The Power of Habit

The Power of Habit

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Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

Charles Duhigg

1. Habit. 2. Habit—Social aspects. 3. Change (Psychology)

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Book Details
 295 p
 File Size 
 1,383 KB
 File Type
 PDF format
 2012 by Charles Duhigg 

CHARLES DUHIGG is an investigative reporter for The New York Times,
where he contributes to the newspaper and the magazine. He authored or
contributed to Golden Opportunities (2007), a series of articles that examined
how companies are trying to take advantage of aging Americans, The Reckoning
(2008), which studied the causes and outcomes of the financial crisis, and Toxic
Waters (2009), about the worsening pollution in American waters and regulators’ response.
For his work, Mr. Duhigg has received the National Academies of Sciences,
National Journalism, George Polk, Gerald Loeb, and other awards, and he was
part of a team of finalists for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize. He has appeared on This
American Life, The Dr. Oz Show, NPR, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and Frontline.
Mr. Duhigg is a graduate of Harvard Business School and Yale University.
Before becoming a journalist, Mr. Duhigg worked in private equity and—for one
terrifying day—was a bike messenger in San Francisco.
Mr. Duhigg can acquire bad habits—most notably regarding fried foods—
within minutes, and lives in Brooklyn with his wife, a marine biologist, and their
two sons, whose habits include waking at 5:00 A.M., flinging food at
dinnertime, and smiling perfectly.
CHARLES DUHIGG is available for select readings and lectures. To
inquire about a possible appearance, please contact the Random House Speakers
Bureau at 212-572-2013 or rhspeakers@randomhouse.com.

The Habit Cure
She was the scientists’ favorite participant.
Lisa Allen, according to her file, was thirty-four years old, had started
smoking and drinking when she was sixteen, and had struggled with obesity for
most of her life. At one point, in her mid-twenties, collection agencies were
hounding her to recover $10,000 in debts. An old résumé listed her longest job
as lasting less than a year.

The woman in front of the researchers today, however, was lean and vibrant,
with the toned legs of a runner. She looked a decade younger than the photos in
her chart and like she could out-exercise anyone in the room. According to the
most recent report in her file, Lisa had no outstanding debts, didn’t drink, and
was in her thirty-ninth month at a graphic design firm.
“How long since your last cigarette?” one of the physicians asked, starting
down the list of questions Lisa answered every time she came to this laboratory
outside Bethesda, Maryland.
“Almost four years,” she said, “and I’ve lost sixty pounds and run a
marathon since then.” She’d also started a master’s degree and bought a home. It
had been an eventful stretch.
The scientists in the room included neurologists, psychologists, geneticists,
and a sociologist. For the past three years, with funding from the National
Institutes of Health, they had poked and prodded Lisa and more than two dozen
other former smokers, chronic overeaters, problem drinkers, obsessive shoppers,
and people with other destructive habits. All of the participants had one thing in
common: They had remade their lives in relatively short periods of time. The
researchers wanted to understand how. So they measured subjects’ vital signs,
installed video cameras inside their homes to watch their daily routines,
sequenced portions of their DNA, and, with technologies that allowed them to
peer inside people’s skulls in real time, watched as blood and electrical impulses
flowed through their brains while they were exposed to temptations such as
cigarette smoke and lavish meals.prl.1 The researchers’ goal was to figure out
how habits work on a neurological level—and what it took to make them change.

