Everything begins with a story
Let me recite a story from Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habits. This is a true story of a woman named Lisa(as per the records) who was the subject of a scientific study for understanding behavioral change and habits.
Please note: Though the story is the key to appreciate this article, I am summarizing the story for those readers who don’t want to read it. If you want to read the story, go to it here. Else continue reading the summary.
Lisa Allen is the scientists’ favorite participant in a study being conducted on how habits work on a neurological level and how to change habits.
Lisa, now thirty-four, had been smoking and drinking since she was sixteen years old. She had struggled with obesity, was under a $10,000 debt in the past, her longest job had been less than a year old, she was divorced, and had been guilty of stalking her ex-husband’s girlfriend.
Life for Lisa was once gloomy and seemed irreparable.
Now Lisa, as interviewed in the scene in the story, was fit and vibrant, had been running marathons, hadn’t had a smoke for four years, had stopped drinking, had been working at a graphic design job for thirty-nine months, was going through a master’s degree, and had bought a home, too.
Scientists were studying Lisa and a group of participants who had remade their life in a short period of time.
Lisa told the scientists the story of how she gave up cigarettes. Her husband had left her for another woman, and Lisa was in such a low place that she had even threatened her ex-husband’s girlfriend to burn down her Condo. In need of a change, Lisa decided to go to Cairo for she had always wanted to see the pyramids.
On her first day in Cairo, Lisa cried, almost smoked a plastic pen in the early hours in her hotel room, and felt miserable.
Lisa was desperate to take back control of her life in her hands. When later that day she drove around the pyramids and saw the vast desert, she realized that she needed a goal to work towards. Lisa decided to trek through the desert a year later.
But as Lisa felt hopelessly unhealthy, she decided to give up smoking to be able to keep up with her goal. She went back home and quit smoking. She started running to get healthy, changed her eating and sleeping habits, worked, saved money, and planned for the future. Lisa started running marathons, went back to school, bought a house, and got engaged.
When scientists studied Lisa’s brain they saw that her old habits or her old urges(one set of neurological patterns) had been overwritten by new behavioral inhibitions and self-discipline. As Lisa’s habits changed, so had her brain.
Scientists believed that Lisa shifted her life by changing just one keystone habit — smoking. Now she had reprogrammed all her habits and thus her entire life.
Story. (Go Back to Summary or if you have read the summary and don’t want to read the story, skip it to continue reading the article. )
“She was the scientists’ favorite participant.
Lisa Allen, according to her file, was thirty-four years old, had started smoking and drinking when she was sixteen, and had struggled with obesity for most of her life. At one point, in her mid-twenties, collection agencies were hounding her to recover $10,000 in debts. An old résumé listed her longest job as lasting less than a year.
The woman in front of the researchers today, however, was lean and vibrant, with the toned legs of a runner. She looked a decade younger than the photos in her chart and like she could out-exercise anyone in the room. According to the most recent report in her file, Lisa had no outstanding debts, didn’t drink, and was in her thirty-ninth month at a graphic design firm.
“How long since your last cigarette?” one of the physicians asked, starting down the list of questions Lisa answered every time she came to this laboratory outside Bethesda, Maryland.
“Almost four years,” she said, “and I’ve lost sixty pounds and run a marathon since then.”
She’d also started a master’s degree and bought a home. It had been an eventful stretch.
The scientists in the room included neurologists, psychologists, geneticists, and a sociologist. For the past three years, with funding from the National Institutes of Health, they had 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 of the participants had one thing in common: They had remade their lives in relatively short periods of time. The researchers wanted to understand how.
So they measured subjects’ vital signs, installed video cameras inside their homes to watch their daily routines, sequenced portions of their DNA, and, with technologies that allowed them to peer inside people’s skulls in real time, watched as blood and electrical impulses flowed through their brains while they were exposed to temptations such as cigarette smoke and lavish meals. The researchers’ goal was to figure out how habits work on a neurological level — and what it took to make them change.
“I know you’ve told this story a dozen times,” the doctor said to Lisa, “but some of my colleagues have only heard it secondhand. Would you mind describing again how you gave up cigarettes?”
