Continuing our occasional series on books that have influenced my thinking about what it means to live a productive life, this episode features some of the highlights from Charles Duhigg’s fascinating book, The Power of Habit.
The Power of Habit
Earlier this year I started what will be an occasional series of episodes sharing key points from books that contribute to our understanding of how to live a meaningully productive life. Episode 133 features important concepts and my thoughts about them from Gary Keller’s excellent book, The ONE Thing.
This time I wanted to share highlights from another book that I’ve found informative and thought-provoking: The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg. As with Keller’s book, in this episode I mostly share the key points from the book in the author’s own words, with some of my thoughts about why those points struck a chord with me.
If you’ve read (or listened to) the book, I’d love to hear your thoughts, too. Please share them in the comments section below, or join the discussion in The Productive Woman Community Facebook group.
About the Author
According to his author page on Amazon, Charles Duhigg is an award-winning reporter for The New York Times, part of a team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for a series about Apple, as well as winner several other honors for his investigative reporting, including the National Journalism Award, the Investigative Reporters and Editors’ Medal, and the National Academies’ reporting award. He’s a native of New Mexico, but lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife and two young children. Learn more about Charles Duhigg and his other work (including the equally fascinating book Smarter, Faster, Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business) on his website.
Recommendation (and credit to the author)
There’s a lot of food for thought in The Power of Habit. I encourage you to read it if you haven’t already. In the episode I share some of the key points Duhigg makes in the book that have stuck with me and inspired me to be more intentional about how I live my life. Some of them are summarized below. [Material in quotes below comes from The Power of Habit and is the property of the book’s copyright holder. I added the emphasis–bold or italics–to highlight ideas I think are particularly powerful.]
Why this book?
Why would we talk about a book about habits on a podcast about productivity?
Productivity, in the sense of getting the things done we care about, has a lot to do with our behavior. As Duhigg says in The Power of Habit:
“Habits, as much as memory and reason, are at the root of how we behave. We might not remember the experiences that create our habits, but once they are lodged within our brains they influence how we act — often without our realization.”
Much of our life is spent doing the things we’ve established as habits (whether intentionally or not), so whether our habits are good or bad has a lot of impact on how productive we can be — both in the sense of getting things done and in the sense of making a life that matters. When we struggle with doing the things we want to do, the answer might be in the habits we’re living with.
What is a Habit?
Duhigg describes the technical definition of habit as, “the choices that all of us deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about but continue doing, often every day.” This is “a natural consequence of our neurology.”
Habits live in and are governed by the basal ganglia — the oldest and most primitive part of the brain — in contrast with the prefrontal cortex, where reasoning lives.
Where do habits come from?
The book shares interesting case studies and how habits have affected people’s behavior. These stories demonstrate what scientists have learned about how habits affect our lives. These scientists share where habits come from and why they develop.
“Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often. This effort-saving instinct is a huge advantage. An efficient brain requires less room, which makes for a smaller head, which makes childbirth easier and therefore causes fewer infant and mother deaths. An efficient brain also allows us to stop thinking constantly about basic behaviors, such as walking and choosing what to eat, so we can devote mental energy to inventing spears, irrigation systems, and, eventually, airplanes and video games.”
This is the background as to why our brain has developed the tendency to form habits.
How Habits are Formed
Duhigg shares fascinating case studies that also demonstrate how researchers discovered the habit loop. He says,
“First there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is a routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is the reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop — cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward — becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges.”
This is an energy-saving mechanism for the brain, and he goes on to say, “Without habit loops, our brains would shut down, overwhelmed by the minutiae of daily life.”
Habits are automatic actions and thought patterns that we follow without conscious thought. If you think about it, when you wake up in the morning, what is the first thing you do? Then, the next thing? Before you’re even consciously thinking, you’re acting out the routines of your day.
A good example of habits developing is driving. You remember when you first learned to drive and you had to memorize each step to driving a car. You have to think about every step very consciously. Years later, though, you don’t really have to think about it anymore. The habit response in our brain is what allows us to drive and still talk to someone in the car, adjust the radio, and keep an eye on the kids (or the groceries) in the back seat.
Habits are Powerful
Habits are powerful. When a habit kicks in, we act without thinking (and that’s not always in our best interests). For example, we may react in a habitual way to stress, perhaps by going to the kitchen to find something to eat, whether or not we’re hungry. Habits bypass our rational, reason-based thought to act in an automatic pattern.
It is important to know that our habits can be changed. Duhigg says
“Habits aren’t destiny … [They] can be ignored, changed, or replaced. But the reason the discovery of the habit loop is so important is that it reveals a basic truth: When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision-making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit — unless you find new routines — the pattern will unfold automatically.”