“I know you’ve told this story a dozen times,” the doctor said to Lisa, “but
some of my colleagues have only heard it secondhand. Would you mind
describing again how you gave up cigarettes?”
“Sure,” Lisa said. “It started in Cairo.” The vacation had been something of
a rash decision, she explained. A few months earlier, her husband had come
home from work and announced that he was leaving her because he was in love
with another woman. It took Lisa a while to process the betrayal and absorb the
fact that she was actually getting a divorce. There was a period of mourning,
then a period of obsessively spying on him, following his new girlfriend around
town, calling her after midnight and hanging up. Then there was the evening
Lisa showed up at the girlfriend’s house, drunk, pounding on her door and
screaming that she was going to burn the condo down.
“It wasn’t a great time for me,” Lisa said. “I had always wanted to see the
pyramids, and my credit cards weren’t maxed out yet, so … ”
On her first morning in Cairo, Lisa woke at dawn to the sound of the call to
prayer from a nearby mosque. It was pitch black inside her hotel room. Half
blind and jet-lagged, she reached for a cigarette.
She was so disoriented that she didn’t realize—until she smelled burning
plastic—that she was trying to light a pen, not a Marlboro. She had spent the
past four months crying, binge eating, unable to sleep, and feeling ashamed,
helpless, depressed, and angry, all at once. Lying in bed, she broke down. “It was
like this wave of sadness,” she said. “I felt like everything I had ever wanted had
crumbled. I couldn’t even smoke right.
“And then I started thinking about my ex-husband, and how hard it would
be to find another job when I got back, and how much I was going to hate it and
how unhealthy I felt all the time. I got up and knocked over a water jug and it
shattered on the floor, and I started crying even harder. I felt desperate, like I had
to change something, at least one thing I could control.”
She showered and left the hotel. As she rode through Cairo’s rutted streets
in a taxi and then onto the dirt roads leading to the Sphinx, the pyramids of Giza,
and the vast, endless desert around them, her self-pity, for a brief moment, gave
way. She needed a goal in her life, she thought. Something to work toward.
So she decided, sitting in the taxi, that she would come back to Egypt and
trek through the desert.
It was a crazy idea, Lisa knew. She was out of shape, overweight, with no
money in the bank. She didn’t know the name of the desert she was looking at or
if such a trip was possible. None of that mattered, though. She needed something
to focus on. Lisa decided that she would give herself one year to prepare. And to
survive such an expedition, she was certain she would have to make sacrifices.
In particular, she would need to quit smoking.
When Lisa finally made her way across the desert eleven months later—in
an air-conditioned and motorized tour with a half-dozen other people, mind you
—the caravan carried so much water, food, tents, maps, global positioning
systems, and two-way radios that throwing in a carton of cigarettes wouldn’t
have made much of a difference.
But in the taxi, Lisa didn’t know that. And to the scientists at the laboratory,
the details of her trek weren’t relevant. Because for reasons they were just
beginning to understand, that one small shift in Lisa’s perception that day in
Cairo—the conviction that she had to give up smoking to accomplish her goal—
had touched off a series of changes that would ultimately radiate out to every
part of her life. Over the next six months, she would replace smoking with
jogging, and that, in turn, changed how she ate, worked, slept, saved money,
scheduled her workdays, planned for the future, and so on. She would start
running half-marathons, and then a marathon, go back to school, buy a house,
and get engaged. Eventually she was recruited into the scientists’ study, and
when researchers began examining images of Lisa’s brain, they saw something
remarkable: One set of neurological patterns—her old habits—had been
overridden by new patterns. They could still see the neural activity of her old
behaviors, but those impulses were crowded out by new urges. As Lisa’s habits
changed, so had her brain.
It wasn’t the trip to Cairo that had caused the shift, scientists were
convinced, or the divorce or desert trek. It was that Lisa had focused on
changing just one habit—smoking—at first. Everyone in the study had gone
through a similar process. By focusing on one pattern—what is known as a
“keystone habit”—Lisa had taught herself how to reprogram the other routines
in her life, as well.
It’s not just individuals who are capable of such shifts. When companies
focus on changing habits, whole organizations can transform. Firms such as
Procter & Gamble, Starbucks, Alcoa, and Target have seized on this insight to
influence how work gets done, how employees communicate, and—without
customers realizing it—the way people shop.
“I want to show you one of your most recent scans,” a researcher told Lisa
near the end of her exam. He pulled up a picture on a computer screen that
showed images from inside her head. “When you see food, these areas”—he
pointed to a place near the center of her brain—“which are associated with
craving and hunger, are still active. Your brain still produces the urges that made
you overeat.
“However, there’s new activity in this area”—he pointed to the region
closest to her forehead—“where we believe behavioral inhibition and selfdiscipline
starts. That activity has become more pronounced each time you’ve come in.”
Lisa was the scientists’ favorite participant because her brain scans were so
compelling, so useful in creating a map of where behavioral patterns—habits—
reside within our minds. “You’re helping us understand how a decision becomes
an automatic behavior,” the doctor told her.
Everyone in the room felt like they were on the brink of something
important. And they were.
When you woke up this morning, what did you do first? Did you hop in the
shower, check your email, or grab a doughnut from the kitchen counter? Did you
brush your teeth before or after you toweled off? Tie the left or right shoe first?
What did you say to your kids on your way out the door? Which route did you
drive to work? When you got to your desk, did you deal with email, chat with a
colleague, or jump into writing a memo? Salad or hamburger for lunch? When
you got home, did you put on your sneakers and go for a run, or pour yourself a
drink and eat dinner in front of the TV?
“All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits,” William
James wrote in 1892.prl.2 Most of the choices we make each day may feel like
the products of well-considered decision making, but they’re not. They’re habits.
And though each habit means relatively little on its own, over time, the meals we
order, what we say to our kids each night, whether we save or spend, how often
we exercise, and the way we organize our thoughts and work routines have
enormous impacts on our health, productivity, financial security, and happiness.
One paper published by a Duke University researcher in 2006 found that more
than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual
decisions, but habits.prl.3
William James—like countless others, from Aristotle to Oprah—spent much
of his life trying to understand why habits exist. But only in the past two decades
have scientists and marketers really begun understanding how habits work—and
more important, how they change.
This book is divided into three parts. The first section focuses on how habits
emerge within individual lives. It explores the neurology of habit formation, how
to build new habits and change old ones, and the methods, for instance, that one
ad man used to push toothbrushing from an obscure practice into a national
obsession. It shows how Procter & Gamble turned a spray named Febreze into a
billion-dollar business by taking advantage of consumers’ habitual urges, how
Alcoholics Anonymous reforms lives by attacking habits at the core of addiction,
and how coach Tony Dungy reversed the fortunes of the worst team in the
National Football League by focusing on his players’ automatic reactions to
subtle on-field cues.
The second part examines the habits of successful companies and
organizations. It details how an executive named Paul O’Neill—before he
became treasury secretary—remade a struggling aluminum manufacturer into the
top performer in the Dow Jones Industrial Average by focusing on one keystone
habit, and how Starbucks turned a high school dropout into a top manager by
instilling habits designed to strengthen his willpower. It describes why even the
most talented surgeons can make catastrophic mistakes when a hospital’s
organizational habits go awry.
The third part looks at the habits of societies. It recounts how Martin Luther
King, Jr., and the civil rights movement succeeded, in part, by changing the
ingrained social habits of Montgomery, Alabama—and why a similar focus
helped a young pastor named Rick Warren build the nation’s largest church in
Saddleback Valley, California. Finally, it explores thorny ethical questions, such
as whether a murderer in Britain should go free if he can convincingly argue that
his habits led him to kill.
Each chapter revolves around a central argument: Habits can be changed, if
we understand how they work.
This book draws on hundreds of academic studies, interviews with more
than three hundred scientists and executives, and research conducted at dozens
of companies. (For an index of resources, please see the book’s notes and
http://www.thepowerofhabit.com.) It focuses on habits as they are technically
defined: the choices that all of us deliberately make at some point, and then stop
thinking about but continue doing, often every day. At one point, we all
consciously decided how much to eat and what to focus on when we got to the
office, how often to have a drink or when to go for a jog. Then we stopped
making a choice, and the behavior became automatic. It’s a natural consequence
of our neurology. And by understanding how it happens, you can rebuild those
patterns in whichever way you choose.