“Sure,” Lisa said. “It started in Cairo.” The vacation had been something of a rash decision, she explained. A few months earlier, her husband had come home from work and announced that he was leaving her because he was in love with another woman. It took Lisa a while to process the betrayal and absorb the fact that she was actually getting a divorce. There was a period of mourning, then a period of obsessively spying on him, following his new girlfriend around town, calling her after midnight and hanging up. Then there was the evening Lisa showed up at the girlfriend’s house, drunk, pounding on her door and screaming that she was going to burn the condo down. “It wasn’t a great time for me,” Lisa said. “I had always wanted to see the pyramids, and my credit cards weren’t maxed out yet, so …”
On her first morning in Cairo, Lisa woke at dawn to the sound of the call to prayer from a nearby mosque. It was pitch black inside her hotel room. Half blind and jet-lagged, she 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. She had spent the past four months crying, binge eating, unable to sleep, and feeling ashamed, helpless, depressed, and angry, all at once. Lying in bed, she broke down. “It was like this wave of sadness,” she said. “I felt like everything I had ever wanted had crumbled. I couldn’t even smoke right. “And then I started thinking about my ex-husband, and how hard it would be to find another job when I got back, and how much I was going to hate it and how unhealthy I felt all the time. I got up and knocked over a water jug and it shattered on the floor, and I started crying even harder.
I felt desperate, like I had to change something, at least one thing I could control.” She showered and left the hotel.
As she rode through Cairo’s rutted streets in a taxi and then onto the dirt roads leading to the Sphinx, the pyramids of Giza, and the vast, endless desert around them, her self-pity, for a brief moment, gave way.
She needed a goal in her life, she thought. Something to work toward. So she decided, sitting in the taxi, that she would come back to Egypt and trek through the desert.
It was a crazy idea, Lisa knew. 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.
Lisa decided that she would give herself one year to prepare. And to survive such an expedition, she was certain she would have to make sacrifices. In particular, she would need to quit smoking.
When Lisa finally made her way across the desert eleven months later — in an air-conditioned and motorized tour with a half-dozen other people, mind you — the caravan carried so much water, food, tents, maps, global positioning systems, and two-way radios that throwing in a carton of cigarettes wouldn’t have made much of a difference.
But in the taxi, Lisa didn’t know that. And to the scientists at the laboratory, the details of her trek weren’t relevant. Because for reasons they were just beginning to understand, 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 — had touched off a series of changes that would ultimately radiate out to every part of her life.
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. She would start running half-marathons, and then a marathon, go back to school, buy a house, and get engaged.
Eventually she was recruited into the scientists’ study, and when researchers began examining images of Lisa’s brain, they saw something remarkable: One set of neurological patterns — her old habits — had been overridden by new patterns. They could still see the neural activity of her old behaviors, but those impulses were crowded out by new urges. As Lisa’s habits changed, so had her brain.
It wasn’t the trip to Cairo that had caused the shift, scientists were convinced, or the divorce or desert trek. It was that Lisa had focused on changing just one habit — smoking — at first. Everyone in the study had gone through a similar process. By focusing on one pattern — what is known as a “keystone habit” — Lisa had taught herself how to reprogram the other routines in her life, as well.
“I want to show you one of your most recent scans,” a researcher told Lisa near the end of her exam. He pulled up a picture on a computer screen that showed images from inside her head. “When you see food, these areas” — he pointed to a place near the center of her brain — “which are associated with craving and hunger, are still active. Your brain still produces the urges that made you overeat. “However, there’s new activity in this area” — he pointed to the region closest to her forehead — “where we believe behavioral inhibition and self-discipline starts. That activity has become more pronounced each time you’ve come in.”
Lisa was the scientists’ favorite participant because her brain scans were so compelling, so useful in creating a map of where behavioral patterns — habits — reside within our minds. “You’re helping us understand how a decision becomes an automatic behavior,” the doctor told her. Everyone in the room felt like they were on the brink of something important. And they were.”
How Travel is a catalyst to change, the power of keystone habits, and how a small change can transform our life.
Even though scientists emphasized above that it wasn’t the Cairo trip that had caused Lisa’s positive personal growth, and I agree that it was Lisa who focused on one habit and transformed her entire life, I tell this story to underline how travel does inspire change and how one keystone change can transform our entire life. We don’t have to travel to change our lives, but when we travel, we give ourselves a chance to discover and embrace a larger vision of ourselves than we have now.
When we travel, we go to a different world. This new world is mostly unknown and makes us uncomfortable, but that strangeness drags us out of our tiny drop of problems and routines.
We breathe a different air in the new place. First, we think about our breakup and how lonely we are and how our car engine heats up back home. Then survival kicks in. Now we try to figure out the city or the country we are in.
Instead of worrying over our cleaning lady’s tardiness, we think if the dorm bed would still be available tonight. Rather than feeling disgusted by our bedroom’s dirty windowsill, we wander admiring the dust sweeping the unknown streets filled with unknown people. Rather than distressing about how a promotion doesn’t seem to be on the cards this year, we ponder if we could climb the mountain beckoning us.
Now when we shower we don’t rehearse the investor’s presentation at 10, but we concern ourselves if there would be eggs in the Mohinga soup and how would we find our way to the Inca museum.
