July 25, 2017 by Dymphna 11 Comments

Truth Bomb Tuesday: Train that Poodle

If you want to change a habit, you need the right tools.

So I was in this woman’s living room one time, talking about buying her house off her. It was a deal that came through a friend of a friend, and I love dealing directly with the vendor.

Anyway, we’re having a cuppa, but she’s spending half her time trying to manage her dog. It was this largeish black poodle. It was kind of the worst of both worlds – too large to really be a house dog, but still yappy and silly looking.

(Ok, I know, we all have personal tastes in dogs. This dog was NOT to my taste.)

And it had this kind of pretentious name – like Clarence or something.

Anyway, Clarence had obviously never been to obedience school. It was jumping up on the furniture, trying to get in to my lap, yapping at my shoes…

But what struck me was the way that this woman was trying to deal with the situation. She was saying things like, “Oh no, Clarence, we don’t jump up on the couch when guests are over. Quiet please Clarence, we’re trying to have a conversation here. Come here Clarence. No, come here. What did I tell you about doing that to people’s shoes?”

All in a very soft, sugary voice.

At some point she looks at me apologetically. “I’m sorry”, she says. “Clarence just has a very forceful personality.”

“That’s ok,” I say, but at this point I’m wondering if she’s maybe just a little bit crazy.

“You know Clarence is a dog, right? I’m pretty sure he’s got no capacity for language. I don’t even think he’s capacity for abstract thought.”

But I hold my tongue. It felt like reasoning with her would be as effective as reasoning with Clarence.

Dogs are amazing creatures. They are sensitive and intelligent, and you’ve got to love their loyalty and commitment. But they also love clear boundaries, and discerning right from wrong through language-driven reasoning is just not one of their talents.

That’s not their fault. They’re dogs.

But for now, tie Clarence to a post in your mind. We’ll come back to him.

Last week I was talking about the fact that success is often a habit-driven process. Our habits – the way we instinctively react to situations – either get us going in the right or wrong direction, even before we’ve consciously processed what’s going on.

A smoker can find themselves pulling out a cigarette and lighting it up before they’ve even had a chance to say, oh hang on, I’ve quit.

Habits are one of the human’s great efficiency systems. Life would be too hectic if we had to assess and think through every situation we were presented with – there’d be too much mental processing.

And so if we find a strategy that tends to work with a certain situation, we lock it in. We create a software sub-routine, that says, when we meet situation X, respond with action Y.

Once the sub-routine is established, it just runs in the background, and we can free up our minds to think about other things, like a splitter deal in the outer suburbs of Brisbane.

Very effective system.

Except, of course, when things go wrong. One time, you got scared at the top of a slippery dip, and you ran back to your mother’s arms. You felt safe again. Later some kid pushed you off the see-saw. You run back to your mother’s arms. You felt safe.

After a while you developed a habit. When presented with a scary situation, run away and find protection in someone who cares for you.

The habit created successful outcomes (with a narrow definition of success) at the time, but laboured you with a habit that would go on to hold you back in later life.

So how do we shift it? How do we transform habits like this?

Well, the thing to remember is that habits live in the most primal parts of the brain. There was an amazing case study about a guy who had a stroke and lost his hypothalamus – a small part of his brain that controls memory, and is sort of a gate-keeper between the conscious and unconscious life.

As a result he had no ability to build new memories. If you sat in the same room with him, he would introduce himself, as if for the first time, every few minutes.

BUT he could learn habits. They played games with him where he had to choose the right card in order from a display of 16 cards. After a few months of playing, and with rewards in place when he got it right, eventually he learnt.

In time, he would get it all right. But he had no idea how he knew where the right card was.

“How am I doing this?”

The lesson was that habits don’t live in the “human” parts of the brain – they live in the more ancient, more animal parts of the mind.

All of your habits, are animal habits.

But think about what this means.

Some people try to change their habits by having a gentle conversation with themselves. Ok, I’m going to stop eating cookies, as of today, because I want to look hot for summer.

But reasoning with the part of yourself that controls habit is going to be as successful as reasoning with Clarence.

“No, I said, no cookies. Put it down. Oh… Oh now I’m very disappointed in you.”

Reason and argument, not matter how brilliant, are just the wrong tools for the job.

But just as any dog, even Clarence, can be trained, so too can we be trained in and out of habits.

We just need the right tools.

And that’s what I’m going to give you next week. A simple but incredibly powerful 5-part framework for transforming your habits.

Look out for that.

Good boy.

How do we train animals? How do we train our own animal?