Creatures of Habit

Effective advice for lasting habit change

We Are Social Creatures: The Power of Others to Support Our Habits

Others can support our habits and sometimes resist habit change.

We are social creatures. Almost all of us desire the company of others on a regular basis. And others, we hope, desire ours. We (mostly) enjoy the company we keep and we tend to see the same lovely folks on a regular basis. We get used to them and they get used to us.

The implication for personal habits and habit change is clear: Others get used to our habits. Case in point: For well over a year now, I've been writing at a coffee shop close to the university. After months of my going there, the folks behind the counter noticed something about me: I always ordered a large English Breakfast tea. Months passed. Now, my walking in the door causes one of the baristas to grab a mug and start filling it with hot water. My habit has formed a habit in them.

But, recently, I changed things up. I went to Costa Rica. Interesting fact about Costa Rica: They have amazing coffee. Before going to that wonderful (and decadently warm) country, I never thought that I'd have a cup of coffee again. A few days of drinking heaven-in-a-cup under the hot sun, though, quickly changed me. Last week, I came returned from Costa Rica. I was happy to be back in my routine and at my regular hang out.

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On my way to to the cafe, I decided that I was in the mood for a coffee. I knew it wouldn't be as good as the ambrosia that I had in Costa Rica, but I knew that I would have an enjoyable taste experience.

You don't need psychic powers to know what happened next. I walked in the door and, yes, a mug of tea was waiting for me at the counter. I, of course, paid for it and drank it. It somehow seemed extraordinarily rude to say "No, no, I'll have a coffee today. Do you have anything from Central America?" After all, the baristas had responded to my regular habit in a kind and accommodating way.

This minor incident, though, reminded me of the social-embeddedness of habits. Just as we develop habits to make our lives easier, so to those same habits influence others' lives and their habits. And, their lives get easier too!

Take a moment and think about how your habits are almost invisibly supported by those around you. Perhaps you go to the gym early every morning (a good idea, by the way). Maybe that gets your partner up early too, causing her to start work for the day. Imagine what would happen if you suddenly stopped your early morning routine. Your partner might well be a bit miffed by this abrupt change that is affecting her productivity.

What this means for habit change: When you start to change one of your habits, it will be disturbing to those around you. After all, they've come to expect certain behaviors from you and now they can no longer expect them. That will be upsetting to people who are close to you, even if they are expressing their support.

Maybe you'll encounter outright resistance. Maybe not. But the fact remains that you've upset a delicate balance, and it will take time for a new resting state to be reached. So, that's the bad news. Your attempt to change a habit means that others will need to work at their lives too. They might even grumble and resist. The good news, of course, is that eventually they will become accustomed to your new way of doing things. Humans are incredibly adaptive creatures. What was once new becomes commonplace and what was once usual becomes odd and foreign.

One day soon, I know, I'll walk through the door of my favorite coffee shop and the barista will ask, "So, will it be the Peruvian today?"

Order restored.

For more writing by yours truly, visit me at My Bad Habits. I am also on Twitter.

Ian Newby-Clark is a psychologist at the University of Guelph who gives research-based advice for lasting habit change.

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