Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘Charles Duhigg

How to change citizens behaviors? And change the political system?

Georges Sassine wrote:

Fundamental social, economic and political change is urgently needed to improve the life of Lebanese citizens and strengthen our nation’s governance.

Many Lebanese debate various ways to bring about change and reform in Lebanon.

Most of the suggested policies only focus on tackling technical issues and fail to address how to implement them and help people adapt to new rules. (If this technical matter is correct)

Take for example the numerous times enforcement of traffic laws was attempted in Lebanon. Millions of dollars were invested in mounting cameras at traffic lights; radars were installed to track speed limits; and police personnel were deployed to penalize parking and seat belt violations. (Actually, the zeal in writing traffic tickets on highways generate the funds for the police force)

All these measures were technical by nature and were never successfully implemented for more than a few months, at best.

The common explanations are the lack of political commitment (continuous steadfastness), or the ineffectiveness of enforcement agencies.

Behavioral science could inform the design of reforms in Lebanon.Georges Sassine

An important part that is often ignored is the fact that “illegal” driving has become a habit of many Lebanese citizens. It has almost become a cultural trait.

In this case, technical solutions will continue on failing. Instead what is needed are ways to help Lebanese drivers adapt to new laws, and change their bad driving habits.

Studying human behavioral science might prove useful and inform the design of reforms in Lebanon.

In his book “The Power of Habit New York Times reporter, Charles Duhigg, investigated how to diagnose habits and change them among individuals, companies and societies. He found that you cannot extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it. (Any difference?)

He quotes researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who suggest a basic 3-stage formula at the core of each habit: a signal, a routine, and a reward.

They found that each habit is triggered by a signal. It could be a certain time, location, or emotion which then activates a routine. Once completed, this routine provides a certain sense of reward and satisfaction.

In order to replace bad habits, Duhigg argues that the same signals and rewards must be kept but a new routine has to be inserted.

In Lebanon, for example, in the early 1970’s low income communities gathered every Sunday along the streets leading to the national airport. They barbecued and held festive lunches along road medians – the narrow and long area planted with grass and trees separating opposing traffic lanes.

While peaceful by nature these large get-together attracted the criticism of many local communities and tourists witnessing these scenes at the airport’s exit.

After the failure of several negotiations to stop these gatherings, the Lebanese armed forces were sent to clear public spaces. This led to violent clashes and cascaded into prolonged and politicized protests.

The Minister of Tourism quickly realized that confrontational measures will not resolve the issue. Instead he ordered firefighters to heavily water green areas in these specific road medians every Saturday evening for several weeks. Come Sunday these public spaces were muddy and uncomfortable and ended the crowd turnout.

Applying Duhigg’s three step framework, the signal is Sunday mornings when these communities engaged in the routine of gathering and eating in public spaces. The reward is the sense of community and satisfaction they get at the end.

Keeping that same signal and reward, the Minister of Tourism enabled them to replace that particular habit with other Sunday afternoon activities that still fulfilled their craving.

Similar to this case, current Lebanese decision makers could use the signal, routine, reward framework for fresh insights as they deal with situations requiring behavioral change.

Innovation and creativity is the only way to approach Lebanon’s challenges … focusing on changing habits and helping people adapt could be the cornerstone of leadership in Lebanon.Georges Sassine

Another noteworthy concept introduced by Duhigg is that some habits – called ‘Keystone Habits’ – can start a chain reaction and change several other behaviors. He uses the example of Alcoa, a major aluminum company struggling in the 1980s.

Instead of introducing traditional cost reduction measures the new CEO focused on one priority within the company: improving workers safety.

As new routines moved through the organization, costs came down, quality went up, productivity skyrocketed and within two years Alcoa was the top performer in the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

The lesson is that patterns across organizations and societies can be changed if we prioritize these keystone habits. However, identifying them is tricky and requires a bit of ingenuity.

In Lebanon, these two main concepts can be used to improve driving patterns.

One interpretation suggests that the signal is when a driver sees a red traffic light. It triggers his routine of speeding, burning the light, and provides the reward of feeling important and some sense of satisfaction that he is smarter than other drivers who have stopped.

