Eugene Fedorenko is Designing, Writing, Reading, and Traveling

The Power of Habit

The Power of Habit

“The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” by a New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg came out in 2012 and since then was often mentioned in my social feed. The central argument of the book is that “habits can be changed, if we understand how they work”. I finally got to it in the end of 2016 looking for help with establishing a few personal habits, so I was less interested in parts on habits of businesses and societies. Probably because of my narrow focus it felt like this book was a bit too long and with too many sample stories, but still valuable and worth reading.

The summary below isn’t a complete representation or “Cliffs Notes”, but rather ideas and things that I found valuable or interesting and highlighted while reading.

Prologue. The Habit Cure.

On decisions vs habits:

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.

Part One: The Habits of Individuals

1. The Habit Loop. How Habits Work.

Unrelated to habits, but I always wondered why procedural rooms in hospitals are so cold. This paragraph refers to labs of Brain and Cognitive Sciences department at the MIT:

The rooms are always kept at a chilly sixty degrees because a slight nip in the air steadies researchers’ fingers during delicate procedures.

On neuroscience behind our habits:

If you picture the human brain as an onion, composed of layer upon layer of cells, then the outside layers — those closest to the scalp — are generally the most recent additions from an evolutionary perspective. When you dream up a new invention or laugh at a friend’s joke, it’s the outside parts of your brain at work. That’s where the most complex thinking occurs. Deeper inside the brain and closer to the brain stem — where the brain meets the spinal column — are older, more primitive structures. They control our automatic behaviors, such as breathing and swallowing, or the startle response we feel when someone leaps out from behind a bush. Toward the center of the skull is a golf ball–sized lump of tissue that is similar to what you might find inside the head of a fish, reptile, or mammal. This is the basal ganglia, an oval of cells that, for years, scientists didn’t understand very well, except for suspicions that it played a role in diseases such as Parkinson’s. In the early 1990s, the MIT researchers began wondering if the basal ganglia might be integral to habits as well. They noticed that animals with injured basal ganglia suddenly developed problems with tasks such as learning how to run through mazes or remembering how to open food containers.

On a connection between habit formation and mental activity:

The scientists repeated their experiment, again and again, watching how each rat’s brain activity changed as it moved through the same route hundreds of times. A series of shifts slowly emerged. The rats stopped sniffing corners and making wrong turns. Instead, they zipped through the maze faster and faster. And within their brains, something unexpected occurred: As each rat learned how to navigate the maze, its mental activity decreased. As the route became more and more automatic, each rat started thinking less and less. […] Within a week, even the brain structures related to memory had quieted. The rat had internalized how to sprint through the maze to such a degree that it hardly needed to think at all.

On habits formation as an optimization process:

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.

On a three-step process of a habit formation:

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.

On habits as a default choice of our brains:

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. […] Without habit loops, our brains would shut down, overwhelmed by the minutiae of daily life.

On cues and rewards:

Researchers have learned that cues can be almost anything, from a visual trigger such as a candy bar or a television commercial to a certain place, a time of day, an emotion, a sequence of thoughts, or the company of particular people. Routines can be incredibly complex or fantastically simple (some habits, such as those related to emotions, are measured in milliseconds). Rewards can range from food or drugs that cause physical sensations, to emotional payoffs, such as the feelings of pride that accompany praise or self-congratulation.

On how bad habits can form in spite of our intentions:

Studies indicate that families usually don’t intend to eat fast food on a regular basis. What happens is that a once a month pattern slowly becomes once a week, and then twice a week — as the cues and rewards create a habit — until the kids are consuming an unhealthy amount of hamburgers and fries.

How chain restaurants use design to establish habits:

Every McDonald’s, for instance, looks the same — the company deliberately tries to standardize stores’ architecture and what employees say to customers, so everything is a consistent cue to trigger eating routines. The foods at some chains are specifically engineered to deliver immediate rewards — the fries, for instance, are designed to begin disintegrating the moment they hit your tongue, in order to deliver a hit of salt and grease as fast as possible, causing your pleasure centers to light up and your brain to lock in the pattern. All the better for tightening the habit loop.

2. The Creative Brain. How to Create New Habits.

“The right human psychology” according to an advertising executive Claude Hopkins from early 1900s:

First, find a simple and obvious cue. Second, clearly define the rewards.

On using cue and reward to establish exercise routines:

Studies of people who have successfully started new exercise routines, for instance, show they are more likely to stick with a workout plan if they choose a specific cue, such as running as soon as they get home from work, and a clear reward, such as a beer or an evening of guilt-free television. 

