The Value of Disrupting our Habits
Things are different today (obviously!).
I’m not writing in coffee shops, flying around the country running workshops, or dropping my kiddos off at school.
Our normal routines represent a well-worn path in the world and in our brains. The more we do something, the more we reinforce connections between related neurons and the easier that action becomes.
This kind of habit formation is super useful. For starters, it’s a way to conserve energy. Habits supplant thinking by replacing decisions with actions.
It’s disconcerting when we’re not able to fall back on habits. When I moved to Japan in my twenties, I was tired for months because I had to consciously engage with almost every decision. You may have noticed something like this, too, if you’ve ever changed your context by moving to a foreign country, changing jobs, or going back to school.
Social distancing and closed businesses have injected complexity into our lives and forcibly broken many of our habits. Now it takes thought (which is energy!) to sort out even a routine trip to the grocery store. Many of us can’t wait for things to get back to normal.
But there’s surprising evidence that forcible interruption of our habits can actually be good for us. I first heard about this from my friend Tim Harford (in what is possibly the best podcast episode I have ever listened to). My friend D., who runs a technology team, mentioned the same story the other day as we were chatting about how work is changing these days. I think it’s a really interesting angle on what’s going on with COVID-19.
The gist is this: in 2014, a two-day strike in the London Underground shut down certain tube stations. Tens of thousands of commuters had to find new routes to work.
Here’s where it gets interesting: a group of clever economists got access to data from thousands of transit pass users covering days before, during, and after the strike. They found that many commuters changed their commutes even after the strike was over.
This wasn’t driven by a simple change in habit (research shows that two days is too short for a new habit to form). Instead, the research indicates that commuters who had been disrupted spent more time exploring new commute options after the strike than their non-disrupted counterparts. Once their habits were broken, many found commute options that were better for them. Ultimately, the disruption led to faster commutes.
It’s a heartening lesson. From how we’ve habitually engaged with our customers to how we spend time with our families, this massive disruption may push us to find a better approach. That doesn’t mean things will be easy or painless, but we do have an opportunity to engage consciously with new ways of doing things that may better serve us.
I know I have routines that I miss, habits that I’m glad to have dropped, and exciting ways of working in their place:
- I miss the breakfast bar at my local grocery store.
- I’m glad to no longer be buying coffee out all the time!
- I’m excited to write this newsletter.
What about you? Do you have things you hope to change for the long term?