The primitive part of our brain doesn’t need our conscious participation, and research studies have demonstrated that the prefrontal cortex shuts down when a habit kicks in. Duhigg goes on to say,
“Habits are powerful, but delicate. They can emerge outside our consciousness, or can be deliberately designed. They can occur without our permission, but can be reshaped by fiddling with their parts. They shape our lives far more than we realize — they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense. . . . Habits are powerful because they create neurological cravings. Our brains learn to anticipate the reward…”
The process of how habits are formed is simple, formulaic, and (to me) fascinating. We create (intentionally or not) a habit “by putting together a cue, a routine, and a reward, and then cultivating a craving that drives the loop.”
Understanding how this works gives us the tools that we need in order to create new habits that will potentially serve us better than the ones that we have.
“These cravings don’t have complete authority over us … [There] are mechanisms that can help us ignore the temptations. But to overpower the habit, we must recognize which craving is driving the behavior.”
I thought this was key. If we have a habit and we don’t like the results and we want to change it, then we try different things and nothing seems to work. Research shows that you have to understand which craving is driving that habit and behavior. The book shares an example of this related to running:
“If you want to start running each morning, it’s essential that you choose a simple cue (like always lacing up your sneakers before breakfast or leaving your running clothes next to you bed) and a clear reward (such as a midday treat, a sense of accomplishment from recording your miles, or the endorphin rush you get from a jog). However, countless studies have shown that a cue and a reward, on their own, aren’t enough for a new habit to last. Only after your brain starts expecting the reward — craving the endorphins or sense of accomplishment — will it become automatic to lace up your jogging shoes each morning. The cue, in addition to triggering a routine, must also trigger a craving for the reward to come. . . . Cravings are what drive habits. And figuring out how to spark a craving makes creating a new habit easier.”
This information is so helpful in trying to figure out how to establish new habits so you can more toward your goals.
Duhigg then talks about “The Golden Rule of Habit Change”: you can’t extinguish a bad habit; you can only change it. In order to change it, you use the same cue, provide the same reward, and change the routine.
The importance of awareness
The first step is “awareness training,” and paying attention to the when and why and describing what triggers your habitual behavior. What do you feel right before you do [whatever]? Describe why you do [whatever]? How do you feel when you do it? What’s the reward? Pay attention to the when and why.
Intentional habit formation
Next, choose a new response to the trigger, called a “competing response,” which is what you do instead of the habit you’re trying to change. “[O]nce you’re aware of how your habit works, once you recognize the cues and rewards, you’re halfway to changing it … [The] brain can be reprogrammed. You just have to be deliberate about it.” (quoting one of the developers of “habit reversal training.”)
Habit reversal training is used to treat verbal and physical tics, depression, smoking, gambling problems, anxiety, bedwetting, procrastination, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and other behavioral problems. This is based on “one of the fundamental principles of habits: Often, we don’t really understand the cravings driving our behaviors until we look for them.” We do these things unconsciously.
It’s important to address the craving that drives your habit. For example, if you want to stop snacking at work, you first need to understand why you do it — is it to satisfy hunger, to interrupt boredom, or something else? The replacement habit (competing response) you choose needs to address the right craving.
The necessity of believing (and the value of community)
Duhigg reminds us that although it’s possible to “retrain” ourselves to incorporate better habits, it takes intention, experimentation, and very often the encouragement of a support system.
“There is … no specific set of steps guaranteed to work for every person. We know that a habit cannot be eradicated — it must, instead, be replaced. (This was such a revelation to me. We can’t always ‘break a bad habit.’ It’s always going to be there, we can just replace it.) And we know that habits are most malleable when the Golden Rule of habit change is applied: If we keep the same cue and the same reward, a new routine can be inserted. But that’s not enough. For a habit to stay changed, people must believe change is possible. And most often, that belief only emerges with the help of a group … If you want to change a habit, you must find an alternative routine, and your odds of success go up dramatically when you commit to changing as part of a group. Belief is essential, and it grows out of a communal experience, even if that community is only as large as two people.”
If there is a habit you want to change, whether it is procrastinating, or overeating, or not exercising, or things that are more serious to you than that, you need to believe that change is possible. You are more likely to be successful if you develop a support system, if you are part of a group, or if you find a buddy to work with you to help you to be accountable, who is possibly working toward the same goal. This is one of the great advantages to a mastermind group, whether is it The Productive Women Mastermind or any other. That accountability and mutual support help us to believe that change is possible, and it can make a huge difference in our ability to create better habits that help us to be more productive.
Another thing Duhigg discusses in the book is something called keystone habits.
“Keystone habits say that success doesn’t depend on getting every single thing right, but instead relies on identifying a few key priorities and fashioning them into powerful levers … The habits that matter most are the ones that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns.”
Keystone habits work by creating small wins. He continues, “A huge body of research has shown that small wins have enormous power, an influence disproportionate to the accomplishments of the victories themselves … Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach.”
