The Real Power of Habit

The Real Power of Habit

I posted the exercise below on the skills of creating a new habit as part of a post From New Year’s Resolutions to Reliable Habits in January 2013.  Just last week, two of my most trustworthy teachers, James Baraz and Tara Brach, both independently and very enthusiastically recommended the book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, the source of the thinking behind the exercise.   I’ve now read the book myself, and am so glad I did.  The emerging research on “habit reversal training” illuminates how our individual and collective brains create habits in the first place, why the automatic efficiency of habits makes them so hard to change, and yet our brains do indeed have the power replace or “rewire” them.  Duhigg makes an eloquent case that, once we know we can change our habits and learn how to, we have a responsibility to ourselves, those we love, and our societies in general, to commit to the work of consciously doing so.

May these reflections be useful to you and yours.

The Power of Habit is filled with well-researched and well-written stories and examples of how habits unconsciously, unspokenly, drive our behaviors as individuals, in organizations, in societies, most of the time.  (See Stories to Learn From Below for examples in all three categories.)   Duhigg acknowledges the tremendous efficiency of habit: “There’s nothing you can’t do if you get the habits right.”  And proposes we have a responsibility to change those habits when we don’t get them right.

Part One of The Power of Habit explores how habits develop in the first place and how they can be changed at the level of an individual brain, how changing even one keystone habit can ripple out and change many others.  Duhigg points out that the brain evolved as a habit-making machine.  The lower brain especially constantly searches for patterns it can “chunk” into implicit memory – how to tie your shoes or back the car out of the driveway in the morning – thus conserving energy and freeing the higher brain to creatively think and learn – write symphonies, create governments, solve global warming.  We create skillful habits so that we can move quickly, efficiently throughout our day, without having to analyze every move.

The brain does this habit-forming by the basal ganglia creating patterns of cue-routine-reward.  The brain is active in the cue and reward states; it is inactive in the routine phase. (Habits conserve energy.)  Therefore, to change a habit we must choose to change the routine portion of the sequence. Keep the cue and reward the same, change the routine.

Example:  You may feel bored at work. (This cue may even operate unconsciously).  You walk over to the vending machine to get a snack. ( You don’t even have to think about how to do this anymore.) The snack gives you energy and stimulation (reward, reinforcement of the habit.)  Yes, you do have to become aware and identify the cue in order to then choose to create a different routine in response to the cue – talk with a co-worker or take a quick walk around the block.  The reward will feel the same in the body – energy, stimulation; the same cue can now trigger a different habit of behavior.

Duhigg points out three potential glitches in rewiring this pattern.

1) Over time, our brain comes to anticipate the reward even before we begin the routine.  The anticipation itself becomes a cue to take action, opening a vulnerability to disappointment, frustration, even anger or depression if the expectation is not met, at the extreme, to craving and addictive behaviors.  Thus we must be mindful not only of the cues (triggers) but of our habitual expectations of reward.  When we become aware, we create a choice point.  When we let go of or do an end-run around expectations, (turn off the sound on your e-mail so you’re not triggered to find out who just contacted you) the craving doesn’t arise.

2)  We need to rehearse how we are going to overcome obstacles that would de-rail our routine, how we will be resilient when we hit a rough patch.

(See Stories below to learn how Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps dealt with water-filled goggles to set a world record in the 200-meter butterfly race in the 2008 Olympics.)

3)  When stressed, the brain tends to default to survival habits it learned long ago, even if those old strategies don’t work as well as the new strategies we’ve learned later.  To continue trusting the new habits we’ve created, it helps to have the support of groups, communities, role models that remind us that change is possible, that reinforce our belief in the new habit and in ourselves to create the new habit.

All of this dovetails nicely with Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being. Because so many habits begin as deliberate choices that, with enough repetition over time, become automatic and unconscious, once we understand the science of how to change them, we can begin to change them any way we choose. That change requires self-understanding, determination, and effort.  That’s the power of self-directed neuroplasticity.