I first became interested in the science of habits eight years ago, as a
newspaper reporter in Baghdad. The U.S. military, it occurred to me as I watched
it in action, is one of the biggest habit-formation experiments in history.prl.4
Basic training teaches soldiers carefully designed habits for how to shoot, think,
and communicate under fire. On the battlefield, every command that’s issued
draws on behaviors practiced to the point of automation. The entire organization
relies on endlessly rehearsed routines for building bases, setting strategic
priorities, and deciding how to respond to attacks. In those early days of the war,
when the insurgency was spreading and death tolls were mounting, commanders
were looking for habits they could instill among soldiers and Iraqis that might
create a durable peace.
I had been in Iraq for about two months when I heard about an officer
conducting an impromptu habit modification program in Kufa, a small city
ninety miles south of the capital. He was an army major who had analyzed
videotapes of recent riots and had identified a pattern: Violence was usually
preceded by a crowd of Iraqis gathering in a plaza or other open space and, over
the course of several hours, growing in size. Food vendors would show up, as
well as spectators. Then, someone would throw a rock or a bottle and all hell
would break loose.
When the major met with Kufa’s mayor, he made an odd request: Could
they keep food vendors out of the plazas? Sure, the mayor said. A few weeks
later, a small crowd gathered near the Masjid al-Kufa, or Great Mosque of Kufa.
Throughout the afternoon, it grew in size. Some people started chanting angry
slogans. Iraqi police, sensing trouble, radioed the base and asked U.S. troops to
stand by. At dusk, the crowd started getting restless and hungry. People looked
for the kebab sellers normally filling the plaza, but there were none to be found.
The spectators left. The chanters became dispirited. By 8 P.M., everyone was gone.

