21 Mar

In February, I attended a work conference keynote presentation by Charles Duhigg who wrote “The Power of Habit.” His explanation of the genesis of a habit was fascinating. The book is divided into habits of individuals, habits of successful corporations, and habits of societies.

While habits of individuals are most interesting to me, I have to recount one story Mr. Duhigg shared.

While working as a newspaper reporter in Baghdad in the early 2000’s, Duhigg heard about an army major in the small town of Kufa who needed to mitigate or stop citizen riots which resulted in violence. The major analyzed hours of videotapes of the riots and found a pattern. The people would start to gather, be there for several hours, get something to eat from the cart vendors, mill around. Then, someone would throw something and everything escalated from there.

The major asked the town mayor (yes, the book called the town leader a mayor) to keep the food vendors out of the plaza area. A few weeks later, a crowd gathered near the Great Mosque of Kufa. They chanted angry slogans, the Iraqi police got nervous, and asked U.S. troops to stand by. Around dusk, people got hungry, but there were no vendors. Spectators left to go home and eat. The chanters lost their audience and by 8pm, everyone was gone.  The major also launched other experiments in Kufa to influence residents’ habits. There hadn’t been a riot since he’d arrived.  Quote from the major: “Understanding habits is the most important thing I’ve learned in the army.”


40%-50% of your day is habit, from taking a shower and brushing your teeth to taking the same route to work every day. According to brain scan studies, the more ingrained your habit, the less the brain works. It quiets because it doesn’t take energy to perform a habit that’s been learned. Brain scans show that when learning something new, activity increases in the brain to form neural pathways.

I’ve tried to break my bad habits.  I drank too many Diet Cokes each day and I now limit myself to two per week, with a mini-goal to make it no more than once per week. Success. I have broken that habit and maintained my new habit. But, some habits, no matter how hard I try to break them, remain. I ended up thinking I’d had the habit so long, it wasn’t going away.

Duhigg gave me hope. Hope that I could break a bad habit and forge a good habit. He believes that once you learn how habits work, you can more easily control them.

To establish a habit:

1) You first receive a cue.  I’ll start with feeding a pet from an owner’s standpoint. At a certain time every evening, you get a cue from your pet. It stands/sits in front of you, and stares. Maybe, it goes to the area of the food bowl and then paces back to stare some more. It might vocalize. You feed it.

2) The next step is routine. You do this every time the pet gives you the cue.

3) The final step is reward. This is very important to ingraining a habit. In this example, you might be glad it stops whining or meowing (which it has discovered drives you nuts, so it will vocalize until you cave!), you might smile because a dog jumps up and down, and wiggles its entire body with joy because you’re feeding it. These are rewards. Even as the pet has established a habit, so has the owner, each having a set of cue, routine, and reward.

Cue. Routine. Reward.

Duhigg says now you can change a component to break the habit.  The first step is to recognize the cue. Let’s say that when you go grocery shopping on Sunday mornings, you pass by a drive-in that serves a delicious mocha caramel latte. One day, you hadn’t eaten breakfast and it was a little chilly, so you stopped and got one. It tasted heavenly and you rationalized that it could replace breakfast and save time. And…it tasted heavenly. The cue was hunger, it became routine, and the reward was satiating and delicious. To change the cue, eat breakfast. Change the routine and take another route to the grocery store.  Or, do your shopping Saturday afternoon one week, Sunday afternoon another time.

Lest this seem too easy, it’s not.

The bad news is a habit never really disappears because the brain encodes it into its structure. If you put the cue back in place, the habit will reemerge. A habit cannot be eradicated. It can be replaced. That’s why dieting is so hard. If you put the cues back, you go back to the same patterns you had before you retrained yourself to eat better or exercise regularly. The brain doesn’t know the difference between a bad habit and a good habit. It just waits for cues and rewards.

The book has more to say about cravings and the importance of belief. To be successful, you have to believe it’s possible. Like getting published! BTW, our reward for attending the keynote was a free copy of his book!

Whether I want to break a bad habit or make a good one, I can do it by breaking up the components and altering them. Change or create cues, stop or establish a routine, determine my reward.


