1. 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.
2. 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.
3. This process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future:
4. By learning to observe the cues and rewards, though, we can change the routines.
5. This is how new habits are created: by putting together a cue, a routine, and a reward, and then cultivating a craving that drives the loop.
6. But to overpower the habit, we must recognize which craving is driving the behavior.
7. But countless studies have shown that a cue and a reward, on their own, aren’t enough for a new habit to last. Only when 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.
8. Cravings are what drive habits. And figuring out how to spark a craving makes creating a new habit easier.
9. Rather, to change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.
10. Belief was the ingredient that made a reworked habit loop into a permanent behavior.
11. “Even if you give people better habits, it doesn’t repair why they started drinking in the first place. Eventually they’ll have a bad day, and no new routine is going to make everything seem okay. What can make a difference is believing that they can cope with that stress without alcohol.”
12. “At some point, people in AA look around the room and think, if it worked for that guy, I guess it can work for me,” said Lee Ann Kaskutas, a senior scientist at the Alcohol Research Group. “There’s something really powerful about groups and shared experiences. People might be skeptical about their ability to change if they’re by themselves, but a group will convince them to suspend disbelief. A community creates belief.”
13. But we do know that for habits to permanently change, people must believe that change is feasible. The same process that makes AA so effective—the power of a group to teach individuals how to believe—happens whenever people come together to help one another change. Belief is easier when it occurs within a community.
14. How do habits change? There is, unfortunately, no specific set of steps guaranteed to work for every person. We know that a habit cannot be eradicated—it must, instead, be replaced. 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.
15. Some habits have the power to start a chain reaction, changing other habits as they move through an organization. Some habits, in other words, matter more than others in remaking businesses and lives. These are “keystone habits,”
16. Researchers have found similar dynamics in dozens of other settings, including individuals’ lives. Take, for instance, studies from the past decade examining the impacts of exercise on daily routines.10 When people start habitually exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, they start changing other, unrelated patterns in their lives, often unknowingly. Typically, people who exercise start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family.
17. Small wins are exactly what they sound like, and are part of how keystone habits create widespread changes. A huge body of research has shown that small wins have enormous power, an influence disproportionate to the accomplishments of the victories themselves.
18. Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach.
19. The second way that keystone habits encourage change: by creating structures that help other habits to flourish.
20. At the core of that education is an intense focus on an all-important habit: willpower. Dozens of studies show that willpower is the single most important keystone habit for individual success.
21. “Self-discipline predicted academic performance more robustly than did IQ. Self-discipline also predicted which students would improve their grades over the course of the school year, whereas IQ did not.… Self-discipline has a bigger effect on academic performance than does intellectual talent.”
22. And the best way to strengthen willpower and give students a leg up, studies indicate, is to make it into a habit.
23. Scientists began conducting related experiments, trying to figure out how to help kids increase their self-regulatory skills. They learned that teaching them simple tricks—such as distracting themselves by drawing a picture, or imagining a frame around the marshmallow, so it seemed more like a photo and less like a real temptation—helped them learn self-control.
24. By the 1980s, a theory emerged that became generally accepted: Willpower is a learnable skill, something that can be taught the same way kids learn to do math and say “thank you.”
25. “That’s why signing kids up for piano lessons or sports is so important. It has nothing to do with creating a good musician or a five-year-old soccer star,” said Heatherton. “When you learn to force yourself to practice for an hour or run fifteen laps, you start building self-regulatory strength. A five-year-old who can follow the ball for ten minutes becomes a sixth grader who can start his homework on time.”
26. Simply giving employees a sense of agency—a feeling that they are in control, that they have genuine decision-making authority—can radically increase how much energy and focus they bring to their jobs.
27. A company with dysfunctional habits can’t turn around simply because a leader orders it. Rather, wise executives seek out moments of crisis—or create the perception of crisis—and cultivate the sense that something must change, until everyone is finally ready to overhaul the patterns they live with each day.
28. “This crisis provides the opportunity for us to do things that you could not do before.”
29. Andreasen wanted to know why these people had deviated from their usual patterns. What he discovered has become a pillar of modern marketing theory: People’s buying habits are more likely to change when they go through a major life event. When someone gets married, for example, they’re more likely to start buying a new type of coffee. When they move into a new house, they’re more apt to purchase a different kind of cereal.
30.If a member made a friend at the YMCA, they were much more likely to show up for workout sessions. In other words, people who join the YMCA have certain social habits.
31. It’s a variation of the lesson learned by Target and radio DJs: to sell a new habit—in this case exercise—wrap it in something that people already know and like, such as the instinct to go places where it’s easy to make friends.
32. To market a new habit—be it groceries or aerobics—you must understand how to make the novel seem familiar.
33. In general, sociologists say, most of us have friends who are like us. We might have a few close acquaintances who are richer, a few who are poorer, and a few of different races—but, on the whole, our deepest relationships tend to be with people who look like us, earn about the same amount of money, and come from similar backgrounds.
34. For Aristotle, habits reigned supreme. The behaviors that occur unthinkingly are the evidence of our truest selves, he said. So “just as a piece of land has to be prepared beforehand if it is to nourish the seed, so the mind of the pupil has to be prepared in its habits if it is to enjoy and dislike the right things.”
