In the previous post, we looked at how self-help books – whether personal, professional or diet – fail so often to help us change. We are drawn to Get a Promotion in 60 Days and Lose 30 Pounds in 30 Days because that is what we want – quick, easy solutions. Reading these books makes us feel good. We’re taking an action to improve ourselves just by purchasing the book. We want to believe that change is easy.

But, anyone who has read a self-help book has learned, results are hard to come by. We may blame ourselves for not following the author’s suggestions well enough, we might decide the techniques do not fit us, or the guy’s a quack. We carry on as usual, as best we can, until the next book catches our eyes with the next promise to reveal the secrets of achieving desires quickly and easily.

One of the reasons these books fail us is not because we are flawed or inadequate. The problem is in the nature of our habits, ingrained in us from a childhood of lessons, explicit and implied, from our parents, our teachers and our friends. Many we are not even aware how they have become a part of our world view to such a deep extent we no longer even think to examine them. And some, with the passage of time and our own maturity, become self-limiting.

I’ll give you an example, in the form of an old joke.

A woman is in the kitchen, preparing dinner from her family. She takes a chicken, cuts it in half, puts each half into a pot and starts cooking; cheerfully slicing in vegetables and seasoning as she goes. Her husband comes in to help and casually asks her why she is using two pots to cook the chicken.

She responds that this was how her mother always made chicken and continues on with her work. But now the question is in her mind. A question she has never thought of before.

When she sees her mother next she asks her. “Why did you always cook the chicken in two pots when we were growing up?”

Her mother responds lightheartedly, “That’s how my mother always did it.”

They were lucky enough that the woman’s mother’s mother was still alive and healthy and, on their next visit they asked her why. Why did she cook the chicken in two pots.

She replied “I didn’t have a big enough pot for the chicken.”

And that’s one way our habits get built. And habits, once built, remain unexamined. Even when the original reason has long since disappeared, the behavior remains.

The problem with habits is they serve a useful purpose. We couldn’t go about our normal day if we had to think about every little thing we do – from brushing our teeth, showering, getting dressed, packing our bags – there is a mountain of minutia that would quickly swamp us.

Anyone starting a new job becomes quickly aware of how ingrained their old habits are and how tiring learning new ones can be. Thinking about how to get to work, where our office is, finding the bathroom, their new telephone number, where to eat lunch, that guy’s name who we just spoke to in the hall, where the location of the next meeting is, and so on. Habits save us from having to think all the time about the little details of our day. Habits permeate every aspect of our everyday lives.

To understand how this works, both as a help and a hindrance, we need to understand how habits develop.

How We Build Habits

Science has learned that each time we perform a repetitive activity, whether it is catching a ball or playing the piano, the brain reinforces a pathway within the brain. The more we repeat an action, the more reinforced the pathway becomes. The brain operates by sending electrical signals, so, to reinforce a pathway, the brain wraps the neurons in an electrical insulator called Myelin. The more we perform the same action, whether playing a scale on the piano or cooking the chicken in two pots, the more myelin is wrapped around the pathway and the stronger the habit becomes. This is the 10,000 hour rule to mastery described in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers and in the wonderful book The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. It’s also why your piano teacher told you to play something new very slowly and correctly. It turns out we learn mistakes just as easily and, either way, once formed, habits are hard to break because of the physical pathways formed in the brain. The key is not just practice, but deliberate concentration on improvement in areas both large and small. Which has huge ramifications for our lives.

What this has to do with self-help books is that they, pretty much by definition, as asking us to change what we do and do something different. To break off a well worn path and blaze a trail through the woods. Without strong incentive, changing a habit is a difficult endeavor that requires a large investment of energy, as many of us have found. The reasoning of the self-help author and their enthusiastic encouragement to change is usually insufficient to make it over the mountain our habits have created.

Trapped in Our Comfort Zone

Habits create a comfort zone. We know what to do and we know what the result will be. It takes a strong motivation to drive us out of this zone to real change. A diagnosis of diabetes might motivate someone to pick up the diet book and lose weight to protect their health, for example.

Commonly we see people get promoted and subsequently fail because their previous way of doing things does not lead to success in their new position. It is often a hard lesson that what got you there won’t lead you to success in the new job. In the same way the path you drove to work no longer works when you move to a new city. Yet stepping out of our comfort zone is difficult, takes effort and, most importantly resolve to continue to success.

Often there are unconscious rules that go along with our habits, ingrained in us from an early age. For instance, a client was hired away from a company where he had worked for many years to become CEO of another, successful company. He was a tough love kind of leader, gruff and demanding. His management style led to demoralization among his new senior staff who wanted to please their new boss by showing their capabilities. To his credit, he noticed the results he was getting were not what he was seeking to achieve. But, because he had grown up with a tough love father, who he credited for his success, he had trouble seeing his normal response to problems needed to change to be successful with his new team of managers. His ability to change was hampered by his habited world view. He couldn’t understand why his managers couldn’t just pick themselves up and dust themselves off and move forward.

Dealing With Our Habits

Knowing we have habits that drive us to act in certain ways is the first step to real behavior change. We need to understand that habits are strong – because we’ve invested so much time and energy reinforcing that pathway in our brain, and, as a result, it will take practice to create a new pathway because our brain so easily slips down the well established superhighway we’ve created in our mind.

Second, we need to understand that habits are safe. They are our tried and true, go-to response to a situation, our autopilot, our comfort zone. So much so that we cling tightly to our habits, even when circumstances change and we see they are no longer effective or necessary in the present – like cooking the chicken in two pots. Breaking out of our comfort zone and allowing ourselves to learn a new skill can create uncertainty, anxiety, even fear. There is a strong impulse to retreat, especially if our initial, inexpert attempts do not succeed in the way we had hoped.

Finally, we need to be willing to uncover and examine the unconscious rules behind our habits to see if we still believe them and find them effective today. Often it feels better to stick to our beliefs, even when we can see they aren’t working, and go down with the ship, rather than change. Strange, but we have seen this phenomena play out over and over, in many arenas over the years. We cling to our habits, are loyal to them even while when we see they are no longer successful. Self-help books fail because people are complicated.

I mentioned at the beginning of this article that there is a second reason people fail to make the changes they want to be more successful. In the next installment we’ll investigate a less well-known but even more powerful limiting power. Next time, we’ll enter the world of resistance.