Power of Habit - can't just stop

PowerofhabitCharles Duhigg's The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business has a lot of familiar material in it. The concepts he discusses have come up in the popular media over the last couple of years, and people have expressed amazement at the things science has found in terms of how we form habits.  Duhigg puts it together in a compelling story that talks about why we get stuck in ruts - in personal life and in business life - and the paths to breaking out of the rut.

The pattern that shows up again and again is the habit loop: There is a cue, which triggers a routine, which leads to a reward.  It's a habit when the reward isn't even there, but we follow the routine anyway.  Classically, this is the gambler or the alcoholic. But in business life, its the organization that continues to follow a practice long after the need has gone away.  Or its the person who constantly checks their email - is the reward the distraction or the one in 100 chance that the email might be truly important?

There is a lot of fascinating detail in the book about how the various aspects of the habit loop work. Duhigg uses anecdotes to draw in the reader and then jumps to the scientific literature to develop a deeper understanding, and then uses that back to the same or other anecdotes. He does the same with mechanisms people have found for changing the habit loop.

Science has found that once a habit exist, it is baked into the pathways of the brain (or the organization). It is only by training the mind to prefer a different response or to focus on a different cue that the habit can be "broken."  It is not simply a matter of "will power" or "strength of character." The admonition to "change" or "stop doing behavior X" doesn't work, if it is a habit.  The underlying link between the cue and the routine needs to change.

How does one change the habit loop? Duhigg describes people and organizations that have changed the habit loops by attacking it at various points: change the response to the cue; change the social system so that the response is different; change the belief system; re-focus people on different cues; and others aspects.  

I liked the epilogue that suggested there was one more element to changing the habit loop: One might have all the knowledge in the world about hows and whys of a habit, but if there is not a desire to change, it will likely not happen.

The evidence is clear: If you want to change a habit, you must find an alternative routine, and your odds 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.

Throughout the book, I found a lot of elements that parallel the Heath brothers' Switch (my review). The habit cycle has its Cue - Routine - Reward. And the Heath's talk about three aspects of behaviors: the Elephant, Rider and Path.  While they aren't perfectly parallel, I see the Rider as taking an intellectual look at things - maybe like the person who has the habit looking at her cues and routines.  Both the Elephant and Path are linked to the routine: there is a path/routine that people follow in response to the cue.  

1 Comment(s)

Brian, Toronto Author Profile Page said:

It's worth having a look at the four-part habit loop identified in Nir Eyal's book Hooked (Trigger-Action-Variable Reward-Investment), as I think it adds a dimension (Investment) that can make a huge difference, as well as an insightful riff (impact of variability) on Reward.

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