Part Two of The Power of Habit applies the principle of changing one keystone habit to create a ripple effect, shifting, dislodging, remaking habits at the level of organizations. (See stories below to learn how prioritizing worker safety at Alcoa Aluminum catalyzed large-scale changes in lines of communication, redesigning of equipment, and empowerment of employees.)

Even in the small-scale organization of our families, research has shown that an exercise routine, even once a week, ripples out to people eating better, showing more patience with family members and colleagues, becoming more productive at work, using credit cards less, and feeling less stressed.  Researchers have found that in families that eat dinner together, children develop better homework skills, achieve higher grades in school, develop greater emotional control and more confidence.

“Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win.  Small wins…leverage tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach.”

Duhigg offers further examples of how small changes create new more people-oriented cultures in larger organizations that support large scale change and growth. Among them, how Starbucks trained new employees to handle disgruntled customers with new skillful habits of LATTE: Listen to the customer, Acknowledge their complaint, Take action solving the problem, Thank them, and Explain why the problem occurred.  They also asked their employees to write out their own plans for dealing with anticipated stress points. Training 1,500 entry-level employees a week in LATTE and rehearsing how they would deal with trigger points gave employees a genuine sense of decision making authority which led to more self-discipline and motivation, and helped Starbucks grow from seven stores in Seattle to 17,000 stores nationwide.

Duhigg also explores how a crisis can become an opportunity to overhaul old habits as everyone realizes something must change, even if they don’t immediately know to what.  “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”  And again, the importance of support, one human brain to another, to help those neurons to change.

Part Three explores how habits of an entire society can change using three networks of habits among people: a) changing social habits among friends and through close ties among acquaintances, b) changing community habits in the “weak” ties among neighborhoods and clans, c) converting followers to self-directed leaders.

Duhigg uses the examples of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott catalyzing so much of the Civil Rights movement through “weak” (but numerous!) ties among church groups, neighborhood clubs, community centers, youth organizations, volunteer groups, etc.  (See Stories below for more.)

He then offers a brilliant exploration of the neurology of free will, concluding, “This is the real power of habit:  the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be. Once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom – and the responsibility – to remake them.  Once you understand that habits can be rebuilt, the power of habit becomes easier to grasp, and the only option left is to get to work.”

Poetry and Quotes to Inspire

Habits are what allow us to do a thing with difficulty the first time, but soon do it more and more easily, and finally, with sufficient practice, do it semi-mechanically, or with hardly any consciousness at all.
– William James

* * * * *

Every grown-up man consists wholly of habits, although he is often unaware of it and even denies having any habits at all.
– Georges Gurdjieff

* * * * *

The second half of a man’s life is made up of nothing but the habits he has acquired during the first half.
– Feodor Dostoevski

* * * * *

All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits – practical, emotional, and intellectual – systematically organized for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.  Habit is thus the enormous flywheel of society, its most precious conservative agent.
– William James

* * * * *

Habits are at first cobwebs, then cables.
– Spanish proverb

* * * * *

Habit is a cable; we weave a thread each day, and at last we cannot break it.
– Horace Mann

* * * * *

The chains of habit are generally too small to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.
– Samuel Johnson

* * * * *

Ill habits gather by unseen degrees –
As brooks make rivers, rivers run to seas.
– John Dryden

* * * * *

In any family, measles are less contagious than bad habits.
– Mignon McLaughlin

* * * * *

Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.
– Mark Twain

* * * * *

Everything we know about habits, from neurologists studying amnesiacs and organizational experts remaking companies, is that any of them can be changed, if you understand how they function.  Every habit, no matter its complexity, is malleable.  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.  Once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom – and the responsibility  – to remake them.
– Charles Duhigg

Stories to Learn From

Michael Phelps not only created habits that steadily increased his speed as an Olympic swimmer: a two-hour stretching routine before each race, a 45-minue standard warm-up in the pool; 20 minutes of listening to hip-hop music to amp up his energy, swinging his arms three times on the starting block as he had done before every race since he was 12 years old.  He also created habits for coping with potential glitches so he wouldn’t have to think about the coping with the glitch when it happened.In the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Michael’s goggles began filling with water as soon as he began the 200-meter butterfly.  By the final lap Michael couldn’t’ see anything at all.  Not the black line along the pool’s bottom, not the black T marking the approaching wall.  But he had practiced in his imagination swimming with a goggle failure.  He had practiced swimming in a pool in the dark.  On the final lap he began counting strokes, knowing how many he need to touch the wall.  He timed it perfectly.  He won the gold medal and set a world record.  When a reporter asked him after the race what it felt like to swim blind, Michael responded, “It felt like I imagined it would.” He had already prepared a habitual response to a potential glitch.

