This afternoon, I came back from helping my mother do a spring cleaning of her house, and I got to work in my own kitchen. I like to roll into the week knowing what I’m going to cook for dinner (and, lately, bring to work for lunch). We were low on my staples—Bolognese, black beans, and chicken stock—and I needed to restock. I fired up the stove and started cooking all three of those dishes at once. This kind of thing gets easier the more time you spend in the kitchen.
Recently, I picked up a copy of Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit,” and it explains why the more you do something, the easier it becomes. We have a little part of our brain called the basal ganglia (a “golf ball-sized lump of tissue,” as Duhigg describes it, “toward the center of the skull”) that encodes certain behaviors so we can do something without even thinking of it. “This process—in which the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine—is known as ‘chunking,’ and it’s at the root of how habits form. There are dozens—if not hundreds—of behavior chunks that we rely on every day. Some are simple: You automatically put toothpaste on your toothbrush before sticking it in your mouth. Some, such as getting dressed or making the kids’ lunch, are a little more complex.”
I cooked the black beans, the Bolognese, and the stock all at the same time by combining steps. I chopped the onions for all three dishes first, and started to sauté them as I chopped the carrots and rendered the bacon for the Bolognese. Soon all three were ready to start cooking down.
“Habits,” Duhigg continues “emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often.” I’ll say: I set all the dishes to simmer, and I went and took a nap. That’s something I’d like to make a habit of.