These days my wife is a bit anxious. Too much "people time" triggers her nerves. Too much "alone time" makes her worried. She talks about it, prays about it, practices self-care and swallows little pills. Nevertheless, she may have shingles and cancer and swollen glands.
I've wanted to help my wife. I've watched her get caught in repeated patterns of worry. I've wanted to hack into her habit loop and bring her back to sanity. (NOTE: She did ask me to fix her, but as a husband I excel at the art of problem-solving, not empathizing.)
Here is my wife's loop:
- Cue: She feels a tingle on her arm
- Routine: She inspects her arm with anxious eyes for traces of shingles.
- Reward: She finds no shingles and regains sanity for a minute or two.
She may swing through this cycle a hundred times a day. It makes me dizzy, and she is exhausted. Yesterday we started our hack.
According to Charles Duhigg's perceptive book, The Power of Habit, every habit follows a similar path: cue - routine - reward. While it is helpful to identify cues (e.g., driving triggers my nail-biting) and acknowledge rewards (e.g., biting my nails helps me stay attentive), Duhigg argues real change comes from modifying routines. He illustrates below:
My wife's deep longing is to feel secure: safe, healthy, and okay. She is not opposed to pain; I've seen the woman endure some pretty gritty births and one unfortunate death. But given such limited control over her world and body, security feels elusive. And shingles... certain. Something about this tingle - inspect - sanity cycle grounds my wife momentarily.
I can't explain it - I'm merely a witness - but I can suggest a tweak. Yesterday I made my suggestion. After catching my wife running her index finger along her forearm for the fourty-second time (she is not as subtle as she thinks), I offered an alternative. "Every time you feel your shingles coming back," I said, "do a few squats."
"Really?" she replied, as if my suggestion was crazier than her obsession.
"Sure. You need a new routine. Every habit..." [Blah, blah, blah. Insert explanation of Duhigg's habit loops.]
"Okay. I'll try," Liz replied.
This conversation transpired in the kitchen. Liz stood by the table while I loaded the dishwasher. As I set a few cups in the top rack, I noticed her squat: one, two, three. I rinsed some plates and mixing bowls and placed them in the top rack. Liz began to squat again: four, five, six. Before I finished filling the dishwasher, my wife had completed the fourth round of her new routine.
Success: I hacked her habit loop. Instead of shingles, she can worry about sore thighs.