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The Power of Habit

by devnym

Award winning NYT journalist CHARLES DUHIGG in a conversation with Moves writers
Adrianna Paidas and Max Bisantz about his bestseller and the lessons to be learned for all.

Eight a.m.: your first cup of coffee. Three p.m.: your post-meeting cigarette. Dinner time and you uncork another bottle. Whoever came up with the old adage that free will dictates our lives should have published a corresponding instruction manual. The real truth is that human beings are creatures of habit: wake up, suit up, eat up, check out. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. With so much of the same day in and day out, it’s amazing that we manage to get anything done.

Which is why New York Moves reached out to Charles Duhigg, author of the best-selling book The Power of Habit. Duhigg recently dedicated a decade of his life to studying the science of habits and habit formation, and agreed to sit down for a chat to discuss his work. Armed with a tape recorder and a shocking amount of compulsions, we probed Duhigg on his life, his book, and just why we can’t say no to that last piece of pie.


New York Moves: So we figured we’d start with the foundation of your book, which is this idea of the “habit loop.” Go ahead and explain how the habit loop works.

Charles Duhigg: This is really what we’ve learned in the last decade because we’ve kind of been living through this age, the golden age, of understandings of neurology and habit formation. And due in a large part to experiments that have been done by neurologists what we now know is that every habit has three basic components – there’s a cue, which is like a trigger, an automatic behavior that starts; then a routine, which is the behavior itself; then finally a reward, and a reward is really how your brain, or the particular part of the brain known as the “basal ganglia” learns to remember that pattern for the future. And the reason why this is important is because, you know, everyone from Aristotle to Oprah has talked about habits and changing habits and understanding habits but for the most part, historically, almost all of their focus has been on the behavior, on the routine, the middle of that loop. And what we now know from these experiments is that it’s really the cue – the beginning – and the reward – the end – that shape how the habit emerges. And more importantly how we can understand and change those habits.

NYM: What are the most common obstacles people encounter when they try to break a habit and start a new one?

CD: The number one thing is not to think of it in terms of breaking a habit, right? What we know is that once a habit is established in your neurology it’s very very difficult to extinguish the neurological pathways associated with that behavior. Now people can do it, you can muster your willpower and kind of force yourself to ignore an old habit, but the problem is that willpower is a limited resource, it gets tired with time. And so, you know, when things get hard and you’re kind of having a rough day that’s when that strength that, that muscle, will most likely fail. So the best way to think about it is rather than thinking about breaking a habit is to change a habit.

NYM: How essential is habit to human activity? Do you think that habits enable us to live productively instead of waking up every minute to decide on the same little things over and over again. Do you think everything we do is therefore habitual?

CD: About 40 to 45% of the actions we make every day are habits. One of the things that we know evolutionarily is that the only species that seem to have done well, and this is a gross generalization, it’s not always true, but in general, the only species that seem to have done well are species that have the capacity to develop automatic habits. Because what it does is just frees up your mental activity to deal with other things. So rather than having to think every single day should I eat that rock that’s on the ground or should I go eat that piece of fruit, you can just automatically start eating the fruit and then use that now free mental capacity to invent things like fire and spears or aircraft carriers or video games or whatever it is. So it’s really important to have the capacity to develop habits because it frees up our brain to do other things.

NYM: Do you think achievement is a result of habit? Do you think achievement happens when someone dares to break that cycle?

CD: Sure. I mean it’s a really good question because it’s kind of at the core of a lot of studies that are looking at how people achieve mastery. And I think what they find is that it’s an interplay. Right? You have to be able to habitualize certain activities, because otherwise you’re not going to be able to sort of break through your threshold of achievement. But very often when people achieve it’s because they’ve habitualized something to the degree where they can be self critical enough to evaluate where they’re not being perfect and focus on changing the habit around that. You know, in the book we talk about the example of Michael Phelps. Another great example is actually Tiger Woods. So Tiger Woods became kind of a very successful golfer, he won a couple Masters. I don’t know a ton about golf so I’m sort of talking very imprecisely now, but he won a number of Masters and a lot of that was because he developed a very intuitive swing. He knew what to concentrate on on his swing, the other parts would happen automatically.
Then, he decided to change his entire swing – in part because he was getting older, and so he needed to draw from new sources of strength for his long drives. So he consciously and deliberately changed a lot of his habits around how he swung the club. And I think that’s a good example because it sort of illustrates this interplay between habits as being something that consciously happen, and mastery where we choose which habits to focus on, change them, and choose where to concentrate and where to let the habit take over.

