The Power of Habit

Charles Duhigg
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An interesting and practical guide to understanding how habits work and experimenting with how they might change.

By focusing on one pattern—what is known as a “keystone habit”— we can teach ourselves how to reprogram the other routines in our lives.

“All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits,” — William James

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.

Book central argument: Habits can be changed, if we understand how they work.

It’s a natural consequence of our neurology. And by understanding how it happens, you can rebuild those patterns in whichever way you choose.

In the past decade, our understanding of the neurology and psychology of habits and the way patterns work within our lives, societies, and organisations has expanded in ways we couldn’t have imagined fifty years ago.

The Habit Loop: How Habits Work

Chunking — when the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine, it’s at the root of how habits form.

Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort.

This process within our brains is a three-step loop.

  1. Cue — tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use.
  2. Routine — physical, mental or emotional
  3. Reward — helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future:

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.

The problem is that your brain can’t tell the difference between bad and good habits, and so if you have a bad one, it’s always lurking there, waiting for the right cues and rewards.

McDonalds example (consistency) — Every McDonald’s looks the same—the company deliberately tries to standardise stores’ architecture and what employees say to customers, so everything is a consistent cue to trigger eating routines.

The Craving Brain: How to Create New Habits

Claude Hopkins, one of the great advertising pioneers

The secret to his success was that he had found a certain kind of cue and reward that fuelled a particular habit

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.

That psychology was grounded in two basic rules: First, find a simple and obvious cue. Second, clearly define the rewards.

The product’s cue—the thing that was supposed to trigger daily use—was hidden from the people who needed it most.

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.

Only when your brain starts expecting the reward 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.

That craving is an essential part of the formula for creating new habits.

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.

Shampoo example (reward) — “Foaming is a huge reward,” said Sinclair, the brand manager. “Shampoo doesn’t have to foam, but we add foaming chemicals because people expect it each time they wash their hair.

Cravings are what drive habits. And figuring out how to spark a craving makes creating a new habit easier.

The Golden Rule of Habit Change: Why Transformation Occurs

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.

The golden rule — If you use the same cue, and provide the same reward, you can shift the routine and change the habit.

AA example — what AA provides is a method for attacking the habits that surround alcohol use. AA, in essence, is a giant machine for changing habit loops. Researchers say that AA works because the program forces people to identify the cues and rewards that encourage their alcoholic habits, and then helps them find new behaviours.

If you identify the cues and rewards, you can change the routine.

At least, most of the time. For some habits, however, there’s one other ingredient that’s necessary: belief.

Identifying cues and choosing new routines is important, but without another ingredient, the new habits never fully took hold. The secret, the alcoholics said, was God.

Belief was the ingredient that made a reworked habit loop into a permanent behaviour.

But we do know that for habits to permanently change, people must believe that change is feasible.

Belief is easier when it occurs within a community.

Attacking the behaviours 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.

Much of the time, those changes are accomplished because people examine the cues, cravings, and rewards that drive their behaviours and then find ways to replace their self-destructive routines with healthier alternatives, even if they aren’t fully aware of what they are doing at the time.

Which Habits Matter Most? (Alcoa O'Neill leadership)

How did O’Neill make one of the largest, stodgiest, and most potentially dangerous companies into a profit machine and a bastion of safety?

By attacking one habit and then watching the changes ripple through the organisation.

These are “keystone habits,” and they can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate. Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything.

Researchers have found institutional habits in almost every organisation or company they’ve scrutinised.

Studies have documented that families who habitually eat dinner together seem to raise children with better homework skills, higher grades, greater emotional control, and more confidence.

Making your bed every morning is correlated with better productivity, a greater sense of well-being, and stronger skills at sticking with a budget.

Detecting keystone habits means searching out certain characteristics.

This is the final way that keystone habits encourage widespread change: by creating cultures where new values become ingrained.

Cultures grow out of the keystone habits in every organisation, whether leaders are aware of them or not.

Keystone habits transform us by creating cultures that make clear the values that, in the heat of a difficult decision or a moment of uncertainty, we might otherwise forget.

At IBM, for instance, Lou Gerstner rebuilt the firm by initially concentrating on one keystone habit: IBM’s research and selling routines.

Starbucks and The Habit of Success: When Willpower Become Automatic

At the core of Starbucks' training is an intense focus on an all-important habit: willpower.

Self-discipline has been found to predict academic performance more robustly than IQ.
Self-discipline has a bigger effect on academic performance than does intellectual talent.

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.

Will exercising willpower muscles make them stronger the same way using dumbbells strengthen biceps?

As the willpower muscles strengthens, good habits can spill over into other parts of life.

“When you learn to force yourself to go to the gym or start your homework or eat a salad instead of a hamburger, part of what’s happening is that you’re changing how you think,” said Todd Heatherton, a researcher at Dartmouth who has worked on willpower studies.

It's important to focus on how. Focus on inflection points when you know your pain—and thus the temptation to quit—will be strongest.

Design will power habits to help them overcome painful inflection points.

This is how willpower becomes a habit: by choosing a certain behaviour ahead of time, and then following that routine when an inflection point arrives.

