The Power of Habit

Charles Duhhigg Also available in audiobook: Download our app for free listening.

Human beings are creatures of habit, aren’t we? As the days go by and though you may think you're in control, making decisions all the time, the truth is that most of the time you're just repeating predetermined habits. In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg highlights the impact of your habits on who you are and what you are capable of achieving. Habits are part of the foundation of our lives, our companies and are responsible for a large part of the results we get. For the 12' team, the cool part of reading this microbook is to think about how to incorporate new positive habits in your life. Are you ready for this journey?

How do Habits Work

Eugene Pauly was an elderly patient who had brain problems caused by a viral cephalitis and therefore lost the ability to use a part of his brain, the medial temporal lobe. The rest of his brain kept functioning normally, but his memory was impaired. He became unable to remember anything that had happened after 1960, but he remembered everything that happened before that. He became a man unable to learn new things and, in seconds, forgot what had happened the previous time. Eugene could not remember where his bedroom or kitchen was in his own house.

Daily, to exercise, his wife would take him for walks around the block. But one day, Eugene disappeared, and his wife became worried. His loss of memory could make him lose himself and never return home. Incredibly, in just 15 minutes, following his daily route, he was able to return home. A few days later, Eugene was able to make the journey alone. This has led scientists to study and discover that habits, their routine practices, are stored in an area of the brain that is completely different from the temporal lobe responsible for memory. This proved that we learn and make unconscious decisions without the need to remember the facts that lead to that decision or learning. This is the power of habit.

Activating Habits

Our brain is a powerful machine. It is constantly finding ways to work less and automate routines, just to save energy. A habit works in a 3-step flow:

  • Trigger: Something happens, and your brain understands this trigger as a call to enter the automatic mode and choose which routine to use;
  • Routine: It is a physical, emotional or mental action that is automatically triggered by the trigger;
  • Reward: A positive stimulus occurs and says To your brain that routine works and so it should be stored. Understanding how habits are triggered is important because it gives us control over ourselves. By understanding triggers and rewards, we are able to change, adapt, and create new routines.

How to Form New Habits

The main reason people study this topic is to learn how to create new habits and reinforce positive ones. A relatively new habit adopted by the population, for example, is the simple routine of brushing teeth. Claude Hopkins, an American publicist, encouraged this habit by tying it to a common trigger in people's daily lives. In his ads, he said, "Spend your tongue on your teeth. Do you feel a layer on them? This layer causes your teeth to lose their color and deteriorate." After the trigger, his ads said, "Pepsodent toothpaste removes this layer and makes your teeth cleaner and more beautiful." The great truth is that this layer is natural and the Pepsodent toothpaste does not remove it. The trigger, however, was so powerful that people just licked their teeth and connected them with the idea of brushing their teeth (routine) and reward (beautiful teeth). Less than 10 years after this campaign, the American population who brushed their teeth grew almost 10 fold.

Claude Hopkins' technique is simple and follows the 3 steps:

  1. Create a new trigger in your mind (or people's minds);
  2. Associate a positive routine with it;
  3. Create a mental or physical reward associated with maintaining this habit.

Change of Habit

American coach Tony Dungy had an unconventional and extremely successful method to ensure that his athletes had good results: he led his players not to automatically respond to their opponents' moves. He did not want his team to think before they acted.

Tony used to form habits that responded immediately, not rational choices at every turn. The coach knew that habits are not easily removed, they need to be transformed. And they only change if a new routine can replace the existing routine with the same trigger and the same reward. His drills were based on tying existing triggers and rewards to new routines. The new routines were simpler, gave players less choice and more non-rational behavior. With his method, Tony has won dozens of titles and has become a legendary trainer.

Another extremely successful method of changing habits is the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. The method simply proposes new routines to trigger the physical need to consume alcohol and uses the same rewards that alcohol awakens in people, such as relaxation, need for company, reduction of anxiety, etc. However, the AA method, by itself, still has difficulties transforming people's habits. That’s why it also dedicates time in creating the belief that people addicted to alcohol need the intervention of other people. Users need to believe that more people are involved in their transformation so as not to disappoint them. This faith is an essential ingredient for changing habits since change occurs in society.

Small Wins Have Big Impacts

There are many habits in our lives that dramatically influence how we live and how businesses work.

One positive habit leads to another and this creates a chain of positive habits that work in unison. People who start exercising, for example, naturally begin to eat better, become more productive at work and, consequently, reduce their stress levels. In your life or your business, it is essential to identify a fundamental habit that needs to be changed, and that will bring several improvements in various other habits that impact your day-to-day.

Finding the fundamental habit is difficult and requires a trial and error approach. The important thing is to identify something that is small enough to be changed and has positive impacts on the whole. In 2009, for example, one study proved that the simple habit of keeping track of food eaten during the day was able to help people identify eating patterns, which made them better plan their food and make them healthier. In this study, the group that had the feeding diaries lost twice the weight of the other participants.

The Role of Willpower

Scientists have proven that willpower is fundamental to success, with far more impact than the person's intelligence. This was proven in an experiment called the marshmallow test. A candy was placed in front of the children and those who resisted the temptation to eat it for 15 minutes would gain another. The result is impressive: children who managed to wait to earn the second marshmallow scored the highest scores in high school final grades, higher university access rates, and improved academic performance. However, the human being has a limited stock of willpower, and it also needs to be exercised. When we develop our ability to "postpone reward" through willpower training, we expand our stockpile and become capable of reaching higher.

