The Power of Habit – by Charles Duhigg
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Great dissection and analysis of what creates habits, and the power of changing just one of three steps in the habit loop.
Habits aren’t destiny, even once they are rooted in our minds. We can choose our habits, once we know how. Everything we know about habits, from neurologists studying amnesiacs and organizational experts remaking companies, is that any of them can be changed, if you understand how they function.
Once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom – and the responsibility – to remake them. Once you understand that habits can be rebuilt, the power of habit becomes easier to grasp, and the only option left is to get to work.
“Some thinkers hold that it is by nature that people become good, others that it is by habit, and others that it is by instruction.” For Aristotle, habits reigned supreme. The behaviors that occur unthinkingly are the evidence of our truest selves, he said. So “just as a piece of land has to be prepared beforehand if it is to nourish the seed, so the mind of the pupil has to be prepared in its habits if it is to enjoy and dislike the right things.”
Water is the most apt analogy for how a habit works. Water hollows out for itself a channel, which grows broader and deeper; and, after having ceased to flow, it resumes, when it flows again, the path traced by itself before.
Her self-pity gave way. She needed a goal in her life. Something to work toward. 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. 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.
Habits as they are technically defined: the choices that all of us deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about but continue doing, often every day. At one point, we all consciously decided how much to eat and what to focus on when we got to the office, how often to have a drink or when to go for a jog. Then we stopped making a choice, and the behavior became automatic. It’s a natural consequence of our neurology. And by understanding how it happens, you can rebuild those patterns in whichever way you choose.
A community is a giant collection of habits occurring among thousands of people.
You want to fall asleep fast and wake up feeling good? Pay attention to your nighttime patterns and what you automatically do when you get up.
You want to make running easy? Create triggers to make it a routine.
The brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down.
A three-step loop:
1. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use.
2. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional.
3. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future
THE HABIT LOOP
Over time, this loop – cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward – becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges.
When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making.
So unless you deliberately fight a habit – unless you find new routines – the pattern will unfold automatically.
It’s possible to learn and make unconscious choices without remembering anything about the lesson or decision making.
Every McDonald’s looks the same – the company deliberately tries to standardize stores’ architecture and what employees say to customers, so everything is a consistent cue to trigger eating routines.
First, find a simple and obvious cue. Second, clearly define the rewards.
People who have successfully started new exercise routines show they are more likely to stick with a workout plan if they choose a specific cue, such as running as soon as they get home from work, and a clear reward, such as a beer or an evening of guilt-free television.
Why habits are so powerful: They create neurological cravings. Most of the time, these cravings emerge so gradually that we’re not really aware they exist, so we’re often blind to their influence. But as we associate cues with certain rewards, a subconscious craving emerges in our brains that starts the habit loop spinning.
This is how new habits are created: by putting together a cue, a routine, and a reward, and then cultivating a craving that drives the loop.
There are mechanisms that can help us ignore the temptations. But to overpower the habit, we must recognize which craving is driving the behavior.
Why people habitually exercise: “accomplishment” – they had come to crave a regular sense of triumph from tracking their performances, and that self-reward was enough to make the physical activity into a habit.
If you want to start running each morning, it’s essential that you choose a simple cue (like always lacing up your sneakers before breakfast or leaving your running clothes next to your bed) and a clear reward (such as a midday treat, a sense of accomplishment from recording your miles, or the endorphin rush you get from a jog).
But countless studies have shown that a cue and a reward, on their own, aren’t enough for a new habit to last. Only when your brain starts expecting the reward – craving the endorphins or sense of accomplishment – will it become automatic to lace up your jogging shoes each morning. The cue, in addition to triggering a routine, must also trigger a craving for the reward to come.
No one craves scentlessness. Lots of people crave a nice smell after they’ve spent thirty minutes cleaning.
Consumers need some kind of signal that a product is working. The tingling doesn’t make the toothpaste work any better. It just convinces people it’s doing the job.
“Foaming is a huge reward. Shampoo doesn’t have to foam, but we add foaming chemicals because people expect it. Same thing with laundry detergent. And toothpaste.”
Use this basic formula to create habits:
Want to exercise more? Choose a cue, such as going to the gym as soon as you wake up, and a reward, such as a smoothie after each workout. Then think about that smoothie, or about the endorphin rush you’ll feel.
Anticipate the reward. That craving will make it easier to push through the gym doors every day.
Most of the successful dieters also envisioned a specific reward for sticking with their diet – a bikini they wanted to wear or the sense of pride they felt when they stepped on the scale each day – something they chose carefully and really wanted. They focused on the craving for that reward. Their cravings for that reward, researchers found, crowded out the temptation to drop the diet. The craving drove the habit loop.
Dabbing a bit of sunscreen on your face each morning significantly lowers the odds of skin cancer.
Cravings are what drive habits. And figuring out how to spark a craving makes creating a new habit easier.
