In his book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do and How to Change It Charles Duhigg brings us groundbreaking, new research that shows by grabbing hold of the three-step “loop” all habits form in our brains—cue, routine, reward—we can change them, giving us the power to take control over our lives.
“We are what we repeatedly do,” said Aristotle. “Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” On the most basic level, a habit is a simple neurological loop: there is a cue (my mouth feels gross), a routine (hello, Crest), and a reward (ahhh, minty fresh). Understanding this loop is the key to exercising regularly or becoming more productive at work or tapping into reserves of creativity. Marketers, too, are learning how to exploit these loops to boost sales; CEOs and coaches are using them to change how employees work and athletes compete. As this book shows,
tweaking even one habit, as long as it’s the right one, can have staggering effects.
In The Power of Habit, award-winning New York Times business reporter, Duhigg takes readers inside labs where brain scans record habits as they flourish and die; classrooms in which students learn to boost their willpower; and boardrooms where executives dream up products that tug on our deepest habitual urges. Full of compelling narratives that will appeal to fans of Michael Lewis, Jonah Lehrer, and Chip and Dan Heath, The Power of Habit contains an exhilarating argument: our most basic actions are not the product of well-considered decision making, but of habits we often do not realize exist. By harnessing this new science, we can transform our lives.
We have an amazing Q&A with Duhigg to share with you today. Enjoy!
Q: What is a habit, exactly? It’s one of those words we hear constantly, but we never really stop to think about what it means.
A: Simply put, a habit is a behavior that starts as a choice, and then become a nearly unconscious pattern. For example, when you were learning to drive, and you wanted to back your car out of the driveway, it took a lot of concentration: you had to check the rearview and side mirrors for obstacles, remove your foot from the brake, mentally estimate the distance between the garage and the street while keeping the wheels aligned and monitoring for oncoming traffic, calculate how reflected images in the mirrors translate into actual distances between the bumper and the curb, and so on.
Now, however, you do all of that automatically. The behavior has become a habit.
Every habit – no matter how simple or complex – has the same structure, which we call the “habit loop.” There is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional behavior. Finally, there is a reward. Once you understand how habit loops work, you can start changing them. (more…)
Q: How much of our daily activities are influenced by habits?
A: Most of the choices we make each day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making, but they’re not. They’re habits. One paper published by a Duke University researcher in 2006 found that more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits. And though each habit has relatively little impact on its own, over time, the meals we order, what we say to our kids each night, whether we save or spend, how often we exercise and so on: they all have enormous influence on our health, productivity, financial security and happiness.
Think about when you woke up this morning. What did you do first? Did you hop in the shower, check your email or grab a donut from the kitchen counter? Did you brush your teeth before or after you toweled off? Which route did you drive to work? Salad or hamburger for lunch? When you got home, did you put on your sneakers and go for a run, or pour yourself a drink and eat dinner in front of the TV?
All of those decisions weren’t really choices at all. They were habits.
Q: If habits are so prevalent, and so insidious, how do you go about changing them?
A: That’s a great question. There is a kind of Golden Rule of habit change that study after study has shown is among the most powerful tools for changing behaviors. At its root is the idea that you can never truly extinguish bad habits. Rather, to change a bad pattern, you must insert a new routine into the habit loop.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. Habits don’t change without a fight. So, to insert a new routine, it should be triggered by the old cue, and deliver the old reward. That’s the rule: If you use the same cue, and provide the same reward, you can shift the routine. Almost any behavior can be transformed if the cue and reward stay the same.
Take, for instance, smoking. A smoker usually can’t quit unless they find some activity to replace cigarettes. If you want to stop smoking, ask yourself, do you do it because you love nicotine, or because it provides a burst of stimulation, a structure to your day, a way to socialize? If you smoke because you need stimulation, some caffeine in the afternoon, studies indicate, can increase the odds you’ll quit. Over three dozen studies of former smokers have found that identifying the cues and rewards they associate with cigarettes, and then choosing new routines that provide similar payoffs – a piece of Nicorette, a series of push ups, taking a few minutes to stretch and relax – makes it more likely they will quit successfully.
Q: Are there some habits that are more important to focus on than others?
A: Yes. There are some habits – called ‘keystone habits’ – that can cause a chain reaction through someone’s life or an organization. A great example of a keystone habit is exercise. When people start habitually exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, they often start changing other, unrelated patterns in their lives. Typically, people who exercise start eating better and getting to work earlier. They smoke less, and show more patience. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. It’s not completely clear why, but for many people, exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change.
Q: I have two kids and one of them bites their nails. Is this a habit? And how can I change it?
A: Yes, this is a habit. In fact, it’s one of the most common habits among children and adults, and one of the most studied. Take one study, done in 2006, of a 24 year-old graduate student named Mandy. For most of her life, Mandy had been a terrible nail biter. She was so embarrassed around her friends that she kept her hands in her pockets and, on dates, would ball her fingers into fists. It got so bad, she went to see a behavioral therapist.
“What do you feel right before you bring your hand up to your mouth?” the therapist asked Mandy.
“There’s a little bit of tension in my nails,” Mandy said. “It hurts a little bit here, at the edge. Sometimes I’ll run my thumb along, looking for hangnails, and when I feel something catch, I’ll bring it up to my mouth. Once I start, I have to do all of them.”
Asking patients to describe what triggers their behavior is called awareness training, and it’s a way to get people to recognize a habit’s cues. The tension that Mandy felt in her nails cued her nail biting.
