1: Lisa Allen was thirty-four years old. She had struggled with obesity since she was a child. Lisa started smoking and drinking at sixteen. She had moved from one dead-end job to another, never working for the same employer for more than a year. She was $10,000 in debt and collection agencies were chasing her, writes Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit.
After her husband fell in love with another woman and left the marriage, Lisa obsessively spied on him and followed his new girlfriend around town, often calling her after midnight and hanging up. One night she showed up drunk at the girlfriend’s house and pounded on the door, screaming she was going to burn the condo down.
“She had spent four months crying, binge eating, unable to sleep, and feeling ashamed, helpless, depressed, all at once,” Charles writes. Then, Lisa made a rash decision to take a vacation to Egypt: “I had always wanted to see the pyramids, and my credit cards weren’t maxed out yet,” she remembers.
Her first morning in Cairo, she woke at dawn in a pitch black hotel room to the sound of the call to prayer at a nearby mosque. Confused, she got out of bed and knocked over a water jug which shattered on the floor.
Lisa reached for a cigarette. “She was so disoriented that she didn’t realize–until she smelled burning plastic–that she was trying to light a pen, not a Marlboro.”
Lisa had hit rock bottom. “It was like this wave of sadness,” she recalls. “I felt like everything I had ever wanted had crumbled. I couldn’t even smoke right.”
2: Lisa found her way downstairs and into a taxi to go to the pyramids at Giza. In the middle of a vast, endless desert, on a dirt road leading to the Sphinx, she decided she needed a goal in her life. Something she could work toward. “I felt desperate, like I had to change something, at least one thing I could control,” Lisa remembers.
The goal she decided upon? To return to Egypt one year later and trek through the desert.
The idea seemed implausible. Unlikely. Improbable. “She was out of shape, overweight, with no money in the bank. She didn’t know the name of the desert she was looking at or if such a trip was possible. None of that mattered, though. She needed something to focus on,” writes Charles. “And to survive such an expedition, she was certain she would have to make sacrifices.
“In particular, she would need to quit smoking.”
Which she did.
“That one small shift in Lisa’s perception that day in Cairo—the conviction that she had to give up smoking to accomplish her goal—touched off a series of changes that would ultimately radiate out to every part of her life,” Charles writes.
“Over the next six months, she would replace smoking with jogging, and that, in turn, changed how she ate, worked, slept, saved money, scheduled her workdays, planned for the future, and so on,” he observes.
3: Four years later, Lisa had not only completed her trek in the desert, she had lost sixty pounds, run a marathon, bought a home, and started a master’s degree.
So, what happened here? What accounts for this dramatic change in lifestyle?
Fortunately, we know the answer.
Because Lisa was part of a study funded by the National Institutes of Health where scientists “poked and prodded Lisa and more than two dozen other former smokers, chronic over-eaters, problem drinkers, obsessive shoppers, and people with other destructive habits.
“All the participants had one thing in common: They had remade their lives in relatively short periods of time,” Charles notes.
This week we will begin an exploration of “the power of habit.” Most of the choices we make each day feel like the result of well-considered decision making. They are not. They are habits.
The big takeaway?
Habits can be changed, if we understand how they work.
Reflection: Do any parts of Lisa’s story resonate with me?
Action: Journal about it.