* * * * *

When Paul O’Neill became the new CEO of Alcoa in 1987, he departed from the usual script of increased profits and lower costs, inventories and capital ratios.  He focused only on worker safety for employees working with metals burning at 1500 degrees and with machines that could rip a man’s arm off.  He wanted a zero injury figure to be the measure not only of safety but excellence across the company.

By the time O’Neill retired 13 years later, Alcoa was one of the safest companies in the world and had increased its net income 5 times over.  More importantly, by focusing on the keystone habit of safety, O’Neill had catalyzed sweeping changes in line communications, among other things.  Any time anyone was injured, the unit president had to report it directly to O’Neill within 24 hours and present a plan to making sure the injury would never happen again.

In order to report an injury to O’Neill within 24 hours, unit presidents needed to hear from their vice presidents as soon as an injury happened.  So vice presidents needed to be in constant communication with their floor managers.  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 communications 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.

As Alcoa’s safety patterns shifted, other aspects of the company started changing with startling speed, as well.  Rules that unions had spend decades opposing – such as measuring the productivity of individual workers – were suddenly embraced, because such measurements helped everyone figure out when part of the manufacturing process was getting out of whack, posing a safety risk.  Policies that managers had long resisted – such as giving workers autonomy to shut down a production line when the pace became overwhelming – were now welcomed, because that was the best way to stop injuries before they occurred.  The company shifted so much that some employees found safety habits spilling into other parts of their lives.

“Two or three years ago, I’m in my office, looking at the Ninth Street bridge out the window, and there’s some guys working who aren’t using correct safety procedures,” said Jeff Shockey, Alcoa’s current safety director.  One of them was standing on top of the bridge’s guardrail, while the other held on to his belt.  They weren’t using safety harnesses or ropes.  “They worked for some company that has nothing to do with us, but without thinking about it, I got out of my chair, went down five flights of stairs, walked over the bridge and told these guys, “Hey, you’re risking your life, you have to use your harness and safety gear.” The men explained their supervisor had forgotten to bring the equipment.  So Shockey called the local Occupational Safety and Health Administration office and turned the supervisor in.

“Another executive told me that one day, he stopped at a street excavation near his house because they didn’t have a trench box, and gave everyone a lecture on the important of proper procedures. It was the weekend, and he stopped his car, with his kids in the back, to lecture city workers about trench safety.  That isn’t natural, but that’s kind of the point.  We do this stuff without thinking about it now.”

* * * * *

We all know the story of Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a crowded, segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955.  Her arrest sparked a year-long boycott of the bus system that sparked the civil rights movement that drew national attention and protests to the continued segregationist policies of the South, eventually resulting in the 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawing segregation anywhere in the country.

Duhigg uses the rapid organization of the boycott – thousands of protesters boycotting the buses within five days of Rosa Parks’ arrest – to illustrate how habits of social connection can leverage change within an entire society.

Rosa Parks was deeply respected and embedded with her community.  She was secretary of the local NAACP chapter, attended the Methodist church, helped oversee a youth organization at a Lutheran church near her home.  She spent some weekends volunteering at a shelter, others with a botanical club. She was part of a group of women who knit blankets for a local hospital.  She volunteered dressmaking services to poor families and provided last minute alterations for wealthy white debutants. Her arrest triggered outrage and protest  among close friends in a social network that cut across the city’s racial and economic lines, among groups that usually didn’t come in contact with one another.

