[One of the biggest challenges with a major life reset, as I’ve done recently, is that the chaos and change makes one lose one’s bearings for a bit. Habits, routines, rituals, etc., all have to be rehabilitated. I read this particular book in 2013 but have found a revisit quite helpful, given present circumstances. So, while this post isn’t explicitly about India, it is about one of the ways I’m learning to manage through the changes.]
Consider a few synonyms for habit: addiction, bias, convention, custom, disposition, fixation, fixed attitude, frame of mind, groove, hangup, impulsion, inclination, manner, mannerism, mode, nature, obsession, pattern, penchant, persuasion, practice, praxis, predisposition, proclivity, proneness, propensity, quirk, routine, rule, rut, second nature, set, style, susceptibility, use, way, weakness, wont. While a lot of these terms are ambiguous (that is, they can be used in both negative and positive contexts), conventional wisdom explains habit as something that drives our behaviors while also being something not quite within our conscious control.
Through the ages, philosophers like Aristotle and Montaigne, polymaths like Leonardo da Vinci and Benjamin Franklin, scientists like Edison and Einstein, authors like Austen and Oates, business leaders like Jack Welch and Richard Branson and self-improvement gurus like Tim Ferriss and Anthony Robbins have opined on how key habits are critical for achieving success. Over the last 100 years or so, academics, psychologists, behavioralists, and neuroscientists have also been conducting myriad habit-related experiments and studies. And, of course, each year, we see a fresh onslaught of self-help books and blogs offering the latest X number of ways to change habitual behaviors/mindsets.
As a result, “creature of habit” is a widely misused trope to which most of our compulsions (personal and professional) are attributed — regardless of whether those habits are driven by expedience, convenience or discipline or even whether they lead us to success or failure.
Enter: The Power of Habit
For me, Charles Duhigg’s book sits somewhere in between a purely scientific/academic treatment and the run-of-the-mill self-help books and blogs. It is definitely a “how-to”, but Duhigg carefully dives deep into the whys and wherefores of habit formation and management. With a background in journalism, Duhigg is also a master storyteller — I mean this in a positive sense. From the very start, he hooks us in with real life stories that support his theses well and keep us thoroughly engaged. And, while there’s a lot more to the neuroscience and psychology of habits (I’ve learned a whole lot more from Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow — a post for another day), this book is a very respectable addition to the ongoing published canon on this topic.
Every habit starts with some conscious decisions till the behaviors become automatic. In other words, it requires much less cognitive effort over time. Duhigg asserts that:
Champions don’t do extraordinary things. They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they’ve learned.
And, of course, we have to form habits for many of our daily or frequent activities to avoid cognitive overload which can cause stress and errors. This need for habit formation has been a necessary element of the human evolutionary cycle. Further, our sub-conscious brain is constantly looking for ways to conserve cognitive effort and often creates habits that we are not entirely aware of till they become more entrenched, which is how we develop bad habits — ones we do not want.
Duhigg’s main premise is that the process of habit (both personal and collective) formation needs to be understood if we are to change or create them effectively. He breaks down the Habit Loop into Cue, Routine, and Reward and describes each element thoroughly. This 3-part Habit Loop is also shaped by our beliefs, thought patterns and Keystone Habits (those that influence other habits). Beyond exploring habits in a personal context, he also walks us through how large corporations are leveraging collective habits to change organizational culture, train employees and influence customers. And, finally, he provides insights into how habits can drive successful, large-scale social/political movements as well.
Behold “The Habit Loop”
This is described as follows:
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.
Not only does this loop result in self-reinforcing behavior (where the cue and reward are completely intertwined such that the cue triggers anticipation/craving of the reward – sort of Pavlovian), but it also helps that behavior become more automatic (requiring less cognitive effort) over time. I like the handy cheat sheets on the book’s site to help isolate these three elements of the habit process — see How to Change a Habit and How to Create a Habit.
Having applied these flowcharts to a few of my own habits, I have found that it is not entirely easy to identify the correct cue and reward associated with a routine. Another tricky aspect is isolating a specific routine rather than addressing a combination of two or more routines. For example: an early morning workout might actually be 2 routines for a person who is not in the habit of waking up early – the early wake-up and the working out. So, spending some time on identifying the Habit Loop components accurately is advised.
