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Power of Habit + Charles Duhigg

As we say hello to a new year—2014—many of us will have made new year's resolutions which we will either keep or break in a matter of days, weeks, hours. And we might wonder what the connection is between making and keeping those resolutions and breaking habits. Pulitzer Prize winning reporter of The New York Times Charles Duhigg explores the science of habit formation among individuals, companies and societies in his book, The Power of Habit: What We Do in Life and Business (Random House, 2012). What follows is a reprint of an interview I did with him for Brain World Magazine (Issue 4, Vol. 3, Summer 2012) which reveals some interesting insights.

If you really want to change a habit, you must understand how it came to be in the first place. That’s what New York Times staff reporter Charles Duhigg believes, and that’s what he sets out to do in his smart new book, The Power of Habit. By isolating the ingredients and providing the many recipes for how we make habits, Duhigg gives us a perspective on life seen through the prism of conscious and unconscious behavior. This book is a manual that should sit in the glove compartment of our psyches so that, should we ever really want to face up and change those bad habits, it will be nearby for quick reference.

Habits are formed in loops of cue, routine and reward. The cue is a craving for a reward, and the behavior becomes a routine or habit. It is impossible to get rid of habits. Once made they are hardwired into the brain and will stay there forever. What can be done, however, is that once the cue or trigger and reward have been identified and clearly understood, a person can change the routine, which is the behavior associated with the habit.

Duhigg folds in science, anecdotes and reportage to span a range of topics, such as the Starbucks workers’ manual, Febreze’s marketing turnaround, Alcoa’s safety mandate, the case of the gambling housewife or the sleepwalking murderer, and even great public actions such as the civil rights movement. 

We were lucky to catch up with the much-in-demand Duhigg for a few minutes to discuss his book.

Brain World: Do our lives shape our habits, or do habits shape our lives? 
CD: One of the things we know is based on a Duke study that was done a couple of years ago. About 40 to 45 percent of the…actions that we take every day are in fact habits; they’re not conscious decision-making. Even though it might feel like a decision to us because we’re not really paying attention to them, they’re things that just sort of unfold automatically.

BW: Is that part of our body’s way of allowing us to do many things unconsciously, so that it frees us up to do other things?
CD: Yes, that’s exactly right. Our brain has this unique capacity to take almost any pattern it can and turn it into a habit. So that we don’t have to think about it while we’re doing it, and we can spend that mental energy on something else. Nowadays, you don’t have to pay attention while you’re backing a car out of the driveway; you have time to think about the meeting later that day, or invent video games and aircraft carriers. Without this, our brain would become overwhelmed by the minutiae of everyday [life].

BW: Trying to figure out the cue or trigger seems to be the most difficult part in breaking down a habit.
CD: Once you identify the cue and reward, it’s much, much easier to change the routine or the behavior. So the key there is to spend time and thought analyzing what’s triggering this behavior and what craving is it satisfying. Our brain develops the capacity to crave things. Once it expects a reward, that expectation becomes a craving, and if it’s not satisfied you become preoccupied by the craving. That’s why it’s hard to ignore a doughnut if you see it on the kitchen counter, even though you’ve had a big breakfast. And that’s what drives the habit loop.

BW: If you know that smoking a cigarette is bad for you, why don’t you just stop it? 
CD: Smoking is a good example. Nicotine makes you feel good. It gives you energy, it gives you mental stimulation. The reason why people smoke is there’s a genuine reward you get from smoking cigarettes.

BW: What about AA and the 12-step progams not addressing the actual science behind an addiction?
CD: What we’ve learned in the last decade is that oftentimes that’s not true. Cigarettes is a great example. Nicotine is physically addictive. But it’s only addictive for about 100 hours after your last cigarette. So once nicotine is out of your blood system, you’re not physically addicted to it anymore. But obviously there’s lots of people who crave a cigarette two days, two weeks, two years after they gave up smoking. That’s the habit re-emerging. It’s not the physical addiction to nicotine. It’s the habit itself. To someone who’s a smoker, they feel absolutely indistinguishable.

BW: What are inflection points, and what do they have to do with willpower?
CD: What we know is that willpower in particular seems to fail at these almost predictable moments which we call inflection points. Someone doesn’t have trouble committing to an exercise plan when everything goes according to plan, but when they encounter an obstacle that they hadn’t really thought out…their muscles are much more sore than they expected, or it’s hard to schedule their workout, or there’s something that comes up that makes it easier to sit down than to continue. Those are inflection points. What scientists have found is that if you identify those inflection points ahead of time and then make them into cues, that gives you a huge advantage in anticipating and overcoming the natural inflection point where you’re much more likely to stop.

BW: So you would make a plan to deal with these obstacles?
CD: Exactly. The inflection point becomes a cue itself, and once you hit that inflection point, you react automatically with this routine that you’ve already chosen ahead of time, and you deliver to yourself a reward. And that’s enormously powerful.

BW: How is this study of habit formation affecting the law and criminal actions brought on by habitual (unconscious) behavior?
CD: I think our understanding of how to make sense of the moral consequences of habits, whether people really have responsibility for their actions, is evolving, and that over time the law and court decisions will begin to reflect what we’re learning in neurology, which is that very often there are people who behave in certain ways where it seems like they’re making decisions, but they’re really not. —Margaret Emory

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