Australia has a habit of digging up coal for power and metallurgical purposes. The coal industry makes for a useful analogy to explain some important ideas about habit creation and change. I’m not pro-coal or anti-coal, as a born and bred Novocastrian coal is in my blood (and probably in my lungs too) and, notwithstanding the broader environmental context, we in Newcastle owe a lot to the industry. Regardless, this post is about habits – not politics, economics or environmental policy.
Habits emerge: More than 200 years ago, when white settlers first sailed into Newcastle harbour they noticed coal exposed in the cliff face at Nobby's Beach. Further inspection found numerous coal outcrops around what is now the Newcastle CBD. In fact the very first export from the port was a shipment of coal, as ballast, destined for the UK. Over the next 200 years the development of steel making and in particular power generation (both domestically and for export to Japan, South Korea and later China) led to the regular expansion of the industry further into the Hunter Valley and made Newcastle Harbour the largest coal exporting port in the world.
The growth in the industry has been an integral part of the growth in the wider economy of the country and region. We have all benefited through cheap electricity, jobs and tax revenue. Coal fired power stations still provide over 80% of the energy that lights our nights and keeps the beers cold.
There was no one decision or event established this coal industry but many of them by different people in different parts of the economy and sides of politics spanning over 200 years. The result is an economy with a high inter-dependence with coal and a nation with one very firmly established coal habit.
This is how habits form and how they become so integral to our lives.
We usually don't usually sit down one day and think “I’m going to develop a habit of checking emails compulsively” or of drinking/smoking/whatevering, they just emerge over years as a consequence of a large number of small expedient decisions and actions. Decisions that initially had logic, context and seemed to make sense at the time. Then at some point our mind/body begins to expect and rely on them. They become part of who we are; part of our programming.
Habits innocuously creep into our lives, often unnoticed, and it feels like they have always been there. They then become protected by a system that has come to rely on them.
What if we, the nation state of Australia, considered coal fired power generation to be a self-destructive habit that we wanted to stop? What would happen if we adopted the New Years’ Resolution method?
The New Years’ Resolution: "Just Stop" method. Favoured by the less realistic in the green movement – this strategy relies on our will power and intestinal fortitude to simply ‘stop’.
Australia one drunken New Years’ Eve in a fit of courage and self-righteousness declares "No More Coal!" What would happen? Well, depending on who you listen to there is approximately six weeks to three months of coal that has already been mined and is sitting in stockpiles, so we wouldn't feel much different for at least a few weeks as we dipped into these stockpiles. We will however already be feeling some stress because so many resources (mine workers and capital) are no longer active.
Then we will certainly start feeling different - the lights start going out, industry stops and we cannot charge our smartphones. We realise how much we depend on the rewards of this habit - the jobs, income and energy.
The government then declares – “look just this once we'll get some more coal - just to get us over the long weekend, then we should be right.”
Does this sound familiar?
The same is true of habits. If you try and simply 'stop' you will find that your body is ok with it for a little while, but before long it starts to notice the chemical and behavioural shift and when the brain’s expectations about behaviours and chemical rewards start going unmet you just don't feel right. You start craving the old rewards, the old routines (Duhigg, 2012). With New Years’ Resolutions it is typically around late Jan/early Feb before you return to the old habit thinking “I almost made it this time”.
So one thing we must acknowledge about our habits; they didn’t just appear out of no-where, they have been built over time and they serve a purpose. Our minds are responding to a cue, executing a routine and expecting a reward. We are getting something when we repeat a habit, whether that something is to restore the expected amount of nicotine, meet a need for distraction, social inclusion or whatever.
The habit may be arbitrary but whatever it is - it serves a purpose in the present moment to the brain you currently have; even where the habit ultimately becomes self-destructive.
The Golden Rule of Habit Change is that you don't stop habits, you replace them (Duhigg, 2012). You overlay one routine with another.
In our analogy, if we were are a little more sophisticated and adopt the golden rule of habit change we might choose to swap coal fired power generation with solar power generation. What an excellent idea, problem solved right? Wrong; whilst this is a much better approach and adheres to the Golden Rule of Habit Change, there is still much to do.
The coal habit has grown over 200 years, there is a lot invested in it. There are a lot of well-established integrated networks (people, equipment, capital, skills etc) allocated to the activity. Just 'deciding' to generate power through solar generation doesn't turn coal miners into photovoltaic experts and there is nothing about a dragline or continuous miner that can help with solar power generation. The blast engineer is not much use in a solar array.
Put simply, the economy would need to deliberately grow the skills and infrastructure for the new routine. This takes time, risk, practice and effort (partly explaining why, in a 3 year election cycle, it is politically easier to stick to mining).
But we think we can do this all the time with our personal habits. That we can just ‘decide’, just swap Routine B for Routine A and it will be done. Changing your mind, where we are considering the deep non-declarative memory patterns such as habits, is not like switching channels on the TV. We need to grow into the new routine.
For some time there will necessarily be some duplication, there will be two interchangeable habits meeting the same need. A highly cost efficient, rehearsed and productive one (coal mining) and a new one, a little clumsy, relatively unreliable and requiring more effort to establish and use (solar). Over time, the economy learns how to be better at solar, more integrated and skilled the cost starts to come down and it becomes easier to do. People will grow skills and localised economies will emerge around solar energy. Thermal coal for power generation will be used less and less and eventually wither.
We observe here a hidden challenge with habit change; the old habit doesn’t go anywhere and will remain whilst ever we keep using it. If the new habit is not well established, at times of acute need (stress), the old one, lying dormant, can re-ignite at any moment. If we really want a habit to die (aversion therapies aside), the only thing we can do is stop using it in preference to an alternative and over time those neural networks will be re-purposed elsewhere.
Old habits don't 'die hard' they 'wither slowly' (just ask any reformed smoker if you don't believe me).
The new habit needs to be nurtured and given time and attention to grow.