The Power of Habit

This is part of our quick reads series; helping you stay informed without hogging your precious time. This post covers Duhigg’s book: The Power of Habit.

It’s not all good news

When habits form the brain stops fully participating in decision making’ .  What does this mean to us mere mortals?  It is bad news, unless you deliberately fight a habit and work hard to form new routines, the habit pattern will unfold automatically.

To start a new (good) habit:

First – choose  a simple cue e.g. leave your runners beside your bed at night, so they will be waiting eagerly for you in the morning.
Second – choose a clear reward.  The reward might be simply having done the habit.  Or maybe it’s more tangible.  Today after my power walk with my ‘motivational app’ my app said to me, (in sexy male voice): “Well done, you deserve to sit down and drink an entire bottle of wine, just kidding seriously??” I wish I was kidding, even my 11yo laughed.
But wait there is more …. only when your brain craves its reward will it settle into habity-ness.  So you have to stick with it or experiment until the craving process kicks in. I feel pretty confident if I took my apps advice I could get my walking habit nailed in a week.
My question is; how do I know if I have the reward wrong or I just have not reached my asymptote of automatically yet (what the? you ask – read about it here).

Curing a (bad) habit:

Now this baby is different, one needs to maximize their understanding of their unique habit loop (see image).
Loosely all good (and bad) habits have this same process operatiing, there is a cue, followed by a routine and the a reward.   What drives the loop to undold next time the cue appears is the craving of the reward.
So to transform a bad habit to a good one or benign one at least – the idea is to keep the same structure but change out key bits, namely the routine.  Swap the mid afternoon trip to the chocolate machine for a chat to your colleagues, or a brisk walk around the block.  What to successful ly “swap out” all depends on what you were actually craving: was it company or sugar, or just a break, that triggered your muffin habit? Our brains are so messed up we can’t just ask them, they don’t know … so it is trial and error.
I am at a bit of a loss, now that I  understand (thanks Duhigg) my habit loop around dry white wine in the evening (see image). What to swap out for a lovely crisp dry white wine, when the trigger pops up?  Seriously what on earth is going to give me more than one of these wonderful feelings? – Lowering my pain from my chronic illness, feeling happy and light and optimistic and carefree (which otherwise doesn’t happen with chronic illness).
I have spent a decade nailing the art of not (very often) drinking myself to an embarrassing stupor, so why the need to go further? Oh breast cancer and death and stuff …. dam.
Good news is Duhigg offers me a process to try:

  1. When the trigger, triggers, try a new behaviour
  2. Once done set a timer for 15 minutes
  3. See if the craving is still there after that.

Interestingly I tried a bit of a (cop out) alternative this week and instead had a Gin & Tonic (well actually three) when the happy hour feelings arrived.  I note I didn’t get any of my usual happy stuff, I got a bit of gin gloom going on.  So does this mean it isn’t alcohol itself I am craving or that not all alcohol is equal?


So what is the science behind Duhigg’s ideas? He read widely, interviewed many learned folks and referenced quite well, and it reflects my personal experience – so I am going to move ahead assuming it is all good.  However he might just spin a good story, so let’s bear that in mind.
Duhigg, C. (2013). The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do and how to change: Random House

Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?

This is part of our quick reads series; helping you stay informed without hogging your precious time.  This post considers the book – Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?
Spoiler alert: yes it would seem poor old Gwyneth is wrong about everything; from juice cleanses, to coffee enemas and steaming her fanny (I added that one but I did read she does do this and I’m pretty confident of the lack of science in the idea).  She was a terrific actor – there is something to be said for sticking to your core competences huh?
Caulfield’s delightful tongue in cheek title and light, fruity and readable tone, belies a hefty and serious message within: we mere humans are hard wired to look up to celebrities (and yes that is as true of management gurus as it is of movie stars).  It’s an ape-like thing where we look to the fittest and the strongest – the most attractive (OK this might not follow fully for management gurus).
This tendency to look to both celebs and management gurus has worsened with the social media explosion.  Now we can look up to Gwen and also feel some sort of delicious personal connection to her as she tweets us directly to our living room mid fanny steam or bottom cleanse.
Did you know the show Mad Men increased cigarette sales? Or that most people feel not only less attractive but think their partner is less attractive after viewing a few models/celeb images.

Out with hard science in with the lovely people.

It seems to be out with science and in with celeb/guru advice.  Celeb advice being followed better than evidence based scientific advice.  Given we ALL have a beautiful people bias (we pay them more and trust them more).  No wonder we feel celebs are the pinnacle, the beautifulest of the beautiful.  Bad news – celebs are on balance, less happy, die younger, commit suicide more (maybe, stats are hard to find here), are often lonely and especially in the case of those that got there via sports, surprisingly often broke in the end.

