The Power of Habit

Book: The Power of Habit – why we do what we do in life and business.
Author: Charles Duhigg
ISBN: 9780385669764
The independent habit loop consists of three pivotal moments.

  • Cue
  • Routine
  • Reward

For Pepsodent and Claude Hopkins, this understanding was enough to make the product a bestseller and Hopkins a millionaire. His explanation on the “right human psychology” only goes a touch deeper and is focused on cultivating a routine out of a cue and a reward. His ideal for success is finding a simple, and obvious, cue followed by a clearly defined rewards. The routine, and thus the habit, will build itself if given these two simple starting points.

Apparently, Hopkins could have made himself even richer. Researchers and marketing professionals later found a pivotal third rule associated with habit formation. One that would make Febreeze a household name.

In order to truly build habits a few cognitive steps must be undertaken. Mainly, that the brain needs to build an anticipation for the reward. That is, before the reward is given the brain registers like is has. The expectation becomes so strong and consistent that actually receiving the reward only serves as fulfillment of the expectation and is no longer considered an explicit reward for the proper behavior.

This process is most evident in a monkey named Julio and a research named Wolfram Schultz out of MIT. Through his researcher he was able to discern how habits and rewards were triggered in the brain. For Julio, who had been part of the experiment long enough to create a habit, his reaction to a cue was immediate and his brain registered the reward before he physically reacted.

The monkeys who had not been habituated were able to be distracted from the simple call and response game that provided Julio’s reward. They had yet to crave the juice that sent Julio into a tizzy. When researchers tried to distract Julio, they failed. His cravings were so strong that secondary rewards weren’t worthwhile.

This helps to explain why habits are incredibly powerful, they create neurological cravings. Incredibly difficult to resist and easily triggered without a change in lifestyle.

Schultz provides an excellent example using an all-to-tasty treat we’re tempted with often at the office,

“There is nothing programmed into our brains that makes us see a box of doughnuts and automatically want a sugary treat, but once our brain learns that a doughnut box contains yummy sugar and other carbohydrates, it will start anticipating the sugar high. Our brains will push us toward the box. Then, if we don’t eat the doughnut, we’ll feel disappointed.”

It’s exactly in these moments we’re prone to experience cognitive dissonance. We may have committed to cutting sugar for our health, but that act isn’t a habit. It’s a far off goal we’re hoping to achieve, often through sheer force of will. Once we’re in the same room as the doughnuts we’re triggered and our brain wants to be satisfied. Once/if we follow through our brain hits a mental crossroads. We committed to avoiding the exact action we fell prey to. We end up feel twinges of regret and have to jump through some mental gymnastics in order to overcome our internal pain.

Charles Duhigg provides a powerful, modern day example of the habit loop. One we all know too well, social media. When our smartphones or computers send us an alert our brains anticipate the reward. The instant gratification that comes with clearing a notification from our phone and the reward of whatever content we find, regardless of it’s worth. The strategy is brilliant for developers who want nothing more than individuals constantly checking their phones. Each vibration and notification leads to an expectation that, if left unchecked, creates a pull strong enough for the most disciplined individuals.

But, even this phenomena can be stopped. It might be difficult to get used to, but removing push notifications, or silencing your phone, can be enough to remove the cue. Once you’ve built another reward system in it’s place, let’s say 25 minutes of concentrated work you track in a notebook, overcoming your current phone addiction becomes a process of planning and follow-through, not willpower.

Researchers at the New Mexico State University worked to understand the mechanisms behind habitual exercise. They found that many individuals who self-reported to exercising consistently had no unifying reason for working out. Participants had more time in their day, wanted alternative coping strategies for stress, or merely did it on a whim. But, the reason they kept exercising, were due to specific expected rewards.

In a single group 92 percent of respondents stated that the reason they exercised consistently was due to the fact that it made them, “feel good”. They started to crave the neurochemicals our brain produces during a workout. A second group responded, with 67 percent agreement, by saying that exercise gave them a feeling of “accomplishment”. Their bodies started to yearn for the sense of completion that came with tracking their performance. This basic self-reward was enough to initiate the habit loop.

