The habit loop

THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - January 26, 2015 - 12:00am

We are creatures of habit, and there is no greater showcase of that than sports, where years of molding and hard work produces transcendent performances, acts of courage and fearlessness, and heightened awareness. Writers like Malcolm Gladwell espouse the “10,000-hour rule” as a baseline for world-class performance, citing athletes, artists, musicians, scientists and others as proof. In simple scientific terms, it is all a question of habit.

On a very simple basis, we develop a craving for what we enjoy doing. For a budding athlete, it can be the positive reinforcement of feeling stronger or seeing your parents’ happiness, coupled with all the bodily secretions that give you the natural high of physical exertion. Just look at how many cravings advertising has created in our minds, but take away many of those products, and we won’t notice their absence at all. One of the reasons why millions of people have become more sedentary is because of the presence of technology. We have stirred in ourselves a psychological need to “be connected” with social media, and are surprised when we have much less time to get any real work done. But studies in business environments have shown that, when these devices are silenced, meeting and workshops proceed unimpeded by people checking their phones or tablets. In other words, it is an artificial craving, our thirst for connectedness falsely sated by “connectivity”.

How does it work? Basically, the human brain relocates hundreds or even thousands of habits to free us up to do more important thinking. This explains why you don’t remember getting into your car or even the route you took to get to the office, or other menial tasks that have been filed under habits. Your brain can concentrate on more urgent of important matters, like a presentation you are preparing, concerns about your child, or practice for a big game coming up. We discover a cue for our brains to get into a certain routine, and anticipate the reward even before we receive it. Those are the three components of the habit loop: cue, anticipation, reward. In the case of the cell phone beeping to signal a text message, we artificially crave the distraction, but we are actually fine without it.

We respond to visual or other cues that start us on a habit loop. Many people consciously use trigger devices to shift their focus and help them “leave their problems at the door” when they are about to do something important. For athletes, it can be putting on their headphones and retreating into their own world in the hours before game time. For some, it can be prayer. The life-sized wooden crucified Christ in the tunnel leading to the locker rooms at the Smart Araneta Coliseum bears the signs of hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions of players who have touched the legs of the image and prayed before and after games, the lower legs are worn smooth and are lighter than the rest of the sculpture. It has been the main trigger for players to get into game mode whenever they okay at the fabled. When the NBA instituted a dress code, it was meant to signal the players to think that “we are professionals and we are going to work now”, a subconscious tool to raise the level of the game.

In 2002, researchers at Mexico State University wanted to find out what made people exercise regularly. Of the 266 individuals interviewed who worked out at least thrice a week, most of them actually just started because they had more free time, or just thought it would be a good idea. But how did they sustain it? The vast majority – 92 percent – said it made them “feel good”. Their bodies had learned to crave the endorphin and other neuro-chemicals released when they exercised. That was the biggest physiological reward. But another big segment – 67 percent – revealed that it gave them a feeling of “accomplishment”, a psychological reward. 

In my conversations with athletes who choose to retire, the most common response is a certain lack of “fire” or a lack of drive to keep doing all the work that goes into preparing for a game or a fight. As you age, you gradually experience less results with the same amount of work, your body needs more time to prepare, and more time to recover. You need to warm up longer and stretch more, then ice yourself and rest for a longer period afterwards. In this situation, the physiological and psychological rewards are eventually outweighed by the increasing difficulty. 

During the Depression era, the US military draft revealed that the majority of Americans did not have the habit of brushing their teeth, thus causing many potential soldiers to be rejected due to bad or non-existent oral care. But within 10 years of a brilliant advertising campaign that stimulated the need to regularly brush teeth, the number of Americans who regularly brushed their teeth climbed from seven to 64 percent, vastly improving their health. More recent research has pointed out that consumers need a reward, a motivation to do something on a regular basis. The majority of those who purchase toothpaste often select the brand that provides a fresh tingling feeling, which doesn’t really have anything to do with the actual cleanliness of the teeth, but triggers a satisfaction in the brain as a satisfying sensation for the user.

In the extreme case of drug addiction, new studies have been able to reinforce the understanding that the environment one is in contributes to both maintaining and breaking the cycle. Time magazine reported that some 20 percent of American soldiers sent to the Vietnam War became addicted to heroin, and that it was as “common as bubble gum”. Unlike World War II when the average American soldier sent to battle was 26 years old, in Vietnam, their average age was 19. So these vulnerable young men took to using drugs to cope with the extreme stress of facing hostile fire almost every day. But surprisingly, when they returned home, 95 percent of those addicted simply stopped using the drug, according to the same research published in Archives of General Psychiatry. Very few of them needed rehab. They were simply back home, in an environment where they were loved and treated better and able to relax. They no longer needed drugs. There were no cues such as gunfire from unseen sources to make them crave for it.

This also explains why some athletes perform better in certain teams compared to others. Coaches create a certain environment based on their personality. If the player cannot buy into that particular style, they lose motivations and their careers fail. This is the tricky part. Some players have frail egos and need a firm, gentle collaborative atmosphere. Others don’t mind the old school, hard knocks, rough-around-the-edges approach. This is where the genius of a coach comes out, if he can meld the personalities of his players together for a common goal, or at least get them to go along and subdue their pettiness in the short term.

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A Filipino-Indian businessman in Pangasinan is now facing legal and financial cases after deceiving friends into lending him money under false pretenses. By his own admission, this person owes millions of pesos borrowed supposedly for a new technology business that did not materialize. He is not recognized by the Filipino-Indian Chamber of Commerce even though he once had two electronics stores in malls in the province which have since been closed. One of his victims is a well-known sports personality. More evidence is being gathered against him and his sister who has been covering up for him, and authorities have been notified of their activities.

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Follow this writer on Twitter @truebillvelasco.

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