The Power of Habit
Charles Duhigg, 2012
Interesting dissection of habits—how they form, work and what is their components. Framework from the book enables clear thinking and analyzing of habits; thus decisions on how to form new good habits and how to break old bad ones are easy.
Highlights & Margin Notes
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.
Habits aren’t destiny. As the next two chapters explain, habits can be ignored, changed, or replaced. But the reason the discovery of the habit loop is so important is that it reveals a basic truth: When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the pattern will unfold automatically.
So what, exactly, did Hopkins do? He created a craving. And that craving, it turns out, is what makes cues and rewards work. That craving is what powers the habit loop.
As the monkey became more and more practiced at the behavior—as the habit became stronger and stronger—Julio’s brain began anticipating the blackberry juice. Schultz’s probes started recording the “I got a reward!” pattern the instant Julio saw the shapes on the screen, before the juice arrived:
When the juice didn’t arrive or was late or diluted, Julio would get angry and make unhappy noises, or become mopey. And within Julio’s brain, Schultz watched a new pattern emerge: craving. When Julio anticipated juice but didn’t receive it, a neurological pattern associated with desire and frustration erupted inside his skull. When Julio saw the cue, he started anticipating a juice-fueled joy. But if the juice didn’t arrive, that joy became a craving that, if unsatisfied, drove Julio to anger or depression.
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.
Claude Hopkins wasn’t selling beautiful teeth. He was selling a sensation. Once people craved that cool tingling—once they equated it with cleanliness—brushing became a habit.
Anyone can use this basic formula to create habits of her or his own. 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. Allow yourself to anticipate the reward. Eventually, that craving will make it easier to push through the gym doors every day.
ravings are what drive habits. And figuring out how to spark a craving makes creating a new habit easier. It’s as true now as it was almost a century ago.
abits are a three-step loop—the cue, the routine, and the reward.
The triggers and payoffs stay the same, it’s just the behavior that changes.”
At the end of their first session, the therapist sent Mandy home with an assignment: Carry around an index card, and each time you feel the cue—a tension in your fingertips—make a check mark on the card. She came back a week later with twenty-eight checks. She was, by that point, acutely aware of the sensations that preceded her habit. She knew how many times it occurred during class or while watching television.
Say you want to stop snacking at work. Is the reward you’re seeking to satisfy your hunger? Or is it to interrupt boredom? If you snack for a brief release, you can easily find another routine—such as taking a quick walk, or giving yourself three minutes on the Internet—that provides the same interruption without adding to your waistline.
It wasn’t God that mattered, the researchers figured out. It was belief itself that made a difference. Once people learned how to believe in something, that skill started spilling over to other parts of their lives, until they started believing they could change. Belief was the ingredient that made a reworked habit loop into a permanent behavior.
“Belief is the biggest part of success in professional football,” Dungy told me. “The team wanted to believe, but when things got really tense, they went back to their comfort zones and old habits.”
But we do know that for habits to permanently change, people must believe that change is feasible. The same process that makes AA so effective—the power of a group to teach individuals how to believe—happens whenever people come together to help one another change. Belief is easier when it occurs within a community.
There is, unfortunately, no specific set of steps guaranteed to work for every person. We know that a habit cannot be eradicated—it must, instead, be replaced. And we know that habits are most malleable when the Golden Rule of habit change is applied: If we keep the same cue and the same reward, a new routine can be inserted. But that’s not enough. 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.
Some habits, in other words, matter more than others in remaking businesses and lives. These are “keystone habits,”.
Keystone habits say that success doesn’t depend on getting every single thing right, but instead relies on identifying a few key priorities and fashioning them into powerful levers.
Small wins are exactly what they sound like, and are part of how keystone habits create widespread changes. A huge body of research has shown that small wins have enormous power, an influence disproportionate to the accomplishments of the victories themselves. “Small wins are a steady application of a small advantage,” one Cornell professor wrote in 1984. “Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win.” Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach.
widespread change: by creating cultures where new values become ingrained. Keystone habits make tough choices—such as firing a top executive— easier, because when that person violates the culture, it’s clear they have to go.
Dozens of studies show that willpower is the single most important keystone habit for individual success.
“Self-discipline predicted academic performance more robustly than did IQ. Self-discipline also predicted which students would improve their grades over the course of the school year, whereas IQ did not….Self-discipline has a bigger effect on academic performance than does intellectual talent.”
“Sometimes it looks like people with great self-control aren’t working hard—but that’s because they’ve made it automatic,”
1980s, a theory emerged that became generally accepted: Willpower is a learnable skill, something that can be taught the same way kids learn to do math and say “thank you.”
If willpower is a skill, Muraven wondered, then why doesn’t it remain constant from day to day? He suspected there was more to willpower than the earlier experiments had revealed. But how do you test that in a laboratory?
Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like the muscles in your arms or legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there’s less power left over for other things.”
“If you want to do something that requires willpower—like going for a run after work—you have to conserve your willpower muscle during the day,” Muraven told me. “If you use it up too early on tedious tasks like writing emails or filling out complicated and boring expense forms, all the strength will be gone by the time you get home.”
As people strengthened their willpower muscles in one part of their lives—in the gym, or a money management program—that strength spilled over into what they ate or how hard they worked. Once willpower became stronger, it touched everything.
They saw that, like the Scottish patients, their workers were failing when they ran up against inflection points. What they needed were institutional habits that made it easier to muster their self-discipline.
“When a customer is unhappy, my plan is to…” “This workbook is for you to imagine unpleasant situations, and write out a plan for responding,” the manager said. “One of the systems we use is called the LATTE method. We Listen to the customer, Acknowledge their complaint, Take action by solving the problem, Thank them, and then Explain why the problem occurred.
For companies and organizations, this insight has enormous implications. Simply giving employees a sense of agency—a feeling that they are in control, that they have genuine decision-making authority—can radically increase how much energy and focus they bring to their jobs.
Peer pressure—and the social habits that encourage people to conform to group expectations—is difficult to describe, because it often differs in form and expression from person to person. These social habits aren’t so much one consistent pattern as dozens of individual habits that ultimately cause everyone to move in the same direction.
Once he finished, he finally had an answer as to why some students went to Mississippi, and others stayed home: because of social habits—or more specifically, because of the power of strong and weak ties working in tandem. The students who participated in Freedom Summer were enmeshed in the types of communities where both their close friends and their casual acquaintances expected them to get on the bus. Those who withdrew were also enmeshed in communities, but of a different kind—the kind where the social pressures and habits didn’t compel them to go to Mississippi.
Protecting people from their bad habits—in fact, defining which habits should be considered “bad” in the first place—is a prerogative lawmakers have eagerly seized. Prostitution, gambling, liquor sales on the Sabbath, pornography, usurious loans, sexual relations outside of marriage (or, if your tastes are unusual, within marriage), are all habits that various legislatures have regulated, outlawed, or tried to discourage with strict (and often ineffective) laws.
At the core of that system were computer programs much like those Andrew Pole created at Target, predictive algorithms that studied gamblers’ habits and tried to figure out how to persuade them to spend more. The company assigned players a “predicted lifetime value,” and software built calendars that anticipated how often they would visit and how much they would spend. The company tracked customers through loyalty cards and mailed out coupons for free meals and cash vouchers; telemarketers called people at home to ask where they had been. Casino employees were trained to encourage visitors to discuss their lives, in the hopes they might reveal information that could be used to predict how much they had to gamble with. One Harrah’s executive called this approach “Pavlovian marketing.”
“But what was really interesting were the near misses. To pathological gamblers, near misses looked like wins. Their brains reacted almost the same way. But to a nonpathological gambler, a near miss was like a loss. People without a gambling problem were better at recognizing that a near miss means you still lose.”
The areas of the brain that Habib scrutinized in his experiment— the basal ganglia and the brain stem—are the same regions where habits reside (as well as where behaviors related to sleep terrors start). In the past decade, as new classes of pharmaceuticals have emerged that target that region—such as medications for Parkinson’s disease—we’ve learned a great deal about how sensitive some habits can be to outside stimulation. Class action lawsuits in the United States, Australia, and Canada have been filed against drug manufacturers, alleging that pharmaceuticals caused patients to compulsively bet, eat, shop, and masturbate by targeting the circuitry involved in the habit loop. In 2008, a federal jury in Minnesota awarded a patient $8.2 million in a lawsuit against a drug company after the man claimed that his medication had caused him to gamble away more than $250,000. Hundreds of similar cases are pending.
“Historically, in neuroscience, we’ve said that people with brain damage lose some of their free will,” said Habib. “But when a pathological gambler sees a casino, it seems very similar. It seems like they’re acting without choice.”
We can choose our habits, once we know how.
And once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom—and the responsibility—to remake them.
If you believe you can change—if you make it a habit—the change becomes real. This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be. Once that choice occurs—and becomes automatic—it’s not only real, it starts to seem inevitable, the thing, as James wrote, that bears “us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.”
The way we habitually think of our surroundings and ourselves create the worlds that each of us inhabit. “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ ” the writer David Foster Wallace told a class of graduating college students in 2005. “And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’ ”
The difficult thing about studying the science of habits is that most people, when they hear about this field of research, want to know the secret formula for quickly changing any habit. If scientists have discovered how these patterns work, then it stands to reason that they must have also found a recipe for rapid change, right? If only it were that easy. It’s not that formulas don’t exist. The problem is that there isn’t one formula for changing habits. There are thousands.