As we look closer one can’t help but notice that some Lebanese not respecting laws or order is not limited to traffic lights.

It could be argued that it is a widespread phenomenon across many other situations such as cutting lines, evading business laws, disregarding the non-smoking policy, and cutting corners in many mundane aspects of daily life. Wanting to outwit the system has become ingrained in Lebanese culture. (Or a kind of tacit revolt against a system that never changed since independence in 1943?)

Therefore, a better way to resolve the driving issues in Lebanon could be to think about that broader social habit instead of only focusing on bad driving in itself. (But changing bad driving can generate a chain reaction to better habits?)

Concentrating on keystone habits could be the better approach in this case.

We have to acknowledge that many Lebanese citizens operate within a frustrating environment.

These habits are nurtured in an unstable and uncertain economic, security, and political context which they’ve been subjected to most of their lives. These could be guiding insights to identify the right keystone habits to focus on.

The priority should be on securing financial stability and family security for Lebanese. (family security includes financial security. Need another Keystone alternative that is independent of family security. How about a fair and equitable election law?)

If the government is absolutely dedicated to achieve these two goals, similar to Alcoa’s example, a chain reaction could start and change other behaviors including driving patterns.

There is no doubt that these issues deserve more in-depth thought.  But Lebanese politicians and citizens need to recognize that innovation and creativity should be the way to approach our country’s challenges.

The science of human habits and behavioral change could provide a useful framework to think through reform initiatives in Lebanon.

There’s more to the mood-boosting properties of exercise than endorphins.

Exercise has been touted to be a cure for nearly everything in life, from depression, to memory loss, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s and more.

At the same time, similar to the topic of sleep, I found myself having very little specific and scientific knowledge about what exercise really does to our bodies and our brains.


“Yes, yes, I know all about it, that’s the thing with the endorphins, that makes you feel good and why we should exercise and stuff, right?” is what I can hear myself say to someone bringing this up.

I would pick up things here and there, yet really digging into the connection of exercise and how it effects us has never been something I’ve done.

Inspired by a recent post from Joel on what makes us happy I’ve set out to uncover the connection between our feeling of happiness and regularly exercising.

What triggers happiness in our brain when we exercise?

Most of us are aware of what happens to the body when we exercise. We build more muscle or more stamina. We feel how daily activities like climbing stairs becomes easier if we exercise regularly.

When it comes to our brain and mood though, the connection isn’t so clear.

The line around our “endorphins are released” is more something I throw around to sound smart, without really knowing what it means. Here is what actually happens:

If you start exercising, your brain recognizes this as a moment of stress. As your heart pressure increases, the brain thinks you are either fighting the enemy or fleeing from it.

To protect yourself and your brain from stress, you release a protein called BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor). This BDNF has a protective and also reparative element to your memory neurons and acts as a reset switch.

That’s why we often feel so at ease and things are clear after exercising and eventually happy. (Still not clear)

At the same time, endorphins, another chemical to fight stress, is released in your brain. Your endorphins main purpose is what  researcher McGovern writes:

These endorphins tend to minimize the discomfort of exercise, block the feeling of pain and are even associated with a feeling of euphoria.

Overall, there is a lot going on inside our brain and it is in fact oftentimes a lot more active than when we are just sitting down or actually concentrating mentally:

So, BDNF and endorphins are the reasons exercise makes us feel so good.

The somewhat scary part is that they have a very similar and addictive behavior like morphine, heroine or nicotine. The only difference? Well, it’s actually good for us.

The key to maximize happiness through exercise: don’t do more, but focus on when

Now here is where it all gets interesting. We know the basic foundations of why exercising makes us happy and what happens inside our brain cells.

The most important part to uncover is how we can trigger this in an optimal and longer lasting way.

A recent study from Penn State university shed some light on the matter and the results are more than surprising. They found that to be more productive and happier on a given work day, it doesn’t matter so much, if you work-out regularly, if you haven’t worked out on that particular day:

Those who had exercised during the preceding month but not on the day of testing generally did better on the memory test than those who had been sedentary, but did not perform nearly as well as those who had worked out that morning.”

