Charles Duhigg on How to Change a Habit

Charles Duhigg, an investigative reporter for the New York Times, has written a real book about habit change. As Timothy D. Wilson noted in his review of The Power of Habit:

Duhigg has read hundreds of scientific papers and interviewed many of the scientists who wrote them, and relays interesting findings on habit formation and change from the fields of social psychology, clinical psychology and neuroscience. This is not a self-help book conveying one author’s homespun remedies, but a serious look at the science of habit formation and change.

So, how do you change a habit, anyway?

Ah, if only there were a simple formula. But there isn’t.

To be more precise, formulas do exist. The problem is that there are thousands of them.

The reason, Duhigg notes, is that “the specifics of diagnosing and changing the patterns in our lives differ from person to person and behavior to behavior. Giving up cigarettes is different than curbing overeating, which is different from changing how you communicate with your spouse, which is different from how you prioritize tasks at work.”

That said, Duhigg offers something even more useful than a formula. This is a framework for understanding how habits form—and how to run self-experiments in changing them.

That framework has four main steps. I’ll flesh it out with an example from Duhigg’s own experiments.

1. Identify the routine

The routine is the behavior that you unconsciously repeat—for example:

• Drinking a second or third glass of wine with dinner

• Grabbing the TV remote as soon as you get home from work

• Eating a cookie every afternoon at work

The latter was Duhigg’s  downfall. At about 3:30, he routinely took the elevator up to the Times employee cafeteria and consumed a cookie while chatting with colleagues.

When his wife made some pointed remarks about the eight pounds he’d gained, Duhigg decided it was time for a change.

2. Experiment with rewards

Habits get cemented in place because they deliver a reward. More specifically, they satisfy a craving.

The trick is to pinpoint the exact reward that’s involved. This isn’t always obvious, so prepare to run some self-tests.

Eating a cookie in the afternoon offers several possible rewards, such as:

A) Satisfying hunger

B) Getting a sugar-induced burst of energy

C) Taking a break from work to socialize with friends

If the reward is A, then eating an apple could suffice.

If B is the true craving, then a cup of straight coffee—with no fat and a fraction of a cookie’s calories—could satisfy the craving.

And if C is actually what’s driving the routine, then you could skip the cafeteria and cookie altogether. Just walk over to a colleague’s desk for a quick chat.

Step 2, then, involves changing the routine and keeping written notes about how you feel afterward.

3. Isolate the cue

Researchers discovered that routines are usually triggered by a cue—a specific event in your external or internal environment.

To isolate the cue, observe yourself over several days. Answer these questions about what happens right before you perform the routine:

• Where are you?

• What time is it?

• What’s your emotional state?

• Who else is around?

• What action preceded the urge?

4. Have a plan

Once you’ve pieced together your particular habit loop—routine, reward, and cue—you can actually change the habit. Plan for the cue and choose a different routine that delivers the reward you crave.

Duhigg discovered that his cue for eating a cookie was a specific time—roughly 3:30 p.m.

“I knew that my routine was to go to the cafeteria, buy a cookie and chat with friends,” he notes. “And, through experimentation, I had learned that it wasn’t really the cookie I craved—rather, it was a moment of distraction and the opportunity to socialize.”

Armed with this data, Duhigg devised a simple plan and put it in writing: “At 3:30, every day, I will walk to a friend’s desk and talk for 10 minutes.”

This was not an immediate fix. There were days when Duhigg relapsed into the familiar cookie habit.

Over a few weeks of repeated practice, however, the plan worked. Today Duhigg’s afternoon snack routine is only memory.

For more details, see this video for Duhigg’s first-hand account of his experiment with habit change.

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