story”

“My habit started from a sense of obligation – that’s hard to tackle because it comes from my values”

“When we think about our habits, we have to practice self-kindness – we are where we are”

“I still bite my nails… but I’m a grown up – I wear a suit!”

Slips and falls

Charles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit, describes the Habit Loop.

You receive a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode.

This prompts a behaviour, which can be physical, mental or emotional.

This brings a reward, which helps your brain to remember that this behaviour is worth the effort.

If the value of the reward is sufficiently strong, our behaviour becomes less and less of a choice, and turns into an automatic reaction.

At this point you have a habit.

The spike in brain activity that is normally associated with pleasure – the reason we do something – moves from the moment of reward to the moment of behaviour, and then in advance of that.

Now we have a craving.

OK, let’s be logical.

Logic would suggest that the best way to disrupt this loop is by removing the behaviour, but evidence shows that you can’t extinguish a bad habit – the cue is always there…

But you can replace it or change it.

First, identify the cue. Be curious about it. Explore the times you get the cue.

When? Where? With whom?

Try to understand the reward. Dig deep to recognise the positive outcomes that you get. Maybe it’s not a direct reward, perhaps you’re avoiding a negative outcome.

How do I benefit from this habit?

After identifying the cue and the reward, putting an alternative behaviour that is more healthy or positive can then cement new habits.

However.

Chris explained that this part of habit-breaking could make an entire Lounge on its own, so instead we were going to look at the lapses that risk sending us back to the starting point.

A slip is not a fall

John C. Norcross uses the mantra that ‘a slip is not a fall’.

A slip from your plan is a moment to reflect and learn and not – as suggested in the Prochaska model – an excuse to go back to the beginning and start again.

  • When you have that lapse, what is it telling you? Be curious.
  • Can you plan for when that lapse occurs? Be kind to yourself.
  • Can you remove the cue? Be proactive.
  • Can you behave differently? Be ready.

The Trigger Cycle

Let’s be curious about the cue.

Kathy Obear, founder of The Center for Transformation and Change, formulated this trigger cycle.

We get a cue, or a stimulus, and it triggers a personal root. This could be

  • Current life issues
  • Traumas or wounds
  • Fear & anxiety
  • Needs
  • Prejudices

Our roots then create a story – what this stimulus means – which shapes our reactions (which may be cognitive, emotional or physiological), which colours our intentions, which influences our reactions which then may further trigger ourselves or others.

This is how we react to those cues that trigger our habits.

So what?

This is what: don’t think of it as a cycle, think of it as a roundabout.

Imagine you’re stuck on a roundabout. In order to escape, you don’t need to reach every single exit on that roundabout.

In order to escape, you only need to be able to access one junction.

So now, instead of feeling that you have to control of seven different largely unconscious reactions, you only need to be able to control one.

Simply taking a breath before you react to your cue, or simply putting the biscuits inside two containers instead of one, or simply deciding that you’re only going to have a drink once you can say the alphabet backwards – whatever – can disrupt the chain and give you enough breathing space to impose your new behaviour.

For your habit change to occur, somewhere on that loop you have to break from the old behaviour to the new, and do that often enough that it becomes your new habit. And that takes patience, persistence and self-forgiveness.

If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you always got…

Chris was more than ready to serve up the second round of drinks. The Lounge was created for the Loungers to share, so it was time for them to settle at the virtual tables, relax into the virtual easy chairs and to consider these questions:

Conversation flowed freely and widely, as ever.

The new habits that we’re forming during lockdown were of particular interest. Getting sucked into the news, finding the behaviours of your bubble was influencing your routines, having more ‘free’ time but continuing to fill it (not always wisely) were common themes.

Are the habits of lockdown here to stay?

And most importantly, where do we want to be by the end of lockdown?

Last thoughts

Chris invited the Loungers to reflect on the habits they wanted to change and why they wanted to change them.

Who are you changing the habits for? As the writer and monk Thomas Merton wrote;

Trevor, another of the afternoon’s baristas, has an exercise that he often uses with clients, also mentioned in Lockdown Lounge #4.

Think of the sentence “I want to change [this] so that…”.

Can you finish that sentence? If not, what’s that telling you? If you can, how does that change how you think about your behaviour? Is there another route to that goal?

And before the Loungers drained their glasses, Chris offered a few final thoughts as a digestif:

And as we drew towards the end of the 100th day of lockdown, the Loungers departed, as ever with warm and kind words dropped into the Zoom chat box:

“So lovely spending time with you all.”

“Life is a game – be curious. Thanks!”

“I’m going to make a habit tracker for things I specifically want to do every day”

“Habit change has to be about me and how I feel – not changing myself in the hope that others will perceive me as clever.”

“Thanks again for honest sharings.”

(The exercises offered to our readers at home are sometimes slightly modified in the light of feedback from our Loungers.)

… and if you enjoy my writing, why not buy me a coffee at Ko-fi.com/chrisbrannick? It’s not expected or demanded, but I’d be really touched. I live on appreciation and coffee… in that order

Featured photo by Pixabay from Pexels

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