All in all celebs/Gurus are ruining the world.
It is not a cheerful story.
But it is an entertaining, fact filled, eye opener that if you are a parent, or even just a person living on this planet …. is very relevant to you.
In the Author’s own words:
“Celebrity culture has emerged as one of the most significant and influential sources of pseudoscientific blather.” 
Celeb trends are changing our behaviours.

If you prefer hard science, here is Caulfield’s ‘science informed six’:

  1. Moderate your booze, don’t smoke
  2. Move
  3. Eat fruit, vegetables, lean protein, whole grains (yes true carbs are not actually the devil despite the celebrity blather) and good fats
  4. Don’t be too skinny or too fat
  5. Wear sunscreen. Btw this is one of only four things that are actually effective in reducing the signs of aging.
  6. Sleep (7-9 hours a night).

Seems like a no brainer when you put it like that eh? Sad truth is it looks like the celebs are being followed more than the scientists.  I guess it is easier to lie down in a luxury environment and have someone rub your face with gold leaf than go to the gym, put the wine back in the fridge etc.
I would like to see Caulfield turn his wit and intellect to the topic of management gurus (it’s me adding them here, because it is same same for much of this).  I would adore to see his “science informed six’ for leaders.  Until he does – this book is still important to read as it will help you with some of the skills you need to consider the evidence base in management guru ideas yourself.
Let me know how you go
Yours as Ever
The WellbeingAtWorkDr

Links, Info, Credits and all that Jazz

Adapted from
The Author: Timothy Caulfield – is Chair in Heath Law and Policy and Professor in the Faculty of Law and the School of Public Health the University of Alberta.   AKA he knows a thing or two and is a bear of big brain.
Long Title: Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong about Everything? How the Famous Sell Us Elixirs of Health, Beauty and Happiness.  Timothy Caulfield. Published by Beacon Press 2015.
Photo Credit:

How Emotions Are Made

This is part of our quick reads series; helping you stay informed without hogging your precious time.  This post covers the book: “How Emotions are made” by Lisa Feldman Barret.  We encourage you to read the book if this summary tickles your fancy, because as you will see – summarising this dazzling book in less than 10 minutes isn’t really possible.

Why should you care how your emotions are made?

Let me ask you this: how often do you feel a victim of your emotions?  Conversely how often do you feel fully in charge of your emotions?

Once upon a time

Many moons ago (around 24,000), ideas of how emotions develop started to form.  Ideas which are still the basis of much of today’s science, as well as day-to-day life such as sesame street and common approaches to therapy.
These ideas form the ‘classical view’ of emotions and go like this: we all have an innate/inborn understanding of emotions.  In addition we all express them in similar ways; in our faces and within our bodies (e. like our heart rate, hormones and other stuff).  It is as if we have a mental and physiological ‘fingerprints’ of certain emotions.
Past studies have even shown how we can recognise certain common emotions across languages/cultures and even within remote tribes with little access to the modern world.
Sounds reasonable doesn’t it?  It feels like how I intuitively understand emotions.

But they were wrong – doh!

Feldman Barret, is bravely proposing a totally new theory of emotions, she calls it the constructed view of emotions.
Like it says on the tin – the idea is we construct emotions, moment-to-moment, based on our personal history and the cues we see in the environment and in our bodies.  It gets a lot more complex and there are lots of science-y ideas and concepts, but also a lot to back them up.
Perhaps the most captivating example that challenged the classic view of emotions in the book was a picture of a woman, close up, screaming in terror.
It was terrifying.
Turn the page and there is a wider view of one of the William’s sister having just beaten the other sister at Tennis, and the emotions is -> utter joy plus that rush of victory (and hopefully a little concern for sis).
If Feldman Barret is right, it does not seem very dramatic, does it?  Who cares too much really?  Well actually it could change not only how we understand emotions in general but also how we do research, how therapists do therapy and even how writers write children’s shows.

Scientists do self-help too

Barret goes on to provide some personal development tips based on her science (which is cool as let’s be frank – there is lots of nonsense in this space).  So here on some science based tips: enjoy touch – get a massage, do yoga, surround yourself with quiet and greenery, enjoy a good book, have a regular lunch date with a friend, take it in turns to shout.  But wait there is more: try new stuff – take trips, try new clothing, try new perspectives (like they are new clothes), learn new words, and develop your emotional granularity.
You’ll have to read the book to fully understand emotional granularity.  My tip for now is: it is helpful to try and describe your feelings in a way that captures them better than ‘happy’, ‘sad’, or ‘angry’.  What about “the thrill and apprehension of apply lipstick before a second date”?

Hard Science Meets Pop Psych.

So there it is, hard scientists can offer up interesting enough stuff that one can enjoy it over a glass of wine.  It is time to embrace your very own “50 shades of feeling crappy/happy” – I strongly recommend beginning with this book.
Let me know what you think.
Yours as ever,
The wellbeingatworkDr.

Credits and all that Jazz

Adapted from
“How Emotions are made” by Lisa Feldman Barret. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcout (2017).
Art by Rose (12)
Photo Credit