Think back to the earlier quote that the final element in successfully changing habits is belief. Finding that keystone habit helps us to create small wins that snowball and help us to believe that bigger change is possible.
Duhigg then goes on to talk about willpower. “Dozens of studies show that willpower is the single most important keystone habit for individual success … and the best way to strengthen willpower … is to make it into a habit.”
Willpower is the ability to delay gratification.
“Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like the muscles in your arms or legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there’s less power left over for other things … If you want to do something that requires willpower — like going for a run after work — you have to conserve your willpower muscle during the day.”
So in order to conserve your willpower during the day you have to make other things into habits that don’t require your use of willpower. Instead, save your willpower for the new things you want to do, the new habits you want to develop.
As you strengthen your willpower in one area of life, it spills over into other areas. One researcher quoted in the book said,
“When you learn to force yourself to go to the gym or start your homework or eat a salad instead of a hamburger, part of what’s happening is that you’re changing how you think … People get better at regulating their impulses. They learn how to distract themselves from temptations. And once you’ve gotten into that willpower groove, your brain is practiced at helping you focus on a goal.”
Developing a plan to overcome your weak moments
Duhigg shared a number of stories about developing plans to strengthen willpower. It starts with becoming aware of where your weak points are, and developing a plan to address it.
For example, if you want to develop a habit of working out regularly, as part of the process of establishing that habit you need to figure out where your weak points are, or where your plan fails you. Duhigg calls these “inflection points,” or those times when our pain is the greatest. So you have to look at it and say, “I want to develop a habit of working out regularly, but why don’t I? Where does the plan fall apart?” Maybe you come home and sit down to watch TV for a minute and then don’t get up? What’s your plan to prevent that? Perhaps pack your gym bag and keep it in the car and stop at the gym on your way home, and workout before you get home. You might schedule a tennis game or a jog with a friend.
So you have to look at it and say, “I want to develop a habit of working out regularly, but why don’t I? Where does the plan fall apart?” Maybe you come home and sit down to watch TV for a minute and then don’t get up? What’s your plan to prevent that? Perhaps pack your gym bag and keep it in the car and stop at the gym on your way home, and work out before you get home. You might schedule a tennis game or a jog with a friend.
The key is to figure out when your willpower is the weakest and prepare for that moment that you know will come. Be aware of your weak moments, and plan ahead to deal with them.
“This is how willpower becomes a habit: by choosing a certain behavior ahead of time, and then following that routine when an inflection point arrives.”
Understanding the power of habits
So many of the conversations I have with myself and with those in The Productive Women community are about things that we do that we wish we didn’t, or things we wish we would do that we don’t.
“Hundreds of habits influence our days — they guide how we get dressed in the morning, talk to our kids, and fall asleep at night; they impact what we eat for lunch, how we do business, and whether we exercise or have a beer after work. Each of them has a different cue and offers a unique reward. Some are simple and others are complex, drawing upon emotional triggers and offering subtle neurochemical prizes. But every habit, no matter its complexity, is malleable … However, to modify a habit, you must decide to change it. You must consciously accept the hard work of identifying the cues and rewards that drive the habits’ routines, and find alternatives. You must know you have control and be self-conscious enough to use it.”
He goes on to say,
“If you believe you can change — if you make it a habit — the change becomes real. That is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be. . . . No matter how strong our willpower, we’re guaranteed to fall back into our old ways once in awhile. But if we plan for those relapses — if we take steps to make sure those slips don’t become a habit — it’s easier to get back on track.”
The framework for changing habits
The Power of Habit includes an appendix full of ideas on how to apply these principles, and within it Duhigg reminds us that there is no single formula for changing habits. The book instead offers a framework for changing habit:
- Identify the routine — “To understand your own habits, you need to identify the components of your loops. Once you have diagnosed the habit loop of a particular behavior, you can look for ways to supplant old vices with new routines.”
- Experiment with rewards — “Rewards are powerful because they satisfy cravings … To figure out what cravings are driving particular habits, it’s useful to experiment with different rewards.”
- Isolate the cue.
- Have a plan.
Does change take time?
In The Power of Habit‘s prologue, Duhigg mentions case studies of people who had “remade their lives” in a short time. As I read that section, I pondered the challenges of making lasting change in our lives. We say change takes time, but that’s not true. Change happens instantaneously. It’s thinking about change, preparing to change, trying to change that takes time. But when change happens, it’s like flipping a switch: one moment you’re a smoker, or an overeater, or a liar, or a gambler, or whatever; the next moment you aren’t. If you believe change is possible, even the most entrenched habit can be changed if you are prepared to do the work.
What do you think?
Are the habits you’ve developed serving you? Is there one you’d like to change? I’d love to help support you in that. Please share your questions or thoughts in the comment section below or in The Productive Woman community Facebook group, or email me.
Resources and Links:
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