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.