For companies and organisations, 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.

How Leaders Create Habits Through Accident and Design

“Much of firm behaviour is best understood as a reflection of general habits and strategic orientations coming from the firm’s past” — Nelson and Winter

Good leaders seize crises to remake organisational habits.

NASA administrators, for instance, tried for years to improve the agency’s safety habits, but those efforts were unsuccessful until the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986.

When Companies Predict (and Manipulate) Habits

Supermarket layout example (placement of fruit and veg first) — Marketers and psychologists figured out long ago, if we start our shopping sprees by loading up on healthy stuff, we’re much more likely to buy Doritos, Oreos, and frozen pizza when we encounter them later on.

The only way to increase profits was to figure out each individual shopper’s habits and to market to people one by one, with personalised pitches designed to appeal to customers’ unique buying preferences.

A series of experiments convinced marketers that if they managed to understand a particular shopper’s habits, they could get them to buy almost anything.

A pillar of modern marketing theory: People’s buying habits are more likely to change when they go through a major life event.

How do you take advantage of someone’s habits without letting them know you’re studying every detail of their lives?

Target started sandwiching the diaper coupons between nonpregnancy products that made the advertisements seem anonymous, familiar, comfortable. They camouflaged what they knew.

Listening to music activates numerous areas of the brain, including the auditory cortex, the thalamus, and the superior parietal cortex. These same areas are also associated with pattern recognition and helping the brain decide which inputs to pay attention to and which to ignore.

The areas that process music, in other words, are designed to seek out patterns and look for familiarity.

Much of the time, we don’t actually choose if we like or dislike a song. It would take too much mental effort. Instead, we react to the cues (“This sounds like all the other songs I’ve ever liked”) and rewards (“It’s fun to hum along!”) and without thinking, we either start singing, or reach over and change the station.

One unexpected reason people go to the gym — People, it turns out, often go to the gym looking for a human connection, not a treadmill. Member retention, the data said, was driven by emotional factors, such as whether employees knew members’ names or said hello when they walked in.

How Movements Happen

Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott became the epicenter of the civil rights campaign not only because of an individual act of defiance, but also because of social patterns.

A movement starts because of the social habits of friendship and the strong ties between close acquaintances.

It grows because of the habits of a community, and the weak ties that hold neighbourhoods and clans together.

And it endures because a movement’s leaders give participants new habits that create a fresh sense of identity and a feeling of ownership.

In general, sociologists say, most of us have friends who are like us. We might have a few close acquaintances who are richer, a few who are poorer, and a few of different races—but, on the whole, our deepest relationships tend to be with people who look like us, earn about the same amount of money, and come from similar backgrounds.

People who hardly knew Rosa Parks decided to participate because of a social peer pressure—an influence known as “the power of weak ties”—that made it difficult to avoid joining in.

Weak ties — the links that connect people who have acquaintances in common, who share membership in social networks, but aren’t directly connected by the strong ties of friendship themselves.

Our weak-tie acquaintances are often as influential—if not more—than our close-tie friends.

Peer pressure — a form of persuasion that has been remarkably effective over hundreds of years

When the strong ties of friendship and the weak ties of peer pressure merge, they create incredible momentum.

People are attracted by a sense of community and the weak ties that a religious congregation offers. Then once inside, they’re pushed into a small group of neighbours—a petri dish, if you will, for growing close ties—where their faith becomes an aspect of their social experience and daily lives.

The third aspect of how social habits drive movements: For an idea to grow beyond a community, it must become self-propelling.

Movements don’t emerge because everyone suddenly decides to face the same direction at once. They rely on social patterns that begin as the habits of friendship, grow through the habits of communities, and are sustained by new habits that change participants’ sense of self.

A Readers Guide to Using These Ideas

Step 1: Identify the Routine

To understand your own habits, you need to identify the components of your loops.

Once you have diagnosed the habit loop of a particular behaviour, you can look for ways to supplant old vices with new routines.

What’s the cue for this routine?

What’s the reward?

Step 2: Experiment With Rewards

Rewards are powerful because they satisfy cravings.

To understand your own habits, you need to identify the components of your loops.

Once you have diagnosed the habit loop of a particular behaviour, you can look for ways to supplant old vices with new routines.

The point is to test different hypotheses to determine which craving is driving your routine.

By experimenting with different rewards, you can isolate what you are actually craving, which is essential in redesigning the habit.

Step 3: Isolate The Cue

Identify categories of behaviours ahead of time to scrutinise in order to see patterns.

Experiments have shown that almost all habitual cues fit into one of five categories: location, time, emotional, state, other people and an immediately preceding action.

  • Write down five things the moment the urge hits
  • Where are you? (sitting at my desk)
  • What time is it? (3:36 P.M)
  • What’s your emotional state? (bored)
  • Who else is around? (no one)
  • What action preceded the urge? (answered an email)
  • Repeat each time you feel the craving.

Once you’ve figured out your habit loop—you’ve identified the reward driving your behaviour, the cue triggering it, and the routine itself—you can begin to shift the behaviour.

Put another way, a habit is a formula our brain automatically follows: When I see CUE, I will do ROUTINE in order to get a REWARD.