Habits, once formed, become deeply ingrained and do not go away. The neurological patterns are there for good. The only way to get rid of them is to override them with new ones. Duhigg’s golden rule of habit change:
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.
He cites many examples, including his own cookie habit.
Now, again, I think this is easier said than done. Inserting a new routine with the old cue and reward takes a certain amount of self-discipline because 2 out of 3 components remain the same. For a certain time period, you have to repeat the conscious choice of opting for the new routine each time the old cue-reward combo fires up. Duhigg does not dive very deep into how we can repeatedly opt for that new routine instead of reverting to the more comfortable old one. Or, how we can balance making a less-desired choice now for a reward that might not be in the immediate future. This, of course, is why many people fall off the wagon with new habits. Dan Ariely addresses this decision dilemma in terms of self- control — how to make the not-so-pleasant immediate choice in favor of the pleasant longer-term reward. And, if you enjoyed Ariely’s self-control talk there, you might like this short one by Jordan Silberman promising that we will soon have technologies to help us develop and manage self-control.
The Most Powerful Habits – Keystone Habits
If you are trying to make a whole host of changes in your life and habits, it may not be quite as straightforward as applying the Habit Loop to one habit at a time. This is particularly true when these different habits are interlinked as most daily ones tend to be. So, Duhigg advises on the importance of identifying Keystone Habits which can trigger a series of events and / or habits across other life areas. Duhigg uses the example of Lisa, who gives up smoking, her Keystone Habit. The replacement of smoking with jogging triggers other lifestyle changes like changes in eating, drinking, working, sleeping habits as well.
Keystone Habits are the most powerful habits of all because they can start off a larger, transformative chain reaction across our lives. In other words, they don’t just influence 1-2 activities. Rather, they create, change, or remake habits for pretty much the rest of our daily activities: eating, sleeping, thinking, communicating, creating, etc. For example, a new habit of waking up early can drive a change in breakfast habits (since there is now more time to consider healthier options besides, say, drive-thru fast food or store-bought coffee), daily exercise routines, timeliness at work, etc. Keystone Habits can help this level of transformation, Duhigg suggests, by changing our sense of self and our sense of what is possible. In the book, he uses various examples to illustrate the three characteristics of Keystone Habits:
1) Leveraging small wins to enable consistent patterns: A win here is not necessarily completing something, but, perhaps, spending X minutes/day working on it. And “consistent pattern” is self- explanatory. Deceptively simple as this may sound, it is not always easy to identify which small wins can or should be leveraged and which consistent patterns are going to be relevant or effective platforms for other habits as described in the next bullet.
2) Using those new patterns to create new platforms for other habits to be created, changed or remade: A daily habit of working X minutes/day on something, once entrenched, will necessitate conscious changes to other daily activities. For example, for me, writing a minimum 1000 words/day (whether blog or something else), necessitates that I do so at a specific time each day. And, in order to make that space in my daily schedule, I’ve had to schedule other tasks around that dedicated time. Without these other changes, I would not be able to sustain the daily writing pattern/behavior. This also sounds simpler than it is and requires a fair bit of trial and error.
3) Developing a mindset that enables perseverance, change, excellence, etc., to become contagious: In other words, finding those individual moments when things do go well and to plan, and using them to reinforce the desired self-image. This is about allowing our daily small wins to collectively win over the minor setbacks rather than the latter overcoming and undoing everything. Some may call this a “positive mindset” but it is more than the ability to bounce back from setbacks. It is about not even letting the setbacks get to you as they are happening to you. We’re not talking about self-delusion (pretending that the setback is non-existent).
Duhigg uses the example of Michael Phelps, Olympic swimmer, who once found himself with leaky goggles during a race that forced him to continue swimming “blind.” Rather than panicking and losing the race, Phelps focused on two things: how everything else that day had gone according to plan (his small wins and consistent patterns of prepping for the big race) and how he had been prepared by his coach for something like this through the practice of swimming in the dark. These two facts kept him going with the certainty that he would make it through because they were part of the mental videotape that he had played so many times in his head. To calm himself down in the face of a setback, all he had to do was replay that mental videotape again and again in his mind, visualizing himself going through the entire swim-racing process, from prep to finish, successfully.So, this is a different kind of visualization as it is rooted in the fact of small wins and the certainty that came from having dealt successfully with similar, not necessarily identical, setbacks at other times.