On Cinnabon’s unique approach to trigger cravings:

This explains why habits are so powerful: They create neurological cravings. Most of the time, these cravings emerge so gradually that we’re not really aware they exist, so we’re often blind to their influence. But as we associate cues with certain rewards, a subconscious craving emerges in our brains that starts the habit loop spinning. […] Most food sellers locate their kiosks in food courts, but Cinnabon tries to locate their stores away from other food stalls. Why? Because Cinnabon executives want the smell of cinnamon rolls to waft down hallways and around corners uninterrupted, so that shoppers will start subconsciously craving a roll. By the time a consumer turns a corner and sees the Cinnabon store, that craving is a roaring monster inside his head and he’ll reach, unthinkingly, for his wallet. The habit loop is spinning because a sense of craving has emerged.

On what’s needed to create a habit of regular exercise:

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 your 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). 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. The cue, in addition to triggering a routine, must also trigger a craving for the reward to come.

3. The Golden Rule of Habit Change. Why Transformation Occurs.

On changing habits:

Rather, to change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine. That’s the rule: If you use the same cue, and provide the same reward, you can shift the routine and change the habit. Almost any behavior can be transformed if the cue and reward stay the same.

On awareness training:

Asking patients to describe what triggers their habitual behavior is called awareness training, and like AA’s insistence on forcing alcoholics to recognize their cues, it’s the first step in habit reversal training.

On a competing response:

The tension that Mandy felt in her nails cued her nail biting habit. […] Then the therapist taught Mandy what is known as a “competing response.” Whenever she felt that tension in her fingertips, he told her, she should immediately put her hands in her pockets or under her legs, or grip a pencil or something else that made it impossible to put her fingers in her mouth. Then Mandy was to search for something that would provide a quick physical stimulation — such as rubbing her arm or rapping her knuckles on a desk — anything that would produce a physical response. The cues and rewards stayed the same. Only the routine changed.

On a power of belief:

Once people learned how to believe in something, that skill started spilling over to other parts of their lives, until they started believing they could change. Belief was the ingredient that made a reworked habit loop into a permanent behavior.

On a role of community in believing that habits can be changed:

The evidence is clear: 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.

Part Two: The Habits of Successful Organizations

4. Keystone Habits, or The Ballad of Paul O’Neill.

On habit of excellence as one of the keystone habits:

“I’m not certain you heard me,” O’Neill said. “If you want to understand how Alcoa is doing, you need to look at our workplace safety figures. If we bring our injury rates down, it won’t be because of cheerleading or the nonsense you sometimes hear from other CEOs. It will be because the individuals at this company have agreed to become part of something important: They’ve devoted themselves to creating a habit of excellence. Safety will be an indicator that we’re making progress in changing our habits across the entire institution. That’s how we should be judged.”
O’Neill believed that 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,” and they can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate. Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything. 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.

On good candidates to keystone habits:

The habits that matter most are the ones that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns.

On a chain reaction triggered by one keystone habit:

Unit presidents were busy people. To contact O’Neill within twenty-four hours of an injury, they needed to hear about an accident from their vice presidents as soon as it happened. So vice presidents needed to be in constant communication with floor managers. And floor managers needed to get workers to raise warnings as soon as they saw a problem and keep a list of suggestions nearby, so that when the vice president asked for a plan, there was an idea box already full of possibilities. To make all of that happen, each unit had to build new communication systems that made it easier for the lowliest worker to get an idea to the loftiest executive, as fast as possible. Almost everything about the company’s rigid hierarchy had to change to accommodate O’Neill’s safety program. He was building new corporate habits.

Not sure if this is actually supported by a scientific research, but I’ve seen examples of this behavior in real life. How exercising can become a keystone habit and trigger other changes in life:

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. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. It’s not completely clear why. But for many people, exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change. “Exercise spills over,” said James Prochaska, a University of Rhode Island researcher. “There’s something about it that makes other good habits easier.”

On why small wins are so important:

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. “Small wins are a steady application of a small advantage,” one Cornell professor wrote in 1984. “Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win.” Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach.

5. Starbucks and the Habit of Success. When Willpower Becomes Automatic.

On a role of self-discipline and willpower:

Dozens of studies show that willpower is the single most important keystone habit for individual success. In a 2005 study, for instance, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania analyzed 164 eighth-grade students, measuring their IQs and other factors, including how much willpower the students demonstrated, as measured by tests of their self-discipline. Students who exerted high levels of willpower were more likely to earn higher grades in their classes and gain admission into more selective schools. They had fewer absences and spent less time watching television and more hours on homework. “Highly self-disciplined adolescents outperformed their more impulsive peers on every academic-performance variable,” the researchers wrote. “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.”

On a willpower as a limited resource:

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,” Muraven told me. “If you use it up too early on tedious tasks like writing emails or filling out complicated and boring expense forms, all the strength will be gone by the time you get home.”

On training willpower as a muscle:

As people strengthened their willpower muscles in one part of their lives — in the gym, or a money management program — that strength spilled over into what they ate or how hard they worked. Once willpower became stronger, it touched everything.
“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,” said Todd Heatherton, a researcher at Dartmouth who has worked on willpower studies. “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.”