Football : The key to winning was changing players’ habits. He wanted to get players to stop making so many decisions during a game, he said. He wanted them to react automatically, habitually. If he could instill the right habits, his team would win. Period. “Champions don’t do extraordinary things,” Dungy would explain. “They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they’ve learned.”
Habits are a three-step loop – the cue, the routine, and the reward – but Dungy only wanted to attack the middle step, the routine. He knew from experience that it was easier to convince someone to adopt a new behavior if there was something familiar at the beginning and end.
You can never truly extinguish bad habits. Rather, to change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine. That’s the rule: If you use the same cue, and provide the same reward, you can shift the routine and change the habit. Almost any behavior can be transformed if the cue and reward stay the same.
AA asks alcoholics to search for the rewards they get from alcohol. What cravings, the program asks, are driving your habit loop? Often, intoxication itself doesn’t make the list. Alcoholics crave a drink because it offers escape, relaxation, companionship, the blunting of anxieties, and an opportunity for emotional release. They might crave a cocktail to forget their worries. But they don’t necessarily crave feeling drunk. The physical effects of alcohol are often one of the least rewarding parts of drinking for addicts.
Asking patients to describe what triggers their habitual behavior is called awareness training, and like AA’s insistence on forcing alcoholics to recognize their cues, it’s the first step in habit reversal training.
Most people’s habits have occurred for so long they don’t pay attention to what causes it anymore.
It seems ridiculously simple, but once you’re aware of how your habit works, once you recognize the cues and rewards, you’re halfway to changing it.
Say you want to stop snacking at work. Is the reward you’re seeking to satisfy your hunger? Or is it to interrupt boredom?
For a habit to stay changed, people must believe change is possible. And most often, that belief only emerges with the help of a group.
If you want to change a habit, you must find an alternative routine, and your odds of success go up dramatically when you commit to changing as part of a group. Belief is essential, and it grows out of a communal experience, even if that community is only as large as two people.
A physical addiction to nicotine, for instance, lasts only as long as the chemical is in a smoker’s bloodstream – about one hundred hours after the last cigarette. Many of the lingering urges that we think of as nicotine’s addictive twinges are really behavioral habits asserting themselves – we crave a cigarette at breakfast a month later not because we physically need it, but because we remember so fondly the rush it once provided each morning. Attacking the behaviors we think of as addictions by modifying the habits surrounding them has been shown, in clinical studies, to be one of the most effective modes of treatment.
• Identify the routine
• Experiment with rewards
• Isolate the cue
• Have a plan
How do you start diagnosing and then changing this behavior? By figuring out the habit loop. And the first step is to identify the routine.
with most habits – the routine is the most obvious aspect: It’s the behavior you want to change.
Next, some less obvious questions: What’s the cue for this routine?
Is it hunger? Boredom? Low blood sugar? That you need a break before plunging into another task? And what’s the reward? The cookie itself? The change of scenery? The temporary distraction? Socializing with colleagues? Or the burst of energy that comes from that blast of sugar? To figure this out, you’ll need to do a little experimentation.
Rewards are powerful because they satisfy cravings. But we’re often not conscious of the cravings that drive our behaviors.
Test different hypotheses to determine which craving is driving your routine.
As you test four or five different rewards, you can use an old trick to look for patterns: After each activity, jot down on a piece of paper the first three things that come to mind when you get back to your desk.
Then, set an alarm on your watch or computer for fifteen minutes. When it goes off, ask yourself: Do you still feel the urge for that cookie? The reason why it’s important to write down three things – even if they are meaningless words – is twofold. First, it forces a momentary awareness of what you are thinking or feeling.
Force her into awareness of her habitual urges, so writing three words forces a moment of attention. What’s more, studies show that writing down a few words helps in later recalling what you were thinking at that moment. At the end of the experiment, when you review your notes, it will be much easier to remember what you were thinking and feeling at that precise instant, because your scribbled words will trigger a wave of recollection. And why the fifteen-minute alarm? Because the point of these tests is to determine the reward you’re craving. If, fifteen minutes after eating a donut, you still feel an urge to get up and go to the cafeteria, then your habit isn’t motivated by a sugar craving. If, after gossiping at a colleague’s desk, you still want a cookie, then the need for human contact isn’t what’s driving your behavior.
By experimenting with different rewards, you can isolate what you are actually craving, which is essential in redesigning the habit.
The reason why it is so hard to identify the cues that trigger our habits is because there is too much information bombarding us as our behaviors unfold.
To identify a cue amid the noise, we can use the same system as the psychologist: Identify categories of behaviors ahead of time to scrutinize in order to see patterns. Luckily, science offers some help in this regard. Experiments have shown that almost all habitual cues fit into one of five categories: Location Time Emotional state Other people Immediately preceding action
To re-engineer that formula, we need to begin making choices again. And the easiest way to do this, according to study after study, is to have a plan. Within psychology, these plans are known as “implementation intentions.”