So, this is a different kind of visualization as it is rooted in the fact of small wins and the certainty that came from having dealt successfully with similar, not necessarily identical, setbacks at other times.
Belief and Experience-sharing
Belief is a necessary element in this game. Here, it means: a personal faith that the small wins will lead to bigger ones and that change is possible. Duhigg cites shared experiences as greatly aiding in the creation of belief: e.g. communities of support like AA, writing groups, etc.
OK, with the experience-sharing, we’ve seen this with friends who, say, post their daily diet and exercise achievements on Facebook as part of their routine. The real-time positive acknowledgment and encouragement they get back fuels their reward system, at the same time, perhaps, encouraging some of their friends that they, too, can realize similar changes if they choose.And, of course, there are many apps (e.g.
And, of course, there are many apps (e.g. Unstuck — which I have used and liked; Lift — which I tried but did not use for long as my friends aren’t also on it) and websites (e.g. Stickkk — which I dare not use) to help us along as well.A Stanford professor, BJ Fogg, has created a 3-week behavior change program called
A Stanford professor, BJ Fogg, has created a 3-week behavior change program called Tiny Habits, which has received good reviews. I confess that a friend and I tried it earlier this year and did not get beyond a few days as we did not find the automated system emails much help. There are even self-directed public experiments like 40 Days of Dating (taking experience-sharing to a whole new level, I suppose). So, while I agree fully with the belief / faith stuff, I also think that is where most people stumble.
So, how do we overcome weakness in belief/faith? Duhigg points to willpower as the most important Keystone Habit of all. Now, I had never considered willpower as a habit, more a personal skill. Duhigg explains that if we consider willpower as a muscle and exercise it regularly and just enough (not overworking it), it will become a habit that influences/strengthens other habits. Hence, it is the most important Keystone Habit. He refers to the popular 1960s Stanford experiment where kids between 3-6 years of age were left in a room for 15 minutes with a treat (e.g. Oreo cookie, marshmallow, etc.) with the instructions that they could either eat it when they felt like it or wait 15 minutes to get another one. The study followed these kids for the next 18 years or so. The ones who did last the 15 minutes without eating their treat turned out to have greater self-discipline and were more intelligent and successful in general than the kids who did not. And, the organizational example here is that of Starbucks teaching their employees how to handle difficult customers effectively.
I will add my thoughts again here. Willpower, to me, is a cognitive skill. While it can be exercised as a muscle, most of us will agree that it can also get fatigued like a muscle from overuse or overload. Even with adequate willpower, there is a concept called “bandwidth tax” that Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir write about in their recent book, Scarcity, about how we suffer from tunneling and reduced bandwidth when we are focused on managing/addressing a scarcity of something in our lives/work. They do offer some decent suggestions, for example, how to create one-time solutions for behaviors that require vigilant choices each time and vice versa.Duhigg does not get into the many theories for how to manage and improve willpower although he does say that “Genuine change requires work and self- understanding of the cravings driving behaviors.” I am learning a lot from the aforementioned 2 books that I’m reading currently –
Duhigg does not get into the many theories for how to manage and improve willpower although he does say that “Genuine change requires work and self- understanding of the cravings driving behaviors.” I am learning a lot from the aforementioned 2 books that I’m reading currently: Thinking Fast and Slow and Scarcity.If willpower interests you similarly, here are 2 more books from my To-Read list – Kelly McGonigal’s
If willpower interests you similarly, here are 2 more books from my To-Read list: Kelly McGonigal’s The Willpower Instinct and Roy Baumeister and John Tierney’s Willpower (which seems more interesting than the latter, to be honest). Just a handful of recent books from a seemingly inexhaustible supply of scholarly material about an exhaustible human skill (or habit), for sure.
