By William Polkowski
“All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits,” William James wrote. “Ninety-nine percent of human activity is done out of mere habit.”
Charles Duhigg, a graduate of Yale University and the Harvard Business School and winner of numerous awards among them, awards from the National Academies of Sciences and National Journalism, and finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize has written a much-acclaimed book. His writing is informed by a review of many, many scientific articles. And he points out that without most of our life operating out of habit, we would be cognitively overwhelmed.
So much of our functioning includes chunks of habits. He analyzes the nature of these routines and how we may go about changing them. These habits help explain alcoholism, addiction to gambling, anxiety, depression, smoking, over-eating and under-exercising, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and a host of other behaviors. Most behavioral disorders are exacerbated by habits that get in the way of healing. The book is bound to be helpful to those suffering from mental illnesses, to their loved ones, and to all of us.
Duhigg refers to neuroscientific studies of the brain and brain imaging to help us understand habit formation and how to change habits. He has discovered that there are what he calls keystone habits, where change in them will trigger a whole host of other changes. Neural connections within the brain become stronger the more entrenched the habit becomes, but once we change our habits and new connections form, they overlie the other connections and don’t eliminate them. This explains why old habits may be more easily relearned than a new habit.
He sees habits as involving three parts: a cue, a routine, and a reward. By following his techniques of change, he maintains (though it may take time and not be easy) almost any habit can be reshaped. The framework: (1) identify the routine (that which is to be changed), (2) experiment with rewards, (3) isolate the cue, and (4) have a plan. He uses himself as an example.
He had been in the habit, when it turned 3:30 p.m., to get up from his desk and take a break by going to the cafeteria, buying a chocolate chip cookie, and eating it while chatting with colleagues at the cash register. He had been gaining weight and he wanted to stop, but his efforts were fruitless.
How did he diagnose his behavior and change it? He figured out the habit loop from cue to routine to reward. In this case, he knew his routine and went about discovering the cue and what was rewarding his cookie behavior by conducting an experiment. He thought of several possibilities. What was the cue? Hunger? Boredom? Low blood sugar? A break before plunging into another task? And what was the reward? The cookie itself? The change in scenery? The temporary distraction? Socializing with colleagues? Or the burst of energy that comes with a hit of sugar?
He experimented with rewards. Rewards are powerful because they satisfy cravings, but often we aren’t aware of the cravings that drive our behavior. Duhigg tried a different reward each day to determine its effect on his behavior. First, instead of going to the cafeteria, he tried taking a break by walking around the block and then returning to his desk without eating anything. The next time, he went to the cafeteria and bought his sugary treat, then returned to his desk before eating it. And the next day he went to the cafeteria, bought an apple, and ate it while chatting with his friends.
The next day he bought a cup of coffee. Then, instead of going to the cafeteria, he went to a friend’s office and chatted for a few minutes before going back to his desk. You get the idea. He was trying different behaviors to test his hypotheses. After fifteen minutes he would note his reactions. After eating the cookie, if he still wanted to get up and go to the cafeteria, it wasn’t the sugar he craved. If, after gossiping at a colleague’s desk, he still wanted a cookie, then it wasn’t a need for a temporary distraction or socializing.
Then there’s the issue of isolating the cue. An example is a question that has bewildered social scientists for years: Why do some eyewitnesses of crimes misremember what they see, while others recall events accurately? Some researchers theorized that some people just have better memories, while with others, familiarity with the scene fostered better recall. But none of these guesses panned out. One psychologist tried a different approach. She thought that perhaps it wasn’t the questions that were asked, but how they were asked. Because so much happens during an interview, what should she look for? She made a few hypotheses, slowed down the tapes, paid attention to some behaviors, and paid no attention to others. She discovered something interesting. When she turned down the volume so all she could discern was the tone of voice of the questioner, the facial expressions of the witness, and how far apart they were sitting, something leapt out. Witnesses who misremembered facts usually were questioned by cops who used a gentle, friendly tone; these witnesses smiled more. The questioning suggested “we are friends.” Perhaps a subconscious desire was triggered to please the questioner, and this had something to do with their recall.
Sometimes the cue and the reward are kept the same, but the routines are changed. Being interested in football, I was fascinated by how Tony Dungy turned around the fortunes of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from one of the worst teams in the NFL to one of the best. He had to get his players to buy in to the new system he was creating to change their habits. He wanted his players to react automatically, habitually. He believed that championship teams 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. It worked.
The Golden Rule of how to change a habit: keep the cue the same, keep the reward the same, but insert a new routine. This has influenced treatments for alcoholism, obesity, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and a host of other behaviors. Following this rule can help anyone transform their habits to something more helpful.
There are many fascinating examples in the book from a wide array of behaviors which make the book a great read. I cannot recommend the book too highly if you’re interested in the power of habits to shape us.