The Importance of Breaking Good Habits

Somewhere under the humid forest canopy of Mindo Valley, Ecuador, on a birding trip with my family, I picked up a parasite. A seeming spider bite on my neck erupted into an ugly lesion, and back home, I began another journey through the medical system and a series of puzzled physicians.

Five months later, I began a two-week course of treatment at a UCSF infusion center. To offset the five hours a day in a lazy-boy chair hooked up to an intravenous line, I walked to the center each morning. The forty-five minute stroll reminded me of how much I’d enjoyed earlier walks – to school as a child, to college and law school – so after the treatments were over, I decided to keep walking.

I traded what had seemed like an ideal car commute of a few minutes for a half-hour hike to work through the Presidio forest. The dirt path wound through a eucalyptus grove, past wildflowers, to a panoramic view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the shimmering bay. For the first couple of months, each time this magnificent view appeared, I asked myself again, Why on earth didn’t I do this before?

This is the question we often ask ourselves after a disruption presents a silver lining. A job transition, divorce, or health crisis forces us to leave one life behind and discover another. When the new life turns out to be better than the old, it’s sometimes hard not to feel that we could have had the improvement all along, if only we’d been willing to make more effort. So why didn’t we?

A big part of it is habit. In organizing our daily routines around preferences for work, relationships, and other endeavors, we put much of our life on autopilot. With thousands of decisions to make each day – 200 decisions around food alone, according to a Cornell study – we can use the help. Habits free us from having to address the details of our commutes and household chores, allowing us time and energy for more interesting and demanding tasks. By middle age, with our lives organized around work and family commitments, our daily habits govern as much as half our quotidian existence.

But our propensity to fall into efficient, rarely examined routines also leaves us vulnerable to making suboptimal choices that can determine our lives for years to come. With little incentive to question our behavior, how can we be sure that we’ve chosen wisely for ourselves?

Most of us know about targeted marketing and efforts to “engineer our consent,” but it doesn’t take manipulation to induce us to make poor choices. Inadequate information will also do. A study of London commuters a few years ago looked at the effect of a London tube closure and found that after the stations reopened, a sizable number of commuters didn’t return to their original route, having found better options. The question was, why didn’t they discover these options earlier?

A leading culprit was the elegant, but misleading transit map of the London underground system. The map did a good job of depicting in one place all the subway stations in London. But it was “geographically distorted” and “gave false impressions” about the distance between stations and from the stations to final destinations above ground.1 The map also lacked information about how fast different trains moved, how crowded they were, or whether there were amenities such as supermarkets along the way – factors that commuters would likely learn only by trying different routes themselves once they were forced to experiment.

The authors of the London-tube study cited benefits of forced experimentation in other contexts as well. For example, British consumers only discovered their love for port after the Royal Navy blocked French harbors at the beginning of the 18th century, stopping the export of French wines to Britain. The authors concluded: “our findings illustrate that people might get stuck with suboptimal decisions because of under-experimentation.”

We see the power of experimentation in children and artists. We even take it for granted that they are supposed to experiment in order to discover what they want to be when they grow up or find the breakthrough creative idea. As we mature, though, most of us abandon our habits of experimentation, discarding them like scaffolding that’s no longer needed once the structure of our lives is built.

This is a big mistake. A lot has likely changed in the world and our personal lives since we established the patterns that drive our day-to-day. Who’s to say, absent experimentation, whether we’d make the same choices today?

Easier said than done, though. We’re busy; other people are counting on us. Who has the luxury of time for experiments?

Sometimes, though, it’s not lack of time, but our own internal stories that discourage us from trying something new. Before committing to my morning walk, I told myself there were good reasons to keep taking the car – to avoid the rain, take better care of my dress shoes, and get somewhere quickly after work. These concerns melted away once I began walking. Putting boots on the ground revealed easy solutions (umbrella; smooth paths; car-sharing services). My imagined obstacles seem so silly in retrospect that I suspect it was mainly a desire to avoid making another decision that dissuaded me from making the adjustment.

In a perfect world, we’d have our own personal R&D department to examine our existing habits and compare them with new ones. There’d be no anxiety associated with potential changes, no one to criticize our ideas, no current commitments to fulfill.

In the real world, we may want to start small. Instead of trying to make herculean efforts to dislodge a bad habit or acquire a good one, we could aim to make incremental improvements to merely good-enough habits. Small changes in one area might ripple through the rest of our daily patterns, amplifying the beneficial effects. A London commuter who found a different route with a supermarket on the way home might find herself cooking more, dining out less, and saving money and calories in the bargain.

There are seemingly endless potential small changes we might make – a new route to work one day, a new recipe on the weekend. If we’re really ambitious, we might sign up for a one-day drawing course or music class, or just go for a postprandial stroll around the block (when was the last time you did that?).

Bit by bit, we could adopt a “culture of experimentation” to help resist the “culture of temptation” in which we swim. New Year’s resolutions could give way to New Year’s experiments, and when asked, as the London-tube authors did at the end of their paper, about the last time we did something new, we wouldn’t have to think too hard in order to answer.

1 “The Benefits of Forced Experimentation: Striking Evidence From the London Underground Network,” 2015, p. 6.