NYM: A lot of habits – overeating or drinking or smoking – have physical effects – you physically get buzzy from smoking, you physically get drunk. What would you say to people who are looking to change a behavior that is so intrinsically physically linked?

CD: You know, what’s interesting is that we think of those behaviors as being driven enormously by those physical and chemical changes in our body, but studies tend to show that they are more complicated than that. Smoking is a great example. We think of smoking as something that is inherently really addictive. And thats true. Nicotine though is not as physically addictive as we traditionally think of it as being. According to medical studies 100 hours after your last cigarette, once the nicotine is out of your blood system, you’re no longer, from a medical perspective, physically addicted to nicotine. Once it’s gone, there is no chemical craving. But we all know people who, two months or two years after giving up smoking, they still crave a cigarette in the morning with their coffee. If you crave a cigarette two years after you gave up smoking, that’s not because of a physical chemical craving, that’s because of a habit dysfunction, a habit craving. And someone who’s in the grip of a bad habit – it feels just like an addiction.In fact, neurologically, it operates in very similar centers of the brain and so that’s why it’s hard to distinguish between an addiction and a habit because they feel so similar. The recipe is really very much the same: Figure out what reward something like cigarettes or alcohol is giving to you and then find an alternative routine that can deliver a similar reward. When they tell people to quit smoking, very often, if it’s available- nicorette or replacement therapy or oftentimes drinking a lot more coffee when you normally have a cigarette helps people stop smoking because caffeine provides a rush very similar to nicotine so you’re replacing one routine with another routine and getting a very similar reward.

NYM: In your book you give so many examples of people and companies that are success stories, so for you, in your opinion, what do you think are the three biggest success stories, be it people or companies, that are a result of positive habits that have gone in the right direction?

CD: There’s so many of them. In the book we talk about Alcoa [an Aluminum company] and Paul O’Neill at Alcoa and I think a lot of people have been inspired by that story because Paul O’Neill decided to focus on worker safety and in doing so he really helped revolutionize this company that is an aluminum company- it didn’t necessarily have to become a place where worker safety was a priority and Paul O’neill made it a priority and saved lives in doing so. Similarly, if you look at Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Bus boycott, that a lot of the prevailing theories about why Montgomery and why Rosa Parks sparked what became the modern Civil Rights Movement, that it has to do with community habits and that’s a great example of a leader taking advantage of communal habits and creating change. I get emails from people – this one woman emailed me and she said, you know, she had felt like – she’d had a drinking problem for over a decade and some of the ideas in the book convinced her to go to AA. She’s been sober for 7 months – you know, that victory doesn’t mean much to anyone besides her and her family but we know how meaningful that must be for someone like her – to feel like you are out of control with something like drinking and feel like you’ve learned how to bring it more in control. I just think when people change their own habits then that those are the most inspiring stories because we know how powerless you can feel when you feel like you can’t control a habit.

NYM: How do our habits affect our happiness? Is there a correlation between the two? Is controlling habits the key to happiness?

CD: A lot of people have written me and said that -and this is true for me too – that they have this one behavior that drove them crazy, and they felt like totally successful people – they were people who were able to get good jobs and be good parents and be successful in life but they couldn’t make themselves go exercise or eat more healthy or stop eating bad food. You know, these little things that you say “if I’m so smart then why can’t I get up and go running every day,” and what we know from happiness studies is that these small things – those things actually have a disproportionate impact on people’s happiness. You know, if someone feels like they don’t have control over something that happens daily it tends to make them much more unhappy than the control that they do have makes them happy. And so these little niggling things are really really impactful for our overall happiness. So understanding how to change those behaviors, understanding where to start by diagnosing the cues and rewards is enormously powerful because it gives you a disproportionate sense of accomplishment and mastery over your own life, and ultimately, that is a necessary ingredient for happiness.

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