The thousands of protesters grew to tens of thousands of protesters, and the boycott stretched from that first day to more than a year, because Rosa Parks’ arrest also activated what sociologists call “weak ties” among the black community, where people identified with a sense of obligation to a social network, whether they knew Rosa Parks personally or not. Weak ties created a peer pressure among an entire community, where it would have been an embarrassment to a sense of identification with the group to not participate in the boycott.   When the local paper predicted that all black citizens would be participating in the boycott, there built a tremendous peer pressure: it would look bad in front of the entire community if you didn’t participate.

Weak ties, the sense of group identity among acquaintances, even strangers, is considered as influential in creating social change as close tie friendships, if not more so.  An entire community shares a group’s expectations and sense of obligation, drawing in thousands of people into a common cause out of the social habit of peer pressure and doing “the right thing” for a community they identify with.  In the case of the Montgomery bus boycott, “the community was activated to stand together out of the sense that anyone who didn’t participate wasn’t someone you wanted to be friends with in the first place.”  And everything in American society changed.

Exercises to Practice

Because all habits have the same neurological root: cue-routine-reward, Duhigg offers a framework for diagnosing and shaping habits within our own lives:

* identify the routine you want to change

* experiment with rewards; what’s the real payoff of the routine you want to change?

* isolate the cue

* create a plan

Duhigg playfully illustrates this framework with his own habit of going to the cafeteria every day while writing The Power of Habit to get a cookie on a mid-afternoon break.  His path of experimentation is delightful to read, and it was quite successful.  The re-post from January 2013 follows this framework:

I’ve used running as the example in this exercise to create a reliable habit, but there are many, many other ways you might wish to move toward your intentions for health, well-being, whatever makes your heart sing.

1.  Identify a new habit you would like to cultivate that would support a larger aliveness.  Researchers  tell us that a habit is a behavior we don’t have to think about doing anymore.  It’s now automatic, stored in our procedural memory.  (I remember one morning I was debating whether to get out of bed and run in the cold foggy weather and while I was debating my body got itself up, got dressed and went out the door on its own.)

2.  Create a sequence of steps – a routine – that would begin to establish that habit: running the same time every day or the same route every other day or wearing certain clothes that signal “We’re getting ready to run now.”  (Different example, but when I was writing the book, eating my “writing” breakfast and wearing my “writing” clothes and sitting at my “writing” desk helped prime my brain to write as soon as I settled in.)

3.  Then identify  something you could do in 30 seconds that would prime your brain to do the new sequence of behavior.  (Reaching for my running shoes cues, my body-brain to complete the sequence.)   Do that first 30 seconds’ worth over and over until it becomes an automatic habit, and the rest of the sequence will begin to follow.

4.  Create a cue to remind yourself to do that first 30 seconds worth.  (If I leave my running shoes out where I’ll trip over them first thing in the morning, I’ve created a visual cue to start the whole sequence.)

5.  Create a way to hold yourself accountable.  Shifting gears slightly, my friend Marianne and I have walked the ridge trail behind my house nearly every Tuesday morning for 12 years.  Walking or running with someone boosts your perseverance by creating that accountability (let alone deepen the friendship.)  Even checking in with someone who knows and cares about your health and growth provides a tremendous boost in your confidence in your competence and helps you move from intention to action.

6.  As you do your new behavior, see yourself doing the new behavior, take in the good, the benefit of the new behavior, and see yourself as someone who is creating new habits.  You’re creating a relationship with yourself as someone who can set an intention and achieve it, essential to your perseverance.

7.  As you see the new habit settling into your implicit (unconscious) memory, let yourself have the reward of “good job!”  However you want to say that to yourself.  You’ll be activating the release of dopamine in your brain, the neurotransmitter of pleasure and reward, which reinforces the “doing” that gives us that pleasure and reward again and again.


The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. Random House, 2012.  Charles Duhigg is an investigative reporter for the New York Times, frequent contributor to NPR, PBS NewsHour and Frontline, and winner of many journalism awards.

The Greater Good Science Center at U.C. Berkeley researches pro-social emotions and practices such as gratitude, compassion, altruism, happiness, mindfulness, forgiveness. Click here for recent articles on Creating Good Habits

Wisdom & inspiration direct to your inbox