Next, the therapist asked Mandy to describe why she bit her nails. At first, she had trouble coming up with reasons. As they talked, though, it became clear that she bit when she was bored. The therapist put her in some typical situations, like watching television or doing homework, and she started nibbling. When she had worked through all of the nails, she felt a brief sense of completeness, she said. That was the habit’s reward: a physical stimulation she had come to crave.
Then the therapist taught Mandy what is known as a competing response. Whenever she felt that tension in her fingertips, he told her, she should immediately put her hands in her pockets or under her legs, or hold her pencil or something else that made it impossible to put her fingers in her mouth. Then Mandy was to search for something that would provide a quick physical stimulation – such as rubbing her arm brusquely or rapping her knuckles on her desk – anything that would produce a physical response. The cues and rewards stayed the same. Only the routine changed.
A week later, Mandy had only bitten her nails three times and had used the competing response seven times. After a month, the nail biting habit was gone. The competing routines had become automatic. One habit had been replaced by another.
Q: I’m guessing people at various companies are pretty well aware of how habits work, right?
A: Absolutely. At Target, for instance, executives build sophisticated computer programs to analyze shoppers’ habits, and then use that information to figure out what they want to buy. If you use your Target credit card to purchase a box of popsicles once a week, usually around 6:30 p.m. on a weekday, and mega-sized trash bags every July and October, Target will determine that you have kids at home, tend to stop for groceries on your way back from work, and have a house with a lawn. It will look at your other shopping patterns, and notice that you sometimes buy cereal, but never purchase milk – which means that you must be buying it somewhere else. So Target will mail you coupons for 2% milk, as well as for chocolate sprinkles, school supplies, lawn furniture, rakes and – since it’s likely you’ll want to relax after a long day at work – beer. The company will guess what you habitually buy, and then try to convince you to get it at Target.
Almost every major retailer, including Amazon.com, Best Buy, Kroger supermarkets, 1-800-Flowers, Olive Garden, Anheuser-Busch, the U.S. Postal Service, Fidelity Investments, Hewlett-Packard, Bank of America, Capital One and hundreds of others have ‘predictive analytics’ departments devoted to figuring out consumers’ habits.
Q: Are there many scientists out there studying this stuff?
A: There are researchers at dozens of universities – including Duke, Harvard, UCLA, Yale, USC, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, as well as at schools in the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands – scrutinizing habits. Not to mention the corporate scientists working for Procter & Gamble, Microsoft, Google and hundreds of other companies who are focused on understanding the neurology and psychology of habits, their strengths and weaknesses, and why they emerge and how they can be changed.
And what they are learning is changing how kids – and employees – are taught. For instance, public and charter schools in Philadelphia, Seattle, New York and elsewhere have started incorporating training in self-discipline habits into curriculums. Starbucks has spent millions of dollars developing training programs to help employees build the habits they need for success within the company.
Researchers say these new insights can transform lives. “That’s why signing kids up for piano lessons or sports is so important. It has nothing to do with creating a good musician or a 5-year-old soccer star,” a psychologist at Dartmouth named Todd Heatherton told me. “When you learn to force yourself to practice for an hour or run 15 laps, you start building self-regulatory strength. A five year old who can follow the ball for 10 minutes becomes a sixth grader who can start his homework on time.”
Q: How did you get turned on to this?
A: Eight years ago, I was a journalist in Baghdad. A couple of months after I arrived, I heard about an Army major who was conducting an impromptu experiment in Kufa, a small city 90 miles south of the capital. He had analyzed tapes of recent riots and had identified a pattern: violence was usually preceded by a crowd of Iraqis gathering in a plaza or other open space and, over the course of several hours, growing in size. Food vendors would show up, as well as spectators. Then, someone would throw a rock or a bottle and all hell would break loose.
When the major met with Kufa’s mayor, he made an odd request: could they keep food vendors out of the plazas? Sure, the mayor said. A few weeks later, a small crowd gathered near the Great Mosque. Throughout the afternoon, it grew in size. Some people started chanting angry slogans. Iraqi police, sensing trouble, radioed the base and asked U.S. troops to stand by. At dusk, the crowd started getting restless and hungry. People looked for the kebab sellers normally filling the plaza, but there were none to be found. The spectators left. The chanters became dispirited. By 8 p.m., everyone was gone.
When I visited the base near Kufa, I talked to the major. You wouldn’t necessarily think about a crowd’s dynamics in terms of habits, he told me. But he had spent his entire career in the military getting drilled in the psychology of habit formation. At boot camp, he had absorbed habits for loading his weapon, falling asleep in a war zone, maintaining focus amid the chaos of battle and making strategic decisions while exhausted and overwhelmed. He had attended classes that taught him habits for saving money, exercising each day and communicating with bunkmates. As he moved up the ranks, he learned the importance of organizational habits in ensuring that subordinates could make decisions without constantly asking permission, and how the right routines made it easier to work alongside people he normally couldn’t stand.
And now, as an impromptu nation-builder, he was seeing how crowds and cultures abided by many of the same rules. In some sense, he said, a community was a giant collection of habits occurring among thousands of people that, depending on how they’re influenced, could result in violence or peace.
“Understanding habits is the most important thing I’ve learned in the army,” he told me. “I tell my soldiers all the time, there’s nothing you can’t do if you get the habits right.”
CHARLES DUHIGG is an investigative reporter for The New York Times. He is a winner of the George Polk and National Academies of Science awards, and was part of a team of finalists for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize. He is a frequent contributor to NPR, This American Life, and Frontline. A graduate of Harvard Business School and Yale College, he lives in Brooklyn with his wife and their two children.
Power of Habit [Random House] 978-0-385-66974-0/ eISBN 978-0-679-60385-6/Audio Download: 978-0-307-96667-4/ CD: 978-0-307-96666-7