The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business – Charles Duhigg

Want to break a bad habit? Check out the video below:

Why do we do what we do? In his book, Charles Duhigg, American journalist and a reporter for The New York Times, states that habits are essentially the repeated loop of three things: 1) cue 2) routine 3) reward. Through these three steps we build habits, both good and bad ones as our brains can’t tell the difference between them. Essentially, the way it works is that there’s a trigger (cue) that makes us instinctively or naturally do something (routine) as it feels good to us or solves a problem (reward). Here are some of the points to the book:


1. Be careful of the habits that you’re developing as your brain can’t tell the difference between good and bad habits. Just as Warren Buffett has said,”The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken” be cautious of whether or not your habits are helping you get closer to your goals. 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. Eventually, whether in a chilly MIT laboratory or your driveway, a habit is born. 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. However, simply understanding how habits work—learning the structure of the habit loop—makes them easier to control. Once you break a habit into its components, you can fiddle with the gears. ‘We’ve done experiments where we trained rats to run down a maze until it was a habit, and then we extinguished the habit by changing the placement of the reward,’ Ann Graybiel, a scientist at MIT who oversaw many of the basal ganglia experiments, told me. ‘Then one day, we’ll put the reward in the old place, and put in the rat, and, by golly, the old habit will reemerge right away. Habits never really disappear. They’re encoded into the structures of our brain, and that’s a huge advantage for us, because it would be awful if we had to relearn how to drive after every vacation. 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.’ This explains why it’s so hard to create exercise habits, for instance, or change what we eat. Once we develop a routine of sitting on the couch, rather than running, or snacking whenever we pass a doughnut box, those patterns always remain inside our heads. By the same rule, though, if we learn to create new neurological routines that overpower those behaviors—if we take control of the habit loop—we can force those bad tendencies into the background.” He later states, It’s not hard to find an analog in the human world. Consider fast food, for instance. It makes sense—when the kids are starving and you’re driving home after a long day—to stop, just this once, at McDonald’s or Burger King. The meals are inexpensive. It tastes so good. After all, one dose of processed meat, salty fries, and sugary soda poses a relatively small health risk, right? It’s not like you do it all the time. But habits emerge without our permission. Studies indicate that families usually don’t intend to eat fast food on a regular basis. What happens is that a once a month pattern slowly becomes once a week, and then twice a week—as the cues and rewards create a habit—until the kids are consuming an unhealthy amount of hamburgers and fries. When researchers at the University of North Texas and Yale tried to understand why families gradually increased their fast food consumption, they found a series of cues and rewards that most customers never knew were influencing their behaviors. They discovered the habit loop. Every McDonald’s, for instance, 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. The foods at some chains are specifically engineered to deliver immediate rewards—the fries, for instance, are designed to begin disintegrating the moment they hit your tongue, in order to deliver a hit of salt and grease as fast as possible, causing your pleasure centers to light up and your brain to lock in the pattern. All the better for tightening the habit loop. However, even these habits are delicate. When a fast food restaurant closes down, the families that previously ate there will often start having dinner at home, rather than seek out an alternative location. Even small shifts can end the pattern. But since we often don’t recognize these habit loops as they grow, we are blind to our ability to control them. By learning to observe the cues and rewards, though, we can change the routines.


2. I’ve learned that a major reason why people give up on developing new habits is because they don’t have a big enough short term reward after going through the routine stage. People usually have a cue and routine but they don’t have the reward that keeps them from continuing. If you want to build or develop a new habit, make sure that you give yourself a powerful reward. To understand the power of cravings in creating habits, consider how exercise habits emerge. In 2002 researchers at New Mexico State University wanted to understand why people habitually exercise. They studied 266 individuals, most of whom worked out at least three times a week. What they found was that many of them had started running or lifting weights almost on a whim, or because they suddenly had free time or wanted to deal with unexpected stresses in their lives. However, the reason they continued— why it became a habit—was because of a specific reward they started to crave. In one group, 92 percent of people said they habitually exercised because it made them ‘feel good’—they grew to expect and crave the endorphins and other neurochemicals a workout provided. In another group, 67 percent of people said that working out gave them a sense of ‘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.


3. In addition to the habit loop, one important element is your mindset. For you to create a new habit, you need to have a strong belief that you can do it. In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Stanford Professor Dr. Carol Dweck states that having a growth, or a “I can do it”, mindset is key to outperforming those with a fixed mindset. If you believe that you can’t do something, then you won’t do it. However, if you believe that you can achieve something, you’ll at least attempt to do it. A pattern emerged. Alcoholics who practiced the techniques of habit replacement, the data indicated, could often stay sober until there was a stressful some higher power had entered their lives were more likely to make it through the stressful periods with their sobriety intact. 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. ‘I wouldn’t have said this a year ago—that’s how fast our understanding is changing,’ said Tonigan, the University of New Mexico researcher, ‘but belief seems critical. You don’t have to believe in God, but you do need the capacity to believe that things will get better. ‘Even if you give people better habits, it doesn’t repair why they started drinking in the first place. Eventually they’ll have a bad day, and no new routine is going to make everything seem okay. What can make a difference is believing that they can cope with that stress without alcohol.’ By putting alcoholics in meetings where belief is a given—where, in fact, belief is an integral part of the twelve steps—AA trains people in how to believe in something until they believe in the program and themselves. It lets people practice believing that things will eventually get better, until things actually do. ‘At some point, people in AA look around the room and think, if it worked for that guy, I guess it can work for me ,’ said Lee Ann Kaskutas, a senior scientist at the Alcohol Research Group. ‘There’s something really powerful about groups and shared experiences. People might be skeptical about their ability to change if they’re by themselves, but a group will convince them to suspend disbelief. A community creates belief.’


4. There’s a saying, “Energy flows to where attention goes.” If you’re serious about that next level of success, write down your goals. In today’s world where there are so many things trying to take away our attention, writing down your goals and the steps you’re going to take to get there allows you to stay focused on that next level of success. All people of significance write down their goals so why shouldn’t you?The Scottish study’s participants were the types of people most likely to fail at rehabilitation. The scientist conducting the experiment wanted to see if it was possible to help them harness their willpower. She gave each patient a booklet after their surgeries that detailed their rehab schedule, and in the back were thirteen additional pages—one for each week—with blank spaces and instructions: ‘My goals for this week are __________ ? Write down exactly what you are going to do. For example, if you are going to go for a walk this week, write down where and when you are going to walk.’ She asked patients to fill in each of those pages with specific plans. Then she compared the recoveries of those who wrote out goals with those of patients who had received the same booklets, but didn’t write anything. It seems absurd to think that giving people a few pieces of blank paper might make a difference in how quickly they recover from surgery. But when the researcher visited the patients three months later, she found a striking difference between the two groups. The patients who had written plans in their booklets had started walking almost twice as fast as the ones who had not. They had started getting in and out of their chairs, unassisted, almost three times as fast. They were putting on their shoes, doing the laundry, and making themselves meals quicker than the patients who hadn’t scribbled out goals ahead of time. The psychologist wanted to understand why. She examined the booklets, and discovered that most of the blank pages had been filled in with specific, detailed plans about the most mundane aspects of recovery. One patient, for example, had written, ‘I will walk to the bus stop tomorrow to meet my wife from work,’ and then noted what time he would leave, the route he would walk, what he would wear, which coat he would bring if it was raining, and what pills he would take if the pain became too much. Another patient, in a similar study, wrote a series of very specific schedules regarding the exercises he would do each time he went to the bathroom. A third wrote a minute-by-minute itinerary for walking around the block.


By Ryan Timothy Lee


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