New York Times best-selling author Gretchen Reynolds has written a whole book about the subject matter titled “The first 20 minutes”.

To get the highest level of happiness and benefits for health, the key is not to become a professional athlete. On the contrary, a much smaller amount is needed to reach the level where happiness and productivity in every day life peaks:

“The first 20 minutes of moving around, if someone has been really sedentary, provide most of the health benefits. You get prolonged life, reduced disease risk — all of those things come in in the first 20 minutes of being active.”

You can relax and don’t have to be on the look-out for the next killer work-out. All you have to do is get some focused 20 minutes in to get the full happiness boost every day:

“On exercise days, people’s mood significantly improved after exercising. Mood stayed about the same on days they didn’t, with the exception of people’s sense of calm which deteriorated.” (University of Bristol)

How to get into a consistent exercise habit: The dance with the endorphins

That’s all nice to hear you might say, starting to exercise regularly or even daily is still easier written than done. At end of the day, there is quite a lot of focus required to help you get into the habit of exercising daily.

The most important part to note first, is that exercise is a “keystone” habit according to Charles Duhigg, New York Times bestselling author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.

This means that daily exercise can pave the way not only for happiness, but also growth in all other areas of your life.

In a recent post from Joel, he wrote about the power of daily exercise for his everyday life. Coincidentally, he follows the above rules very accurately and exercises daily before doing anything else. He writes:

By 9:30am, I’ve done an hour of coding on the most important task I have right now on Buffer, I’ve been to the gym and had a great session, and I’ve done 30 minutes of emails. It’s only 9:30am and I’ve already succeeded, and I feel fantastic.

I’ve spoken lots to Joel about his habit of exercising and here are some of the most important things to do, in order to set yourself up for success and make your daily exercise fun:

Put your gym clothes right over your alarm clock or phone when you go to bed:
This technique sounds rather simple, but has been one of the most powerful ones. If you put everything the way you want it for the gym before you go to sleep and put your alarm under your gym clothes, you will have a much easier time to convince yourself to put your gym clothes on. (How about wrapping the gym clothes on you in bed?)

Track your exercises and log them at the same time after every exercise:

When you try to exercise regularly, the key is to make it a habit. One way to achieve this is to create a so called “reward”, that will remind you of the good feelings you get from exercising.

In our big list of top web apps, we have a full section on fitness apps that might be handy. Try out Fitocracy or RunKeeper to log your work-outs. Try to have a very clear logging process in place. Log your work-out just before you go into the shower or exactly when you walk out of the gym.

Think about starting small and then start even smaller: Here is a little secret.

When I first started exercising, I did it with five minutes per day, three times a week. Can you imagine that? Five minutes of timed exercise, three times a week? That’s nothing, you might be thinking. And you are right, because the task is so easy and anyone can succeed with it, you can really start to make a habit out of it. Try no more than five or 10 minutes if you are getting started.

Quick last fact: You get the highest level of happiness with exercise if you are just starting out

As a quick last fact, exercise, the increase of the BDNF proteins in your brain acts as a mood enhancer. The effects are similar to drug addiction one study found. So when you start exercising, the feeling of euphoria is the highest:

“The release of endorphins has an addictive effect, and more exercise is needed to achieve the same level of euphoria over time.” (McGovern)

So this means that if you have never exercised before or not for a long time, your happiness gains will be the highest if you start now.

Exercise and how it affects our level of happiness is an absolutely exciting topic for me. Have you played around with this too and seen any results? I would love to hear your thoughts on how exercise and happiness work together.

Photo credit: katapulsemusic

Note: from what I read is that “forget the euphoric feeling and this addiction that requires more time for exercise will vanish. Just knowing that exercising is beneficial for your daily work and attitude is good enough”

Get the habit of just 20 minutes before you start the day, and if you feel the itch for more exercise during the day, then go for it. Anything more than 30 minutes that exhaust you physically is not worth the effort if daily “production” is the criteria

This post originally appeared on Buffer, and is reprinted with permission.

[Image: Flickr user D. Sinclair Terrasidius]




May 2023

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