The Power of Habit | Charles Duhigg

Published in: 2012
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Each chapter of the book revolves around a central argument: Habits can be changed, if we understand how they work. It focuses on 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. Habits is a formula our brain automatically follows: when I see CUE, I will do ROUTINE in order to get REWARD. To re-engineer that formula, we need to begin making choices again. And the easiest way to do this, according to many studies, is to have a plan to trick the brain from sending us on an unwanted path.  

THE HABIT LOOP. This process within our brains is a three-stop loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical, mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop – cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward – becomes more and more automatic.

WE RELY ON CHUNKS. The process in which the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine is known as “chunking, and it is at the root of how habits form. We rely on these every day. Some are simple: you automatically put toothpaste on your toothbrush before sticking it in your mouth. Some, such as getting dressed are a little more complex. Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. The brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often.

THE CASE OF PEPSODENT. The psychology of Pepsodent’s success was according to the marketing chief based on two basic rules: (1) find a simple and obvious cue – tooth film, and (2) a reward – beautiful teeth. But they weren’t selling beautiful teeth. They were selling a sensation. Once people craved that cool tingling – once they equated it with cleanliness – brushing became a habit. When this was understood by many competitors, they imitated. Today, almost all toothpastes contain additives with the sole job of making your moth tingle after you brush. The same goes for foaming when using shampoo. Shampoo does not have to foam but is a huge reward when used. 

THE CRAVING BRAIN. Why habits are so powerful is explained by the fact that they create neurological cravings. Most of the time, these cravings emerge so gradually that we are not really aware that 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 start the habit loop spinning. Cravings are what drives habits. And figuring out how to spart a craving makes creating a new habit easier. It is as true now as it was a century ago.

THE GOLDEN RULE OF HABIT CHANGE. You cannot extinguish a bad habit; you can only change it. Use the same cue, provide the same reward, change the routine. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is successful because it helps addicts use the same cues, and get the same reward, but shifts the routine. If someone needs relief, they can get it from talking to their sponsor or attending a group gathering, rather than toasting a drinking buddy.

CHANGING HABITS. Let’s say that your routine is to get up from your desk every afternoon and to go the cafeteria to buy a chocolate chip cookie. You have now identified the routine. Step two is to experiment with rewards. Most cravings are obvious in retrospect, but incredibly hard to see when we are under their sway. For instance, instead of walking to the cafeteria, go outside for a walk around the block without eating anything. As you test four or five rewards, you can look for patterns. Try to understand what you are craving. Once you figured out the routine and reward, identify the cue. Almost all habitual cues fit into one of five categories: Location, Time, Emotional state, Other people, and immediately preceding action. Write down the answer on these questions and a pattern may emerge.   

EASY IN THEORY. Though the process of habit change is easily described, it does not necessarily follow that it is easily accomplished. It is facile to imply that smoking, alcoholism, over-eating, or other ingrained patterns can be upended without real effort. Genuine change requires work and self-understanding of the cravings driving behaviors. However, it helps to be aware of the habit’s mechanisms. 

KEYSTONE HABITS. In 1987, the hitherto unknown Paul O’Neill took over Alcoa as CEO, and began with a press conference. Wall Street had previously speculated – will he close unprofitable subsidiaries etc? O’Neill began by saying, “I want to talk about occupational safety, and I want zero accidents at work”. His strategy was to focus on one thing, to attack a habit, and then hope that change spreads through the organization like rings in the water. Security became a “keystone habit”; something that affects how people work, eat, live, and communicate. By striving for zero accidents the whole organization was forced to investigate why accidents happened in the first place. To understand why this, they had to study how the manufacturing process went wrong. It required staff training and quality control. Alcoa became the best and most efficient aluminum company in the world. And everyone wanted to contribute to the goal.

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