Citing the work done by Alcoholics Anonymous to curb the addiction felt by countless addicts, J. Scott Tonigan references the fourth and fifth step or the program; “a searching and fearless inventory of ourselves” and admitting “to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs”.

He says,

“It’s not obvious from the way they’re written, but to complete those steps, someone has to create a list of all the triggers for their alcoholic urges. When you make a self-inventory, you’re figuring out all the things that make you drink. And admitting to someone else all the bad things you’ve done is a pretty good way of figuring out the moments where everything spiraled out of control.”

People who can notice themselves shifting off their true course, whether it’s learning something new or committing to a diet have to work hard and keep a constant inventory of their cues to notice the subtle adjustment their minds make in order to weasel out of work.

We run to certain habits to cope with anxiety and stressful moments in life. It can be difficult to nullify these habits because the cues associated with them are not often pronounced. They only occur when we’re already in time of need and working through a positive change during a time of stress is difficult. In order for some alcoholics to overcome their urges, they had to figure our new coping strategies for anxiety induced moments in their lives. Once they had they were able to break the habit loop and have been sober for years since.

Awareness training is the technical term for describing cues for habitual behavior. This can be difficult to implement in longstanding habits. Often people are so stuck in their routine or are so accustomed to defaulting an action that they’ve forgotten what provoked the habit in the first place.

Finding cues for longstanding habits is the act of recognizing patterns in your daily life, whether you overeat due to boredom, stress, or joy, each habit has a cause. Identifying these causes is the first step to freedom.

Nathan Azrin, one of the developers of habit reversal training, “It seems ridiculously simple, once you’re aware of how your habit works, once you recognize the cues and rewards, you’re halfway to changing it. It seems like it should be more complex. The truth is, the brain can be reprogrammed.” But, you must be deliberate in action.

I believe the following is the most important quote from the book, and really should have been on one of the first few changes. I’ve been struggling with certain habits for years and I often fall back into grooves I thought I had replaced. While I’m in a much different space than I was a few years ago I can constantly feel a tug to revert to a much easier form.

“It is important to note that though the process of habit change is easily described, it does not necessarily follow that it is easily accomplished. It is facile to imply that smoking, alcoholism, overeating, or other ingrained patterns can be upended without real effort. Genuine change requires work and self-understanding of the cravings driving behaviors. Changing any habit requires determination. No one will quit smoking cigarettes because they sketch a habit loop.”

Researchers from the Alcohol Research Group (ARG) in California identified a not-so-scientific explanation for individuals who were able to stay on track regardless of the stressful events in their lives, belief. As they interviewed recovering alcoholics the results were clear, identifying triggers and replacing routines were crucial, but what kept them aloft they said, was God.

Being scientists the group at the ARG didn’t stop at this line of reasoning. They were determined to discover what it was about the belief in God that enabled so many to stay the course, even in moments that should have pushed them back towards addiction.

Their work led them to an interesting, albeit mundane, conclusion. It wasn’t God, but the act of belief itself that enabled these individuals to change. Once they understood what believing truly meant it spilled over into other areas of their life, they had reached about where they felt as though they could change through their own fruition. Believing you can overcome the causes of your addiction gives you someplace to turn when you start to bottom out. Without a mechanism to cope with stress, you’ll be driven back to what you know.

Change seems real when we can see it in other people’s lives. Research has shown that an element of change in our own lives involves community, whether they be large or small. Belief in an element is easier when others believe with us.

We know that habits can not be forgotten, only replaced. And, that there are no hard-and-fast rules that apply to all individuals when changing habits. The Golden Rule of habit change allows for new routines as long as we keep the same cues and rewards. Belief makes these changes long-lasting, even in the face of adversity. Where the belief comes from, whether in God or in ourself is less relevant, as long as we have someplace to look towards when we struggle.

A sense of community helps to embolden change, this is just as true for habits.

Paul O’neill was hired as the new president of Alcoa aluminum manufacturing in 1987, there he was tasked with turning around one of the largest companies in the world. One that many investors saw at a risk of losing its position. When it came to transformation O’neill was not the typical CEO, his focus was worker safety. He believed that if his workers were as invested in the company as the company would soon be in them, they’d see a miraculous turnaround.