Posted by on March 21, 2013 in Psychology


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16 responses to “Habit

  1. Judith Keim

    March 21, 2013 at 7:05 AM

    Wow! What a fascinating blog! I don’t know where to start – break bad habits or begin new ones!! I’m going to try to break a habit of my dog’s (mine, too) and see if I can get him to stop barking long after someone has arrived at the door. He barks until someone bends over and gives him a pat or better yet, a belly rub. This is done even after I’ve said “No barking!” If I can break a dachshund’s bad habits, I’ll be equipped to start on mine! LOL PS – good to know in writing too

    • Janis McCurry

      March 21, 2013 at 9:10 AM

      My first thought was to give him a treat right after you shut the door. That would change a cue. But, then he’d be getting treats all the time. Maybe he gets sequestered behind a closed door? Good to think about what can change in the habit.

  2. Corina Mallory

    March 21, 2013 at 7:11 AM

    Great post Janis! I have quite a few habits in my life I’d like to replace. Thinking of this cue, routine, reward pattern is very helpful. I lost a bit of weight last year and one of the things that helped an amazing amount was simply creating a new routine with my grocery shopping. I’d get up early so I could do my grocery shopping before work instead of after. After work I was tired and ready for dinner and my willpower to resist a little treat for the drive home was severely compromised. Before work I was full from breakfast and didn’t have time to dawdle down the potato chip aisle or any craving for the salty snacks that are my downfall. I would love to change up my morning habits even more to make time for writing. This gives me the hope that I can do it! I just need to figure out what cues and routines I can implement …

    • Janis McCurry

      March 21, 2013 at 9:12 AM

      Knowing I didn’t have to face a habit head-on, but could break it up into parts somehow clicked with me. I plan to figure out a “more” writing habit…although the first cue that comes to mind is alcohol. 😉

  3. Stephanie Berget (@StephanieBerget)

    March 21, 2013 at 8:37 AM

    Cue, routine and reward makes sense. I’ll have to start looking at the habits I want to break in this way. Thanks for a great post.

  4. Janis McCurry

    March 21, 2013 at 9:13 AM

    Good luck, Steph.

  5. maryvine

    March 21, 2013 at 9:45 AM

    Great post, Janis. Thanks. You described my pet feeding routine beautifully. Except the reward is that they don’t bother me after feeding 🙂

  6. Janis McCurry

    March 21, 2013 at 10:15 AM

    A habit to keep!

  7. marsharwest

    March 21, 2013 at 11:19 AM

    Wow! Super post, Janis. I’m in there with the doggy feeding pattern. The tail wagging and food enhaling is very rewarding. I think the hard part is probably recognizing the cue.

    Congrats for cutting back on the Diet Coke. It really is bad for us. I stopped after one of my daughters presented me evidence of how DC contriubutes to belly fat. 😦 Can’t say I’ve noticed a huge difference that way, but I must be healthier because I drink much more water. LOL

  8. Janis McCurry

    March 21, 2013 at 11:20 AM

    Yeah, I’m a water baby, too. It sure isn’t as tasty.

  9. Peggy Staggs

    March 21, 2013 at 4:58 PM

    The major’s story is amazing. How easily we’re manipulated. The simple act of taking away food can prevent unrest.
    The brain is an amazing organ. Its workings fascinates me. The one thing they teach us in Weight Watchers is how to break habits and create new ones. I’ve seen it work both ways. Some people are able to maintain the new habits and some slip back into the old ways. It’s all about change and maintaining it.

    • Janis McCurry

      March 22, 2013 at 4:50 AM

      I guess it’s up to us to keep on trying. Hopefully, this info will help!

  10. Lynn Mapp

    March 21, 2013 at 8:02 PM

    Janis, what a great post! You’ve given us a lot to think about, and…maybe…make some lifestyle changes. Thank you!

  11. Janis McCurry

    March 22, 2013 at 4:52 AM

    Any time. We’re all in this together!

  12. Jennifer

    March 22, 2013 at 3:04 PM

    Love this post! So interesting. Forming new neural pathways is said to be important for optimal brain function in general too.

  13. Janis McCurry

    March 22, 2013 at 3:26 PM

    Thanks. I’m definitely going to work at recognizing cues.


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