Our fears and desires suddenly shrink to fit into a short period in which we have to be more open to change and trial and fear and adventure. Concomitantly, we stop thinking about our daily rut and bigger goals so rigorously.
We are with ourselves all the time doing the basics — eating, sleeping, bathing, brushing, doing laundry, playing, walking, exploring, making friends, keeping us safe — and these basics overshadow the always overhanging life questions.
While not consciously thinking about the things that matter, we loosen up and do the activities that bring us joy. In those moments we are like Lisa who is wandering in the streets of Cairo to forget about her dismay.
While living on instant gratification, our life goals and issues are churning on their own somewhere in the back of our minds.
And magic happens.
We suddenly look beyond the horizon to see how much more we are capable of — we stand at the summit of the volcano we thought we could never climb, we sleep like a log in a room filled with men and women snoring louder than our husband whose timid breathing used to wake us up, we gobble up streetside coconut icecream when we couldn’t fathom using a clean dish without rinsing it first. It seems that the limits we had set for ourselves were only part of our routine, some luxuries that we could allow ourselves. In their absence, we do just as well.
And from the summit of that volcano, we get a drone-view of our life. We see how much we haven’t done — the roads we haven’t taken, the challenges we could never muster the courage to face, and the loneliness we never embraced — and we don’t understand why.
Suddenly our fifteen-year-self stares at us with a rucksack on her back, while she jumps at every opportunity, and reminds us of our unfulfilled dreams and a lost fearlessness.
Apart from some imaginary boundaries that we drew in our minds, we are not different from that fifteen-year-old. In fact, we are now enriched with experiences.
We see that we can be more. That we can do more. That we can wander beyond what looks like the horizon.
The horizon shifts — both externally and internally.
A fresh field of view creates a fresh view of life. We rewire our priorities. These are the exact times when Lisa also started poking the bubble of her misery.
While Lisa would have juxtaposed herself against the vast desert and conic pyramids to only think of her life as tiny, this juxtaposition also gave her goals. Mapped over the fathomless landscape, she tried to find a meaning to her life that would tie her to the universe. It is then Lisa decided to trek through the desert a year later.
You are not a drop in the ocean; you are the entire ocean in a drop.
Rumi said once.
We are all complete entities, but we forget that millions of “us drops” together form the larger ocean of the world. We are not disjoint from the universe. When we take a journey, we realize that we have to coalesce with the universe, with its colorful people, its rolling hills, its infant coriander stalks, its grazing sheep, its fresh cow milk, and its dew shining on the grass.
Because it is this union that shows us who we are. When we try to paint ourselves in the bigger picture, we find our identity.
What is a rainbow without the light? What is white without black? What is a desert without the river?
To find an identity, we embrace change. Because we know the situation won’t change by keeping everything the same. And by bringing one small — but important — change, we might just hit a domino of transformations that will fall picking up our life on the way.
Lisa’s goal instigated her to change as well, and she started by quitting smoking, which became a keystone development in her life. Keystone habits spill over into other parts of our lives and shift our habit patterns there, too.
Keystone habits start a process that, over time transforms everything – Charles Duhigg.
(I have talked about keystone habits in this work from home article, too.)
We see these shifts in Lisa’s life profoundly (making her the scientists’ favorite subject.)
To be able to trek, she quit smoking and started running. Now as she planned out time to run, she reduced binge-watching and snacking and brought other daily changes. To save money for travel, Lisa focused on a job, too. As she saved, her habit of saving let her buy a new house later. In the process, she was also getting used to achieving.
Lisa used one routine modification to transform her other habits— without ever knowing she was doing it.
We all need only one keystone adjustment to begin with to slowly transform our entire lives. But we need to identify that keystone change — and that seems to be the only big challenge of the process. For once we identify that one thing that is capable of recasting our whole life — we can start small and let the change seep through our entire being. Before we know, we would be someone whom we like more. We would be friends with that fearlessness we had once lost. We might just be courageous again.
Even though we all must know many people who grew immensely without ever traveling much — but then some people travel with their mind — and many others who traveled but were still constrained — travel could never take them out of their minds — there is no doubt that
travel increases our capacity to change.
Traveling to a new place could spark that first keystone change that would eventually bake you in a transformation kiln without ever letting you feel the heat. And if you don’t need remolding, think of the process as a test to make sure that the glass is half-full.
Travel. Observe. Immerse. Soak. Change. Change. Change. Change. Bring it on!
- I am thankful to Charles Duhigg for his book The Power of Habits that has inspired me to do better in everyday life and has shaped the course of many of my articles. I suggest everyone read this phenomenal book.
Do you think travel can inspire you to change? How do you plan on brining big changes in your life?
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