As a life & career coach, I help people to take potentially long-term goals that I call personal projects (such as I'd like to find a life partner, I'd like to make more money, I'd like to change careers), break them into smaller goals, prioritize them, and complete them in order week by week until you complete the larger goal. I've built a successful practice based on my expertise with helping clients to get unstuck, and much of that work involves helping people to avoid bad habits that threaten to pull them off track and undermine their larger aims.
I'm currently writing a book tightly focused on tactics you can use to avoid bad habits and swing into new, more helpful behaviors. As I was writing the initial drafts, I noticed that my focus kept drifting away from achieving the overall goal and more toward the development of what I call mini-habits—Duhigg refers to this as a routine in his book—that go into completing a long-term goal. For example, if someone decides to lose 30 pounds in 6 months, imagine all of the minor adjustments to daily routine needed to complete that goal: for example, mini-habits in the areas of food shopping, snacking, placement of snacks, activity, frequency of activity, perhaps clothes to wear for that activity, location of activity, scheduling the activity, managing expectations of friends and family, and so on. Successfully completing the larger goal is completely based on the ability to install these new routines and keep them going long enough until they become automatic habits.
Given that, I decided that I needed to learn more about habits. So, I turned to Duhigg's book.
I recommend the book highly. Duhigg is an investigative reporter for the New York Times. As you might guess, he's very thorough. The best part of the book, however, is that he's also a great story teller. He does a terrific job of hooking you with a fascinating story before delivering some of the more academic information. Then, as he transitions into another point he wants to make, he circles back to one of the stories and tells you more. It seamlessly moves between entertainment and teaching and back again.
The book has three parts: The Habits of Individuals, The Habits of Successful Organizations, and The Habits of Societies. His stories provide examples from science, industry, and American History, including companies and individuals with whom and with which you may be very familiar but may have never considered before in terms of habit formation.
I won't try to produce a book report at this point, but I'll give you some random points from the book that I found to be fascinating. My focus is on helping individuals to target helpful habit change, but I also recommend this book for people looking to make business, organizational, or social change happen. Please do consider buying this excellent book!
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- Habits, as much as memory or reason, are at the root of how we behave.
- Habits appear to be controlled in the brain independently from memory, in a more primitive part of the brain called the basal ganglia. In other words, you take the action because it's a habit, not because you remember to do something.
- When a habit engages, we are cued (the thinking parts of our brain are very active as we process what the cue means), we determine that a habit is called for and we launch into a habitual routine (the thinking part of our brain shuts down and allows us to go on automatic pilot), and we receive an expected reward for completing our routine.
- Over time, we begin to anticipate or crave the reward. Studies have shown that, after animals are conditioned to crave a cue, a routine, and a reward, then withholding or altering the reward can cause significant depression and stress in the animal. (If you consider that a major symptom of depression is hopelessness, then it appears as if losing faith that your actions can result in an expected reward would facilitate depression and a refusal to take further action.)
- Habits tend to break down under high stress unless you add in the component of belief or faith. A key aspect of faith is a belief that none of us individually have 100% control over any situation. Given that, we seek connection to power beyond ourselves. Following from that, strong engagement and connection with a group of people who share your belief can strengthen the habit and make it more likely that it will persist during times of high stress. This is why many self-help programs emphasize group participation.
- To create a new habit, clearly identify the cue (are your teeth gritty or cloudy?), create a craving for a routine (try new Acme toothpaste...you'll love the tingly, fresh feeling!), and clearly identify the reward (for a beautiful, sexy smile). The book contains a number of examples showing that identifying a cue and a reward can be challenging and can take some experimentation and thought.
- Old habits never go away (they can reappear during high-stress situations); new habits must become stronger than the old habits. Our brains make no distinction between "good" and "bad' habits.
- To stop a bad habit, keep the cue and reward in place, and swap out the "bad" routine for a "good" one. For example, if you often smoke (routine) when you get bored mid-morning at work (cue) and want some stimulation (reward), then substitute a cup of coffee (new routine) for the cigarette. The book emphasizes the importance of deciding to change the bad habit and accepting that this is a long-term project requiring effort.
- Because we are creatures of habit, we are naturally drawn to the familiar. The book includes a fascinating example of how a catchy-but-quirky pop song was marketed so that listeners would give it more time to sound familiar; the song eventually became a huge hit in the early 2000s.
- The book defines the concept of keystone habits, which are habits that appear to be connected to many other habits; make a change to that one keystone habit, and a ripple effect of habit change often occurs. Keystone habits tend
to work because of a dynamic called small wins; get traction in one
manageable area, and it feels more do-able to make changes in more challenging areas.
Keystone habits affect individuals, and different people have different keystone habits; it can be tricky to identify your keystone habits.
As examples of keystone habits, studies show that families that eat dinner together tend to include children with greater homework skills, better grades, a better ability to manage their emotions, and more confidence. Making your bed every morning is correlated with better productivity, a greater sense of well-being, and stronger skills at sticking with a budget.
Organizations can also have keystone habits; create a focused effort to change that one organizational keystone habit, and you can transform an organization. The book includes several fascinating stories of companies that made this kind of transformation.
- In the Organization section, there's a fascinating discussion of habits that form truces between competing individuals or departments. Part of transforming organizations involves identifying when truces become dysfunctional and need to be modified to address new challenges.
- Willpower is a skill you can develop and strengthen; it's a keystone habit.
- Studies have shown that willpower is like a muscle that can be strengthened by exercise and that can be weakened by being overly taxed. In one particular study, kindness and respect shown to people increased their ability to use willpower in a subsequent task. The kind approach gave people a sense of control, invoked a sense that they would enjoy doing the task for themselves, or engendered enough goodwill so that they wanted to do the task well for the person requesting it. Those who were treated brusquely didn't have enough willpower reserves left to complete the subsequent task very well.
- People and organizations face inflection points, which are painful times when they feel like abandoning a habit or forming a new one; this is very similar to the crisis equals opportunity maxim. Marketing professionals understand that people are more willing to shift to a new way of doing things—to buy new products—during personal transitions (getting married, having a baby, getting divorced, being laid off, starting a new job). Organizational change agents may take advantage of inflection points to modify a truce or introduce a new habit.
- Social change is often facilitated by friendship (people do something to support their friends), social peer pressure (sometimes called the power of weak ties), and a way for the behavior to become self perpetuating (individuals take ownership of the issue and lead instead of just follow). Regarding the power of weak ties, a study showed that people are not very willing to help strangers (not surprising), they are willing to help friends (not surprising), and they are almost equally willing to help friends of friends (surprising until you think about it). When confronted with someone who knows your friend, you are hesitant to behave badly in a way that could get back to your friend.