For Businesses — Institutional Habits
Where this book gets most interesting is in the exploration of institutional habits, the collective habits that are key for organizational memory to thrive and keep processes/operations running smoothly despite interpersonal conflicts and roadblocks. However, in times of severe crises, these habits may not stand up well. Duhigg’s examples of the dysfunction at Rhode Island Hospital and the response to the 1987 bombing of London’s King’s Cross underground station show how an imbalance of power and lack of clarity around roles and responsibilities can render habits not just useless but downright toxic.
Keystone Habits work at the organizational level as well and Duhigg gives the often-cited example of how Paul O’Neill (72nd US Secretary of Treasury), when he was CEO of Alcoa, changed an entire company’s culture by focusing on one thing: workplace safety. This was the best example, for me, in the entire book, of how all the theory comes together in practice at the organizational level. Really, this story alone is worth the price of the book, if you haven’t come across it before in prior Business Week, Harvard Business Review, Fortune or Forbes articles. Not only is it a classic lesson for business leaders everywhere, I think it applies well to the free agent or self-employed person as well. Duhigg shares this quote:
“I love Paul O’Neill, but you could not pay me enough to work for him again.” One official told me. “The man has never encountered an answer he can’t turn into another twenty hours of work.”
O’Neill is my kinda guy (for this and other reasons).
There are several interesting examples of how companies instill habits in customers. One is about how Pepsodent got Americans (and, eventually, the world, I suppose) into the daily teeth brushing habit, both through their product as well as some very clever advertising. Proctor and Gamble’s initial product positioning solution for Febreze is another. And, the famous Target story that went viral: how Target used customers’ existing buying habits to try to drive new purchases with personalized coupons/ads, causing one father to find out that his daughter was pregnant through the diaper ads/coupons that she was receiving from Target. Another example in the news recently was about Starbucks’ Loyalty Card (which, I think they will overcome soon enough as Howard Schultz and his team are savvy business people). Marketing with neuroscience is not new but still evolving. Particularly, I think, for startups and free agents, habit creation/change for necessary business processes and stakeholder interactions is often ignored due to a scarcity of time/money and results in missed opportunities and missteps.
For Societies — Social/Political Movements
The book’s final part focuses on how habits can create and drive social movements and feels somewhat unsatisfying to me. One of the movements Duhigg dissects is the Civil Rights Movement, starting with Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her bus seat to how Martin Luther King got involved and started a series of consistent routines that became, eventually, one of the greatest social and political movements this country has seen.
While I agree with Duhigg’s analysis of how the movement started with a cue and was built up with a set of routines based on community-identified rewards, I daresay that most readers will also agree that there is a lot more to making a large-scale movement successful than those basic elements. Perhaps Duhigg ran out of steam at this stage, or his editors wanted him to keep to an agreed-upon page count. Whatever the reason, this section of the book is the shortest and, yes, incomplete, for lack of a better descriptor.
I hope that this review encourages you to read this excellent book and, perhaps, add your thoughts regarding the science of habits and your own approaches in the Comments section. So far, it has been one of the best books I’ve read in quite some time. In addition to introducing and assimilating several theories on habit, Duhigg has also provided practical examples and driven me to seek out more information.
In particular, as a writer, I’ve learned that writing is not a single habit with a single loop but a process that involves multiple Habit Loops. Further, the emotional reward and overall satisfaction that I get from some kinds of writing versus others often dictate how long and how well I succeed at it.
Yes, we are indeed creatures of habit. And, thanks to the works of many scholars, philosophers, psychologists, academics, and writers, we continue to understand a lot more about how to manage/change them instead of letting ourselves be driven by them into entropic states — as individuals, organizations and societies. So, as Duhigg exhorts:
Once you know a habit exists, you have the responsibility to change it . . . others have done so . . . That, in some ways, is the point of this book. Perhaps a sleep-walking murderer can plausibly argue that he wasn’t aware of his habit, and so he doesn’t bear responsibility for his crime, but almost all of the other patterns that exist in most people’s lives — how we eat and sleep and talk to our kids, how we unthinkingly spend our time, attention and money — those are habits that we know exist. And once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom and the responsibility to remake them. Once you understand that habits can be rebuilt, the power of habit becomes easier to grasp and the only option left is to get to work.
PPS And, if you’re too pressed for time to read this entire book, try this brief guide instead. Not necessarily as effective, but it does work in a pinch.