Less than a year after his first speech to investor’s Alcoa’s profits had skyrocketed to all-time highs.

O’Neill, “I knew I had to transform Alcoa, but you can’t order people to change. That’s not how the brain works. So I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing. If I could start disrupting the habits around one thing, it would spread throughout the entire company.”

O’Neill’s view on habits and structure in an individual’s life are called “keystone habits”. These habits have a larger sphere of influence on how people function, work, play, eating, living, and spending. Keystone habits start a chain reaction, that if stuck to, change everything.

A standard keystone habit is exercising. Individuals who exercise see a bevy of positive changes in their lives. They lose weight, change to healthier diets, have more energy, feel happier, are less stressed, and have a reduced risk for cardiovascular disease. Each of these benefits ripples further into other aspects of life, creating more positive relationships with friends and family, positive body image, and less money spent eating out. The benefits go on and on. Potentially multiplying until the person you see before you is completely changed from what once was.

Other examples of keystone habits include, eating dinner as a family and making your bed everything morning.

None of these habits actually cause their associated benefits, but the initial lifestyle change cultivates other good habits.

Keystone habits define us. They make decisions easy. Almost to the point that they aren’t decisions at all. If a certain action is ingrained in our day to day lives, going against it can make us feel out of place. Like we’re living our lives incorrectly. Our brain runs on habits and structure, they keep us safe, focused on our immediate goals, and working towards our next reward.

This issue comes when we let our habits become so invasive that we’ve lost choice to the detriment of our health, relationships, or productivity.

Possibly my new favorite quote, not that I’ve ever had one.

“Not sharing an opportunity to learn is a cardinal sin.”

Karl Weick, organizational psychologist, on small wins and habit formation.

“Small wins do not combine in a neat, linear, serial form, with each step being a demonstrable step closer to some predetermined goal. More common is the circumstance where small wins are scattered … like miniature experiments that test implicit theories about resistance and opportunity and uncover both resources and barriers that were invisible before the situation was stirred up.”

This book has a focus on willpower that runs roughshod over the entirety of work done by Walter Mischel and instead focuses on later work done by Mark Muraven. I’ve written enough about self-control and willpower elsewhere, but it should go without saying that willpower is the bedrock of strong, productive habits.

In a study on rehab patients a psychologist looked to figure out what methods would provoke individuals to follow their PT exercises. Her answer was a journal used to track the daily lives of these individuals.

She found those who kept record of their day regained their ability to walk twice as fast. The reason for this was simple. They were tracking their pain points each day, and making plans to overcome them. Instead of trying to tackle each individual problem as it arose, they’d make if-then goals to help them succeed. They used these inflection points to make it past the worst of the pain, say standing from a seating position, and slowly moving onto their next task.

Data from YMCA showed that retention was driven by emotional factors, such as whether employees knew members’ names or said hello when they walked in. These cues are driven by social habits, not the unformed habits from working out. It’s easier to build a program based on what people already know, instead of what they hope to gain.

Developing heuristics doesn’t mean they’ll always follow suit.

Stress induced extinction bursts can be devastating on the road to recovery from conditioned behavior. Angie Bachmann suffered an through a burst after her father had passed away. Even though it had been years since she had last gambled, the overwhelming stress aligned with her standard triggers and she was driven back into the world of gambling.

Probably the most disgusting bit I’ve found in this book details how a slot machine manufacturer hired a video game executive to design new slot machines. These machines were made to provide as many “almost wins” as possible. These near misses at riches drive our brain into thinking that we’re actually close to winning a jackpot, if only we persist. Not only is gambling itself addictive, casinos do everything they can to make it as difficult to move away from as possible.

“Historically, in neuroscience, we’ve said that people with brain damage lose some of their free will, but when a pathological gambler sees a casino, it seems very similar. It seems like they’re acting without choice.” says, Reza Habib.

Habits are what allow us to set building blocks for success. At first, our new assignments are difficult, but with persistence and grit we’re able to continue down our new path. We build muscle memory and strengthen our skill set. Each time we run through a habit loop we become more effective, more able to complete the tasks we set for ourselves. Belief in our own ability is key to making the initial steps happen, with belief we can energize our willpower and start down the path to refinement.

