Afterthoughts: Habit Deforming

Changing your routine, it turns out, can actually change your brain.

I stopped eating red meat 18 years ago, so what was I doing at Teddy’s Bigger Burgers clutching a 5-ounce cheeseburger? I’d actually been uncomfortable all weekend, knowing that Sunday night would be my bring-on-the-beef moment. Still, the burger smelled pretty good. “How are you going to explain this to Cindy?,” my husband asked, referring to my personal trainer. I shrugged and managed to down nearly all of the juicy mess. “Did you get full or freaked out?” he asked. Both. And that was my plan.

My little jaunt back into the world o’ meat was part of a weeklong experiment: What would happen if I broke as many of my daily habits as possible? How would I feel? What if I liked it and transformed into someone else? To find out, I flipped on The Daily Buzz instead of CNN, swapped out my regular breakfast for a cinnamon-sugar Pop-Tart and poured a stream of goat’s milk into my coffee. (Yuck, yuck and tastes like feta.) I spritzed on a perfume I don’t like, walked to work a different route and tried kickboxing. Since I usually nod off at 10 p.m., I went out drinking on a Monday night.

illustration: Michael Austin

Later, to really throw myself a curve, I visited a shooting gallery. I’m a complete peacenik, and sorry, Charlton Heston, but grabbing a semiautomatic felt so frightening, I was sweating into my safety goggles. Embracing the Second Amendment like never before, I tested out a revolver. Rifle? Yes, please. Turns out I’m a pretty good shot. If this editorial thing doesn’t work out, I can always become a sniper.

But new career options aren’t the only things I discovered in my weeklong hiatus from my usual self. Sure, I felt “off,” but an interesting thing happened: I got more done. I went places I’d been meaning to go, called people I’d been meaning to call. I even signed up for a class that had been my New Year’s resolution four Januarys in a row.

Why this burst of energy? To find out, I called Dr. Stephen Worchel, a professor of psychology at the University of Hawai’i, Hilo. Humans, he explains, create habits to enjoy a little delusion–that our environment is both controllable and predictable. In other words, the world might be going to hell in a hand basket, but you know where to sit during the picnic lunch. “Children as young as age 2 or 3 develop habits,” he points out, “And are encouraged to do so. The family has habits, so do couples, groups. It’s not just individuals. There’s a strong social component to habits that allows the group to function.”

“Habits create comfort, but work against creativity,” he warns. “If you want to challenge people, to create a more exciting world, you want to move out of the habit. One of the good things about culture shock is all your expectations are gone out the window. It’s disturbing, yet exciting.”

That’s it! I was disturbed, yet excited. So next time you’re feeling a little blah, throw your habits out the window for a week–and let me know if it works for you. But trust me, skip the goat’s milk.