The Power Of Habit, by Charles Duhigg

The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg

The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg

Have you ever wondered what makes an A-grade student excel among his peers? Or for that matter, what makes an entrepreneur build a multi-million empire? What makes a chain smoker quit smoking? The common answer is “habits”. Habits, as we know, are hard to form and harder to break.

How does the pattern of habits work? Charles Duhigg, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter with New York Times, unravels the secret behind them in his book The Power Of Habit, and discusses what actions we must take in order to change them.

What Drives A Habit?

Habits, as we know, are a powerful driving force behind an individual’s performance. Take a surgeon for instance – the more a surgeon operates, the better he gets at it. Then there comes a stage when he begins to perform surgeries on a semi-automatic mode. This is because certain processes involved in the surgery have embedded themselves deep in his system. These “habits” as we call them, allow the surgeon’s brain to save energy and effort, so that he can focus better on the more complex tasks at hand.

Duhigg presents the anatomy of habits in what he calls the “habit loop”, a cycle of trigger-routine-reward.

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 or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.

He further suggests that these habit loops are driven by “cravings”, which can often emerge without our notice. Duhigg illustrates this with a common, everyday scenario:

(…) Take email. When a computer chimes or a smartphone vibrates with a new message, the brain starts anticipating the momentary distraction that opening an email provides. That expectation, if unsatisfied, can build until a meeting is filled with antsy executives checking their buzzing BlackBerrys under the table, even if they know it’s probably only their latest fantasy football results.

Certain habits like watching too much television, procrastinating or spending too many hours on the Internet keep us from realizing our full potential. They distract us from our goals and don’t allow us to be the best we can be. So how do we get rid of these undesirable habits? Duhigg encourages us to find the answers in the habit loop. In order to change a habit, we first need to identify simple and obvious cues that trigger a certain routine. We then need to identify the resultant rewards to prompt us to follow that routine every time our brain registers that cue.

Studies of people who have successfully started new exercise routines, for instance, 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.

After identifying the specifics of cues and rewards we need to link them to a “craving”. Cravings typically emerge when we begin to associate a routine with a reward. Duhigg effectively explains the link between cravings and the habit loop with the following example:

If you want to start running each morning, it’s essential that you choose a simple cue (like leaving your running clothes next to your bed) and a clear reward (such as a midday treat). 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.

How To Change A Habit?

You can never get rid of a bad habit, but you can surely change it. Duhigg suggest that it is easier to change a behavior when there is an element of predictability involved. The key lies in keeping the same cue and the reward, while changing the routine.

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.

(…) 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.

So what happens when you have your cues and rewards figured out, but you still face temptation to quit? How do you deal with those moments of weakness? Starbucks has it figured out, at least for their employees. Duhigg discusses a case study where Starbucks has a detailed strategy to train their employees in the area of developing will power. This, he elaborates, helps employees sustain a positive habit change and naturally contributes to the growth of the organization.

What employees really needed were clear instructions about how to deal with inflection points (…) a routine for employees to follow when their willpower muscles went limp. So the company developed new training materials that spelled out routines for employees to use when they hit rough patches. The manuals taught workers how to respond to specific cues, such as a screaming customer or a long line at a cash register. Managers drilled employees, role-playing with them until the response became automatic. The company identified specific rewards—a grateful customer, praise from a manager—that employees could look to as evidence of a job well done.

Habits play a critical role in determining what we do and how we behave. They ultimately define who we are, and their impact in our professional and personal life is enormous. It is therefore, extremely relevant for us to learn how they work, how we can develop good habits and, most importantly, how we can change bad ones.

The Power of Habit, is a great introduction to the science behind habits. Duhigg does a great job of discussing how habits work through the habit loop, how we can change them and how having keystone habits can positively affect multiple areas of our lives. He also explores the importance of habits in organizations and society. What habit are you going to tackle next?

If you found these concepts interesting, you will enjoy our video-article How To Change Habits That Pull You Down, where Duhigg describes the habit loop and illustrates what it takes to change habits with entertaining examples.

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