To further assist us in our goals it’s important to experiment. Failures are crucial when success is an option, but when we do fail we should learn from those failures. We look at our stumbling blocks and correct what we do on the next go round. Start tracking and analyzing data so you can have a better understanding of outcomes. Think about what triggered you to want to make a change. How can you harness that feeling to prevent relapse?

Economic Integration and Academic Attainment

A superintendent from a local school district recently asked about the effects of growing poverty levels on academic achievement. Her specific claim was, “schools who surpass 40% poverty adversely affect all students.” She’d asked if I had read any research that similar and what I had thought of it. At the time I was unaware of any research that looked into specific levels of poverty being a significant factor. I’d be working off the assumption that regardless of how poverty was structured in schools there would be an adverse affect on achievement.

I took the time to find whatever research I could on poverty concentration. I wanted to share a bit what I found relevant. This isn’t meant to be exhaustive, only the start of a discussion around poverty and academic achievement.

Finding specific research based on memory is difficult. At best I’m given incorrect evidence and a brief summary of the report. After searching for a few hours I believe the following report by Heather Schwartz is the one referenced in my conversation with the superintendent.

Housing Policy is School Policy – Heather Schwartz

The research looks at the economic integration housing policy in Montgomery County, Maryland and how it effectively distributes poverty levels in schools and neighborhoods. I started by pulling comparison metrics to help identify a base for replicability.

  • Montgomery has one of the nation’s highest median household incomes at $89,000.
  • For 30 years Montgomery has had a housing policy that promotes a distribution of impoverished households in what would typically be affluent housing areas.
  • Half of the schools in Montgomery are below 20% poverty.
  • Longstanding (30 years) focus on deconcentrating poverty in neighborhood and public schools.
  • Montgomery County school district created its own measurement of school need. Schools in need were designated Red Zone others were designated Green Zone.
  • The focus of this research was elementary schools.

Montgomery County is an incredibly affluent area. The accessibility of these results may be difficult for counties with less funds for housing assistance, teacher incentives, and district funding. The timeframe in which Montgomery has been instituting economic integration also sets a large initial hurdle. While policy can be bettered through their, and others, experiences with economic integration the time to implementation and the positive effects from integration may not take hold before policymakers give up on its reliability.

Of the many findings I highlighted a few to support the argument of economic integration.

The following graph demonstrates the gains public housing students made in Green zone schools as opposed to public housing students attending Red zone schools for both math and reading. During this same time Red zone schools were targeted with multiple types of intervention including all day kindergarten and reduced class sizes.



The gains made by students who were able to attend a very-low or moderately-low poverty school were far over those of their public housing peers in Red zone schools.

Results from the study that best align with the Superintendents memory is the quote that follows from page 33 of the report,

“As expected, the academic returns from economic integration diminished as school poverty levels rose. For the low-income children examined in this study, the benefits from economic integration were greatest when they attended schools where less than 20 percent of the students qualified for a free or reduced-price meal. Students also benefited (though to a lesser extent) from attending schools with less than 30 percent of students eligible for subsidized lunch. Students in public housing in schools where 0 percent to 35 percent of students qualified for subsidized meals performed no better over time than those in schools where 35 percent to 85 percent of students qualified for subsidized meals. Without the presence of schools with poverty in excess of 85 percent in any year, it is difficult to identify whether public housing students in the schools with poverty as high as 35 percent would have performed better than students in schools with 85 percent to 100 percent low-income students. Further, since 90 percent of elementary schools in any given year served student populations where less than 60 percent of students qualified for a free or reduced-price meal, the effective comparison described above is between the performance of public housing students in schools where 0 percent to 35 percent of students qualified for subsidized meals to public housing students in schools where 35 percent to 60 percent of students qualified for subsidized meals.”

Below is further reading on the effects of concentrated poverty on educational attainment. All worth a read if you’re interested in this issue.

Atlantic – Concentration Poverty in American Schools

The Benefits of Socioeconomically and Racially Integrated Schools

Economic Policy Institute – Does Poverty Cause Low Achievement

City Lab – America’s Biggest Problem is Concentrated Poverty, not Inequality