About a week ago I was on a red eye flight back home to Connecticut, bleary eyed but unable to sleep. It was 3:30am and I was too exhausted to read so I decided to flip through the the in-flight entertainment.
About 30 seconds into my scrolling, the page button stopped working and I was trapped in the “B" section. Of the 5 movies I was stuck with, I chose "Becoming Warren Buffett," an HBO documentary about the famous billionaire. I was mostly just hoping the documentary would help pass the time quickly or lull me to sleep, but while watching the documentary I heard a quote for the first time that really resonated with me.
Buffett said, “The chains of habit are too light to be felt, until they’re too heavy to be broken.”
In my half-awake stupor, I could tell it was insightful but I couldn’t quite figure out why. There was something about it that hit home but I wasn’t alert enough to try and sort it out so I wrote it down on my phone.
Eventually my flight landed and I didn't think about the quote again until yesterday, as I was going through the process of transferring to my computer the jumbled mess of thoughts on my phone. This time, I was fully awake and the quote hit home on a concept that I had had a hard time formulating: the insidious and cumulative power of habit.
So much of our lives exist beneath the surface of our conscious awareness. We wake up and go to the bathroom. We brush our teeth. We put on our clothes. We pull out of the parking spot. We drive the same route to work.
For each of these activities, the order of operations is exactly the same. When we brush our teeth, we open up the cabinet with the same hand, squirt the toothpaste onto the the brush in the same pea shape, turn on the faucet the same way, etc. None of this activity even registers in our conscious mind. But this is what habits are, they’re unconscious processes that are done automatically.
I’ve been slightly obsessed with habits ever since I read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. In the book, Duhigg writes that 40-45% of our daily actions are habits. That’s a massive amount of our lives! Nearly half the things we do happen without us being aware of it. What’s more, many of our smallest habits can have huge consequences.
- Tiny habit: not concentrating fully on the first rep of a drill. Big consequence: you end up training your mind not to focus on the first rep so when the games come around and everything is a “first rep” you lack the ability to lock in mentally.
- Tiny habit: pulling out your phone every time you feel bored. Big consequence: you program your brain to crave stimulation. So when you have to grind through a boring drill or write a boring paper, you find it extremely difficult to concentrate. This encourages you to procrastinate even more because it has become very uncomfortable to concentrate on tasks that aren’t stimulating.
- Tiny habit: fading away when you shoot in practice: Big consequence: you lose consistency on your jump shot and your confidence falls off with it. Opposing defenses start to sag off you, compromising your ability to get to the rim.
- Tiny habit: choosing the weakest player to play 1 v 1 against. Big consequence: By consistently taking the easy way out you never put yourself in difficult situations where you get pushed to your limits. When the game comes around and you face an equal or better opponent, you aren’t prepared and you break down mentally.
- Tiny habit: blaming your coach/teammates for your poor performance. Big consequence: You ingrain in yourself a victim mindset.
This is what Buffett was getting at: the cumulative power of habit. By repeating a tiny habit over and over again it becomes harder and harder to break. All of a sudden, you look up and your training is weak and disorganized, your fundamentals are sloppy, and it’s incredibly difficult to change your behavior.
Thoughts are Habits Too
Habit’s aren’t just physical actions. Habits are also patterns of thought. Just like brushing your teeth before bed is a habit, so are a host of other mental activities. For example:
- When a coach corrects you, you interpret feedback as an attack on you as a person, rather than information that will help you grow.
- When something bad happens to you, you think that bad things always seem to happen to YOU.
- When you miss a shot, you tell yourself you’re a terrible shooter.
- When you have a bad game, you convince yourself you don’t belong at this level of competition.
- When your team underperforms, you tell yourself that it was your teammates fault and there was nothing you could’ve done.
- When the ref makes a bad call against you, you get angry and lose focus.
These patterns of thoughts and emotions are programmed into our mind to the point where they occur unconsciously when triggered.
When Buffett said the "the chains of habit are too light to be felt," he’s talking about how easy it is to slip into unproductive habits without realizing it. But this is where I disagree with Buffett.
Habit’s aren’t always too light to be felt. Not if you’re aware of how easily they can be formed and are on the lookout for them.
Cause for Optimism
While Buffett’s quote has a pessimistic message—that negative habits are difficult to detect and hard to break—there’s also a positive way to look at it. Positive habits work the same way!
It’s easy to think of the negative habits as heavy chains. But another way to think of habits is as a moving walkway.
When you’re on a moving walkway, you’re going somewhere whether you like it or not. Even if you don’t realize it, your habits are shaping your thoughts, behaviors—and ultimately—your outcomes. And if you find yourself going somewhere you don’t want to go, it takes a lot of effort to run against the moving belt.
But, habits aren't like a moving walkway that you’d see in an airport. YOU get to choose where to build the walkway. You get to choose your destination. If you set up your habits correctly, they can take you to great places.
Positive habits can help you...
- Get to the gym when you don’t feel like it
- Keep your confidence up when you’re playing poorly (through positive self-talk)
- Keep your emotions in check when something upsets you (through practiced calming phrases)
- Maintain focus when you’re tired
- Be a great teammate when you’re having a bad day
Positive habits are just as powerful as negative ones, you just have to be intentional about implementing them.