On training willpower in kids:

“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.”

On a Starbucks’s approach for dealing with unpleasant situations:

“This workbook is for you to imagine unpleasant situations, and write out a plan for responding,” the manager said. “One of the systems we use is called the LATTE method. We Listen to the customer, Acknowledge their complaint, Take action by solving the problem, Thank them, and then Explain why the problem occurred.

On converting willpower into a habit:

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.

On a difference between personal choices and following orders:

“When people are asked to do something that takes self-control, if they think they are doing it for personal reasons — if they feel like it’s a choice or something they enjoy because it helps someone else — it’s much less taxing. If they feel like they have no autonomy, if they’re just following orders, their willpower muscles get tired much faster. In both cases, people ignored the cookies. But when the students were treated like cogs, rather than people, it took a lot more willpower.”

6. The Power of a Crisis. How Leaders Create Habits Through Accident and Design.

On habits of organizations:

[…] it may seem like most organizations make rational choices based on deliberate decision making, but that’s not really how companies operate at all. Instead, firms are guided by long-held organizational habits, patterns that often emerge from thousands of employees’ independent decisions. And these habits have more profound impacts than anyone previously understood.

On using crises to change habits:

During turmoil, organizational habits become malleable enough to both assign responsibility and create a more equitable balance of power. Crises are so valuable, in fact, that sometimes it’s worth stirring up a sense of looming catastrophe rather than letting it die down.
In fact, crises are such valuable opportunities that a wise leader often prolongs a sense of emergency on purpose.

7. How Target Knows What You Want Before You Do. When Companies Predict (and Manipulate) Habits.

Good observation on new parents and consumerism:

Pregnant women and new parents, after all, are the holy grail of retail. There is almost no more profitable, product-hungry, price-insensitive group in existence.

On layout of grocery stores:

Chances are, the first things you see upon entering your grocery store are fruits and vegetables arranged in attractive, bountiful piles. If you think about it, positioning produce at the front of a store doesn’t make much sense, because fruits and vegetables bruise easily at the bottom of a shopping cart; logically, they should be situated by the registers, so they come at the end of a trip. But as marketers and psychologists figured out long ago, if we start our shopping sprees by loading up on healthy stuff, we’re much more likely to buy Doritos, Oreos, and frozen pizza when we encounter them later on. The burst of subconscious virtuousness that comes from first buying butternut squash makes it easier to put a pint of ice cream in the cart later. Or take the way most of us turn to the right after entering a store. (Did you know you turn right? It’s almost certain you do. There are thousands of hours of videotapes showing shoppers turning right once they clear the front doors.) As a result of this tendency, retailers fill the right side of the store with the most profitable products they’re hoping you’ll buy right off the bat. Or consider cereal and soups: When they’re shelved out of alphabetical order and seemingly at random, our instinct is to linger a bit longer and look at a wider selection. So you’ll rarely find Raisin Bran next to Rice Chex. Instead, you’ll have to search the shelves for the cereal you want, and maybe get tempted to grab an extra box of another brand.

On big data and pregnancy:

Expectant mothers, he discovered, shopped in fairly predictable ways. Take, for example, lotions. Lots of people buy lotion, but a Target data analyst noticed that women on the baby registry were buying unusually large quantities of unscented lotion around the beginning of their second trimester. Another analyst noted that sometime in the first twenty weeks, many pregnant women loaded up on vitamins, such as calcium, magnesium, and zinc. Lots of shoppers purchase soap and cotton balls every month, but when someone suddenly starts buying lots of scent-free soap and cotton balls, in addition to hand sanitizers and an astounding number of washcloths, all at once, a few months after buying lotions and magnesium and zinc, it signals they are getting close to their delivery date.

On looking for familiarity:

There is evidence that a preference for things that sound “familiar” is a product of our neurology. Scientists have examined people’s brains as they listen to music, and have tracked which neural regions are involved in comprehending aural stimuli. Listening to music activates numerous areas of the brain, including the auditory cortex, the thalamus, and the superior parietal cortex. These same areas are also associated with pattern recognition and helping the brain decide which inputs to pay attention to and which to ignore. The areas that process music, in other words, are designed to seek out patterns and look for familiarity.
Our brains crave familiarity in music because familiarity is how we manage to hear without becoming distracted by all the sound. Just as the scientists at MIT discovered that behavioral habits prevent us from becoming overwhelmed by the endless decisions we would otherwise have to make each day, listening habits exist because, without them, it would be impossible to determine if we should concentrate on our child’s voice, the coach’s whistle, or the noise from a busy street during a Saturday soccer game. Listening habits allow us to unconsciously separate important noises from those that can be ignored.

Part Three. The Habits of Societies.

