Charles Duhigg on how to make and break habits

I loved this book. I talked about it with my friends for weeks and they obliged me by nodding and smiling. Highly recommend it. Here’s my chat with author Charles Duhigg in the Post (March 27, 2012):

More than 40% of our daily actions are habits, according to research. Everything from driving to making breakfast to having sex have become automatic routines requiring little brain power. Habits are easy to establish, harder to break. But they can be changed, as Charles Duhigg, an award-winning investigative reporter for The New York Times, writes in his new book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. In it, Duhigg pairs science with real-life examples to explain how changing the right habit can change everything.

  • Story  New York Times business reporter Charles Duhigg ate a chocolate chip cookie every afternoon in the newsroom. He tried to stop. He put a note on his computer monitor that said, “No cookie,” which didn’t work. He felt powerless to break the habit. But by identifying his “habit loop” — the cue that tells your brain to go into automatic mode, the routine and the reward — he was able to curb his cookie craving.

How did he do this?  “Psychologists said I had to identify the cue and the reward for the cookie habit. There’s a time of day, a certain place, a certain emotion, the presence of certain people or some kind of ritual that precedes the habit. I [wrote these down] for three days and it was like magic. I realized that the urge always hit me between 3:15 and 3:45 p.m. I figured out the cue so I had to figure out the reward.

“I thought the cookie was the reward. I came up with hypotheses about what the reward was. One of them was go to the cafeteria and do what you normally do, but don’t get a cookie. I realized that it was the socialization that was driving my habit. So I’d stand up at 3:30. I’d go over to someone’s desk and I’d gossip for 10 minutes. I’d  come back to my desk and see if I had the cookie urge. There was none. It changed the habit for me.”

Lesson  Once you diagnose the cue and the reward, you can change the behaviour.

Story  When Paul O’Neill took over as CEO of Aluminum Company of America, or Alcoa, one of the largest companies in the United States in the late ’80s, he set only one goal: zero injuries. By focusing on worker safety, O’Neill helped turned the company into the top performer in the Dow Jones.

How did he do that?  “When most people think about how do I want to reform my life or my company, it feels overwhelming,” Duhigg says. “There are 30 dysfunctional habits that I need to deal with. I wished I exercised more. I wished I ate better. I wished I was nicer to my kids and spent more time with my spouse. If it’s a company, we need to fix sales and R&D, we need to make our customer service better.

“But what Paul O’Neill said was: ‘You can only change one thing fundamentally. If you choose the right thing, it sets off a chain reaction of other changes.’ “

O’Neill’s safety plan led to the establishment of a new communication system, upgraded equipment and the development one of the first worldwide corporate email systems. “We are the type of company that values our employees so much that we will do whatever it takes to make sure everyone goes home safely,” Durhigg adds. “Once you say that, it changes everything.”

Lesson  A keystone habit changes the values or the culture of a person’s life or of an organization. Exercise for individuals is a big keystone habit; the reason why is because it changes their self-image,” Durhigg says. “Shifting that self-image is enough to influence hundreds of different behaviours. For companies, it’s the same thing. You change the culture just a little bit and it changes hundreds of patterns within that company.”

Story  When U.S. executive Claude C. Hopkins began marketing Pepsodent in the early 1900s, few people brushed their teeth. But a decade after Hopkins launched his ad campaign, 65% of Americans had a tube of toothpaste in their medicine chests.

How did he make tooth-brushing a habit?  Unlike other pastes and powders, Pepsodent contained citric acid and mint oil, ingredients that prickle the tongue and gums. “Everyone realizes what the reward is from brushing their teeth — that tingling,” Durhigg says. “But that tingling has nothing to do with making your teeth cleaner. That’s just a chemical that has been added to make your gums and tongue tingle.” Once people craved the sensation, something they equated with cleanliness, brushing became a habit. Other toothpaste companies followed suit by adding stinging chemicals to their formulas.

Lesson  “Cravings drive habits. The really powerful cravings are the small, almost subliminal cravings you don’t pay any attention to,” Duhigg says.

Story  A man marched into a Minnesota Target enraged that the store had been sending his teenage daughter coupons for baby clothes and cribs. When the manager called days later to apologize again, the father admitted that his daughter was indeed due to give birth in August.

How does Target know what you want before you do?  “Our understanding of the science of habit has become so sophisticated that stores can predict your habits based on your buying patterns,” Duhigg says. “There is this basic trade-off that is occurring more and more between convenience and privacy. The reason why Target can track our shopping habits is because we use credit cards. Or it’s because they send us an email coupon. Or I use my frequent buyer card.  In some respects, that’s really useful because they only give me coupons for what I need. When my wife was pregnant … I needed a coupon for a crib and I got a coupon for a crib. It was so convenient. But it also means Target is studying me.

“Credit card companies look at if it looks like someone is going to get divorced. Divorce is a huge financial calamity and a certain number of people stop paying their credit cards when they get divorced. [So companies] start increasing people’s interest rate.

“So, how do credit card companies figure out if people are going to get divorced? They look to see if they pay for marriage therapy. They look to see if you get hotel rooms in the city you live in because that might indicate you might be having an affair.”

Lesson  Know what information you’re sharing. Decide if the convenience is worth the invasion of privacy.

The Power of Habit ($32.95) is published by Doubleday Canada.


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