How Leaders Form Habits

All companies have institutional habits, which are repeated daily by their members. Although a company believes that it makes planned decisions on a daily basis, the truth is that there is a machine of routines that lead to the decisions of the organization. Successful companies cultivate habits that balance power and peace.

In the early 2000s, for example, Rhode Island Hospital was considered one of the best in the United States. But with success, a toxic culture had set in. Doctors treated nurses badly, and this led to ill-treatment of patients and medical errors. The executive responsible for the quality of the Hospital took simple actions that completely changed their culture. Simple things like the use of cameras in the offices, conference checklists for various situations and the creation of a system of evaluations allowed the nurses to prevent operational errors and any ill-treatment. These simple measures formed new habits that made the hospital regain its authority and win several quality awards.

How Corporations Manipulate Habits

In recent years, with the advent of the internet and computing, companies have been able to capture a high volume of data on consumer habits to predict their actions, create new products and analyze market demands. This information has led them to discover that habits are more important than the intentions of the consumers in the buying process.

Each person has unique, personal habits. Therefore, analyzing this high volume of data, companies that understand the role of habit in the buying process are able to customize their products and services to the habits of the most common groups of people. With information such as your past purchases, your age, your gender, and the means of payment you use, companies can identify groups of users who act in a relatively similar fashion. If you buy lollipops and diapers every time you go to the supermarket, for example, companies may find that you have children of different ages. With this information, the same companies can send you personalized product recommendations and coupons.

Another common approach to marketing using data is to take advantage of major events in people's lives, such as first job, marriage or childbirth, creating opportunities for people to form new habits. You need to understand that companies follow their habits and use them as baits and triggers to manipulate their consumption patterns and must be ready to resist offers that take advantage of it.

Habits and Society: Creating Movements

In times of racial segregation in the US, one story stands out: Rosa Parks, a black woman, challenged the system and settled on the "white" part of the bus which was divided between whites and blacks. This simple but powerful gesture began a great wave that culminated in the end of segregation. She was arrested and, almost immediately, groups began distributing pamphlets and boycotting the transport system. The boycott became a new habit of the community, generated protests and eventually the need for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the United States.

Rosa was not the first person to do this, but this was not just an act defying the system. She had ties and friends in her community. Behaviors that occur without rational planning, as with Rosa, are often the mainstays of major changes in society. Movements like this happen because there are habits related to the group of friends, neighbors, and groups with regards to a cause. Rosa's action grew because it was adopted by the community and members wanted to demonstrate a new identity and participate in a group that was united through the desire for civil rights.

The power of weak ties explains how a protest can grow from a group of friends and become a strong social movement. Convincing thousands of people to pursue the same goal is difficult, but using the link between people to create peer pressure tends to work to change the habits of a society.

Are We Responsible for Our Habits?

In 2010, a neuroscience researcher discovered something fascinating in doing MRI scans comparing the brains of gambling addicts with casual gamblers. When they saw the casino machines spinning, the addicts' brains always reacted with a sense of victory, even when they lost, while casual players correctly recorded their losses in memory. This is a key point in forming habits. When the addict is rewarded in a defeat situation, this creates a vicious circle that leads to more moves and greater losses. Casual players only record the reward when they stop playing, and this avoids losing money. Charles wonders about the morality of this. Is it right to form habits that destroy people's lives? Is the addicted player responsible for his/her bad decisions? Despite moral questioning and being unable to judge who is to blame, according to Charles, once you understand that the habit exists, you have the ability to change it.

Change of Habit, a Practical Guide

Once we can understand the role of habits in our lives, our main challenge is to transform them according to what we want. Follow these steps to form healthy habits:

1. Identify the routine: Although it is not always obvious and often unconscious, the important thing is that you are able to analyze your behaviors and plan how to change them. Identify what you want to change before you move on to the second step.

2. Try different rewards: If you can not change bad routines for new ones, then you must play with the rewards. If you are eating bad food and eating unhealthily before bedtime, for example, then you should replace the reward of this routine. Replace the food with a healthy snack or just rest for a few minutes. After that, turn on a timer, wait 15 minutes and ask yourself if you still feel the same craving for fast food. If so, you have not yet identified the trigger of the habit. Try different rewards until you find out which trigger triggers that bad habit. If by chance, in this example the trigger was your hunger, understand that you can overcome hunger by eating different things, such as healthy snacks. If the trigger of this habit is fatigue, take a few minutes to rest.

3. Isolate the trigger: If you know which reward satisfies that trigger, you still need to understand the trigger more thoroughly. The most common triggers tend to be related to 5 main categories:

  • One place: Where do you find yourself when the routine comes up?
  • A time: When does this routine arise?
  • An emotional state: How do you feel when this routine arises?
  • Other people: Who are you with when she shows up?
  • A next clear action: When you have something to do, and the routine is triggered. If you have a habit that you need to eliminate, write down the places, times, feelings, who you are with, and what the next steps are before that routine appears. After a few repetitions, you will begin to understand the pattern.

4. Create a plan: Once you have understood the 3 main components of the habit, it is easy to plan a new routine that brings you the same reward for the same habit. Be alert until the trigger appears and act according to plan. If it works and you have the willpower to repeat this new conditioning, then you will be able to transform your habits.

Final Notes:

Habits dictate much of your activities and say a lot about who you are. Understanding them is the first step in being able to transform your life, your productivity, and your business results. You become better at what you constantly repeat, and that includes your habits. Work to know yourself, transform yourself, and exercise your willpower to become a person with great self-control.

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