The Power of Habit and Husbands

Every husband knows he’s a poor listener. He knows that because his wife reminds him of that fact constantly. How often does a husband watch his favorite sporting event on television and somewhere between the commercial (that he’s not really watching) and the next play, his wife enters the room and begins telling him something important. But he’s not listening. Big mistake.  Somewhere deep in his brain, his head is instructed to nod. This visual affirmation is generally recognized as a sign of listening.  Only when his wife shuts off the television does he fatally realize that he is now fully listening and he had not been listening a few moments before. Now his brain is telling him that he just did something terribly wrong−and that no words of apology will reverse the tsunami of anger that will now fill the household.

Recently I read Charles’ Duhigg’s bestselling novel THE POWER OF HABIT that describes how habits are formed and more importantly how they can be changed if we understand the mechanics behind them. The entertaining book walks us through the habit loop comprised of the cue, the routine and the reward and how a craving can drive the loop. Classic examples include the compulsive bad habits of snacking, drinking or smoking and how the anticipation of the reward  reinforce these habits over and over until they become so automatic that they can lead to irreparable harm to the body and mind. By understanding what triggers our brain to perform these bad routines, can we change the routine from snacking to something more banal such as water cooler chit-chat or from excessive smoking to a healthier activity such as daily exercise?

Taking this new age social handbook to the example of poor listening, can this habit be changed? And since I have many firsthand experiences with automatic head nodding, can I change my habit? Let’s start with the cue. Obviously watching a sporting event on the television is the visual cue to tell my brain to focus on the screen and to ignore everything else. An earthquake could rattle the coffee cups and dishes off the kitchen counter and I wouldn’t notice; instead my eyes (and ears) would be laser-focused on my flat panel screen, applauding the efforts of my favorite team, the New England Patriots, scoring a touchdown. Even if the flat panel screen fell off the wall−but as long as the satellite hookup remained intact−I would still be glued to the set. Only much later when a nagging sharp pain persisted in my neck would I diagnose that my head must have been tilted at an unnatural angle for an indeterminable amount of time. Of course I’m kidding—almost.

The reward is also obvious. Watching the Patriots play is great fun but watching them win the game is the real reward. And luckily, the Patriots win many more games than they lose. But if the routine
is the actual watching of the game, how do I tell my brain to not only watch the game but to be on the lookout for my wife? I had a hard time figuring out how to train my brain to be aware of the surroundings such as the living room or adjacent hallway. Admittedly I’d hate to lose track of the score or the down and distance. After giving up on training my brain to be multi-tasking, in the end I decided to turn off the television off as soon as I detected my wife’s voice. Of course, by the time my brain told me to reach for the remote control, precious time and words were lost. This was not a perfect solution but I did change my routine of nodding my head while watching the television. Kill the cue and the habit dies. Duhigg’s book mentions that tidbit as well.

However I realized that watching my favorite football team on television isn’t the only cue that exposes my poor listening skills. Reading the paper, staring out the backyard wondering why the fruit trees
are barren of fruit or even slurping New England clam chowder can resurrect the bad habit of nodding my empty-thinking (and listening) head. And this brings me full circle to the habit loop that Mr. Duhigg described so well in his book. What if men in general have an ingrained habit to focus on singular tasks (such as watching a sporting event) and block out everything else. Somewhere I read men’s DNA are sequenced as hunters and that job title requires singular focus.  Is this a habit where the brain is triggered to go into automatic mode or is this something else? I’m sure that neurologists or behavior scientists have theories on this subject but I’d like to suggest that some routines, cloaked as habits, are not really habits at all. Abraham Lincoln said that “human action can be modified to some extent, but human nature cannot be changed.”

And that brings me to a deeper question: Is human nature−the common platform of thinking, feeling and acting that characterizes all human beings−a habit that can changed? Changing human nature for the better would have a profound effect on mankind. Just imagine a world without wars. Without conflict. Or husbands who are better listeners.