8. Saddleback Church and The Montgomery Bus Boycott. How Movements Happen.

On a three-step process of forming social habits:

Social habits are why some initiatives become world-changing movements, while others fail to ignite. And the reason why social habits have such influence is because at the root of many movements — be they large-scale revolutions or simple fluctuations in the churches people attend — is a three-part process that historians and sociologists say shows up again and again: A movement starts because of the social habits of friendship and the strong ties between close acquaintances. It grows because of the habits of a community, and the weak ties that hold neighborhoods and clans together. And it endures because a movement’s leaders give participants new habits that create a fresh sense of identity and a feeling of ownership. Usually, only when all three parts of this process are fulfilled can a movement become self-propelling and reach a critical mass.

On “weak tie” connections:

More surprising, however, was how often job hunters also received help from casual acquaintances — friends of friends — people who were neither strangers nor close pals. Granovetter called those connections “weak ties,” because they represented the links that connect people who have acquaintances in common, who share membership in social networks, but aren’t directly connected by the strong ties of friendship themselves. In fact, in landing a job, Granovetter discovered, weak-tie acquaintances were often more important than strong-tie friends because weak ties give us access to social networks where we don’t otherwise belong. Many of the people Granovetter studied had learned about new job opportunities through weak ties, rather than from close friends, which makes sense because we talk to our closest friends all the time, or work alongside them or read the same blogs. By the time they have heard about a new opportunity, we probably know about it, as well. On the other hand, our weak-tie acquaintances — the people we bump into every six months — are the ones who tell us about jobs we would otherwise never hear about.

On peer pressure:

Peer pressure — and the social habits that encourage people to conform to group expectations — is difficult to describe, because it often differs in form and expression from person to person. These social habits aren’t so much one consistent pattern as dozens of individual habits that ultimately cause everyone to move in the same direction. The habits of peer pressure, however, have something in common. They often spread through weak ties. And they gain their authority through communal expectations. If you ignore the social obligations of your neighborhood, if you shrug off the expected patterns of your community, you risk losing your social standing. You endanger your access to many of the social benefits that come from joining the country club, the alumni association, or the church in the first place.

On how religions use habits:

“If you try to scare people into following Christ’s example, it’s not going to work for too long. The only way you get people to take responsibility for their spiritual maturity is to teach them habits of faith.”

On designing a church for people:

When Warren first arrived in Saddleback Valley, he spent twelve weeks going door-to-door, introducing himself and asking strangers why they didn’t go to church. Many of the answers were practical — it was boring, people said, the music was bad, the sermons didn’t seem applicable to their lives, they needed child care, they hated dressing up, the pews were uncomfortable. Warren’s church would address each of those complaints. He told people to wear shorts and Hawaiian shirts, if they felt like it. An electric guitar was brought in. Warren’s sermons, from the start, focused on practical topics, with titles such as “How to Handle Discouragement,” “How to Feel Good About Yourself,” “How to Raise Healthy Families,” and “How to Survive Under Stress.” His lessons were easy to understand, focused on real, daily problems, and could be applied as soon as parishioners left church.

9. The Neurology of Free Will. Are We Responsible for Our Habits?

On changing habits:

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 — and every chapter in this book is devoted to illustrating a different aspect of why that control is real.

On the unthinking choices and invisible decisions:

The way we habitually think of our surroundings and ourselves create the worlds that each of us inhabit. “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’” the writer David Foster Wallace told a class of graduating college students in 2005. “And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’ ” The water is habits, the unthinking choices and invisible decisions that surround us every day — and which, just by looking at them, become visible again.

Afterword. Some Things Learned About Weight Loss, Smoking, Procrastination, and Teaching

On relapses in forming new habits:

No matter how strong our willpower, we’re guaranteed to fall back into our old ways once in a while. 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.

On expectations:

Habits emerge when patterns are predictable — when our brains learn to crave a specific reward at a specific moment. When rewards defy prediction, when we fall off the wagon in ways that confound expectations, we take some of the power out of a pattern. It’s a little bit harder for the habit loop to start.

Appendix. A Reader’s Guide to Using These Ideas.

Framework for creating a new habit:

  • Identify the routine
  • Experiment with rewards
  • Isolate the cue
  • Have a plan

On important of finding the right reward:

To figure out which cravings are driving particular habits, it’s useful to experiment with different rewards. This might take a few days, or a week, or longer. During that period, you shouldn’t feel any pressure to make a real change — think of yourself as a scientist in the data collection stage.

On habitual cues:

Experiments have shown that almost all habitual cues fit into one of five categories:
  • Location
  • Time
  • Emotional state
  • Other people
  • Immediately preceding action

And a tl;dr version of the book:

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.
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. Within psychology, these plans are known as “implementation intentions.”

Read from November 10, 2016 to November 19, 2016 .