When I visited the base near Kufa, I talked to the major. You wouldn’t
necessarily think about a crowd’s dynamics in terms of habits, he told me. But he
had spent his entire career getting drilled in the psychology of habit formation.
At boot camp, he had absorbed habits for loading his weapon, falling asleep
in a war zone, maintaining focus amid the chaos of battle, and making decisions
while exhausted and overwhelmed. He had attended classes that taught him
habits for saving money, exercising each day, and communicating with
bunkmates. As he moved up the ranks, he learned the importance of
organizational habits in ensuring that subordinates could make decisions without
constantly asking permission, and how the right routines made it easier to work
alongside people he normally couldn’t stand. And now, as an impromptu nation
builder, he was seeing how crowds and cultures abided by many of the same
rules. In some sense, he said, a community was a giant collection of habits
occurring among thousands of people that, depending on how they’re influenced,
could result in violence or peace. In addition to removing the food vendors, he
had launched dozens of different experiments in Kufa to influence residents’
habits. There hadn’t been a riot since he arrived.
“Understanding habits is the most important thing I’ve learned in the army,”
the major told me. “It’s changed everything about how I see the world. You want
to fall asleep fast and wake up feeling good? Pay attention to your nighttime
patterns and what you automatically do when you get up. You want to make
running easy? Create triggers to make it a routine. I drill my kids on this stuff.
My wife and I write out habit plans for our marriage. This is all we talk about in
command meetings. Not one person in Kufa would have told me that we could
influence crowds by taking away the kebab stands, but once you see everything
as a bunch of habits, it’s like someone gave you a flashlight and a crowbar and
you can get to work.”
The major was a small man from Georgia. He was perpetually spitting either
sunflower seeds or chewing tobacco into a cup. He told me that prior to entering
the military, his best career option had been repairing telephone lines, or,
possibly, becoming a methamphetamine entrepreneur, a path some of his high
school peers had chosen to less success. Now, he oversaw eight hundred troops
in one of the most sophisticated fighting organizations on earth.
“I’m telling you, if a hick like me can learn this stuff, anyone can. I tell my
soldiers all the time, there’s nothing you can’t do if you get the habits right.”
In the past decade, our understanding of the neurology and psychology of
habits and the way patterns work within our lives, societies, and organizations
has expanded in ways we couldn’t have imagined fifty years ago. We now know
why habits emerge, how they change, and the science behind their mechanics.
We know how to break them into parts and rebuild them to our specifications.
We understand how to make people eat less, exercise more, work more
efficiently, and live healthier lives. Transforming a habit isn’t necessarily easy or
quick. It isn’t always simple.
But it is possible. And now we understand how.

Table of Contents
Title Page

The Habit Cure
The Habits of Individuals
How Habits Work
How to Create New Habits
Why Transformation Occurs
The Habits of Successful Organizations
Which Habits Matter Most
When Willpower Becomes Automatic
How Leaders Create Habits Through Accident
and Design
When Companies Predict (and Manipulate) Habits
The Habits of Societies
How Movements Happen
Are We Responsible for Our Habits?
A Reader’s Guide to Using These Ideas
A Note on Sources


The Power of Habit is a work of nonfiction. Nonetheless, some names and
personal characteristics of individuals or events have been changed in order to
disguise identities. Any resulting resemblance to persons living or dead is
entirely coincidental and unintentional.