35. THE DIFFICULT THING about studying the science of habits is that most people, when they hear about this field of research, want to know the secret formula for quickly changing any habit. If scientists have discovered how these patterns work, then it stands to reason that they must have also found a recipe for rapid change, right? If only it were that easy. It’s not that formulas don’t exist. The problem is that there isn’t one formula for changing habits. There are thousands.
36. THE FRAMEWORK:
• Identify the routine
• Experiment with rewards
• Isolate the cue
• Have a plan
37. STEP ONE: IDENTIFY THE ROUTINE
38. 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. As an example, let’s say you have a bad habit, like I did when I started researching this book, of going to the cafeteria and buying a chocolate chip cookie every afternoon. Let’s say this habit has caused you to gain a few pounds.
39. How do you start diagnosing and then changing this behavior? By figuring out the habit loop. And the first step is to identify the routine. In this cookie scenario—as with most habits—the routine is the most obvious aspect: It’s the behavior you want to change. Your routine is that you get up from your desk in the afternoon, walk to the cafeteria, buy a chocolate chip cookie, and eat it while chatting with friends. So that’s what you put into the loop:
40. What’s the cue for this routine? Is it hunger? Boredom? Low blood sugar? That you need a break before plunging into another task? And what’s the reward? The cookie itself? The change of scenery? The temporary distraction? Socializing with colleagues? Or the burst of energy that comes from that blast of sugar? To figure this out, you’ll need to do a little experimentation.
41. STEP TWO: EXPERIMENT WITH REWARDS
42. Rewards are powerful because they satisfy cravings. But we’re often not conscious of the cravings that drive our behaviors.
43. To figure out which cravings are driving particular habits, it’s useful to experiment with different rewards.
44.Think of yourself as a scientist in the data collection stage. On the first day of your experiment, when you feel the urge to go to the cafeteria and buy a cookie, adjust your routine so it delivers a different reward. For instance, instead of walking to the cafeteria, go outside, walk around the block, and then go back to your desk without eating anything. The next day, go to the cafeteria and buy a donut, or a candy bar, and eat it at your desk. The next day, go to the cafeteria, buy an apple, and eat it while chatting with your friends. Then, try a cup of coffee. Then, instead of going to the cafeteria, walk over to your friend’s office and gossip for a few minutes and go back to your desk.
45. You get the idea. What you choose to do instead of buying a cookie isn’t important. The point is to test different hypotheses to determine which craving is driving your routine. Are you craving the cookie itself, or a break from work? If it’s the cookie, is it because you’re hungry? (In which case the apple should work just as well.) Or is it because you want the burst of energy the cookie provides? (And so the coffee should suffice.) Or are you wandering up to the cafeteria as an excuse to socialize, and the cookie is just a convenient excuse? (If so, walking to someone’s desk and gossiping for a few minutes should satisfy the urge.) As you test four or five different rewards, you can use an old trick to look for patterns: After each activity, jot down on a piece of paper the first three things that come to mind when you get back to your desk. They can be emotions, random thoughts, reflections on how you’re feeling,
46. And why the fifteen-minute alarm? Because the point of these tests is to determine the reward you’re craving. If, fifteen minutes after eating a donut, you still feel an urge to get up and go to the cafeteria, then your habit isn’t motivated by a sugar craving. If, after gossiping at a colleague’s desk, you still want a cookie, then the need for human contact isn’t what’s driving your behavior.
47. On the other hand, if fifteen minutes after chatting with a friend, you find it easy to get back to work, then you’ve identified the reward—temporary distraction and socialization—that your habit sought to satisfy. By experimenting with different rewards, you can isolate what you are actually craving, which is essential in redesigning the habit.
48. STEP THREE: ISOLATE THE CUE
49. Our lives are the same way. The reason why it is so hard to identify the cues that trigger our habits is because there is too much information bombarding us as our behaviors unfold.
50. To identify a cue amid the noise, we can use the same system as the psychologist: Identify categories of behaviors ahead of time to scrutinize in order to see patterns. Luckily, science offers some help in this regard. Experiments have shown that almost all habitual cues fit into one of five categories:
Immediately preceding action
Where are you? (sitting at my desk)
What time is it? (3:36 P.M.)
What’s your emotional state? (bored)
Who else is around? (no one)
What action preceded the urge? (answered an email)
The next day:
Where are you? (walking back from the copier)
What time is it? (3:18 P.M.)
What’s your emotional state? (happy)
Who else is around? (Jim from Sports)
What action preceded the urge? (made a photocopy)
The third day:
Where are you? (conference room)
What time is it? (3:41 P.M.)
What’s your emotional state? (tired, excited about the project I’m working on)
Who else is around? (editors who are coming to this meeting)
What action preceded the urge? (I sat down because the meeting is about to start)
Three days in, it was pretty clear which cue was triggering my cookie habit—I felt an urge to get a snack at a certain time of day.
52. STEP FOUR: HAVE A PLAN
53. Once you’ve figured out your habit loop—you’ve identified the reward driving your behavior, the cue triggering it, and the routine itself—you can begin to shift the behavior. You can change to a better routine by planning for the cue and choosing a behavior that delivers the reward you are craving.
54. Put another way, a habit is a formula our brain automatically follows: When I see CUE, I will do ROUTINE in order to get a REWARD.
55. To re-engineer that formula, we need to begin making choices again. And the easiest way to do this, according to study after study, is to have a plan.
56. Obviously, changing some habits can be more difficult. But this framework is a place to start. Sometimes change takes a long time. Sometimes it requires repeated experiments and failures.