Blog Post No. 40
15th October 2016
Copyright © Renata Taylor-Byrne 2016
Renata’s Coaching & Counselling blog: A ‘Rave review’ of “The Power of Habit – Why we do what we do and how to change”, by Charles Duhigg
Charles Duhigg’s fabulous book about The Power of Habit is a fascinating read. It’s a very practical guide to changing our habits and is very straightforward, and helpful, and contains case studies which show the process of habit change from start to finish. It’s also got easily understandable illustrations. So, if you have some bad habits you want to eliminate, this book could be a huge help to you!
The nature of habits
What are habits? Here are two definitions
The definition of Habit by the Merriam-Webster dictionary is as follows: It’s (1) “… (a) behaviour pattern acquired by frequent repetition or physiologic exposure that shows itself in regularity or increased facility of performance” or (2): “…An acquired mode of behaviour that has become nearly or completely involuntary.”
“All our life, so far as it has definite form, is a mass of habits”.
(William James, 1892)
We are habit-based human beings, and the more we know about how we form habits, the easier it will be for us to change old ones that aren’t working for us, and create new ones.
A researcher at Duke University in 2006 discovered that more than 40% of the activities people engaged in every day were habits, and not decisions they had made. And some theorists would say that this is as high as 95% (Bargh and Chartrand, 1999).
Our brains have developed the ability to create habits because they allow our brains to save effort, and to think more efficiently without having our minds cluttered with the mechanics of the many basic behaviours we have to follow each day.
The structure of a habit
In his book, Charles Duhigg has looked very closely at the specific features of what makes up a habit. They are like a loop that has three parts: the cue; the routine; and the reward. Here is a picture of that loop:
- Firstly, there is a cue (a trigger that starts off a routine: e.g. the sound of the alarm clock in the morning).
Here’s an example of a cue that I recently found in the Sunday Times Magazine, in an article by Viv Groscop (who performed her one-woman show at Edinburgh in August this year). Viv stated that, to make her exercise routine strong, she started keeping her workout clothes and trainers next to her bed, so they were the first things she saw- the Cue! – in the early morning, as soon as she woke up. (She lost 3 stone [or 42 pounds in weight] in one year through changes in her exercise and nutrition habits).
2. Secondly, this is followed by a routine.
A routine is here defined as any pattern of behaviour. Examples include: eating, going to the pub, watching a TV programme, going to the gym, doing homework, buying clothes, smoking, placing a bet, etc.
3. Finally, there is a reward – the most important part of the loop.
All habits have a reward at the end of them. Here’s are some examples of rewards: The feeling of comradeship when drinking at the pub; the rush of pleasure after you have just done a bout of exercise; giving yourself a cup of coffee when you’ve done your daily exercise. Seeing the good, pleasurable results of any difficult task.
The importance of craving!
For habit change to work you have to crave the reward.
There is an important alert here: You have to really crave the reward, or you won’t have the incentive to change your behaviour. Charles Duhigg describes a research project undertaken by the National Weight control agency. The agency examined the routines for eating food that had been created by people who were successful dieters. They investigated more than 6,000 people’s routines.
What was discovered was that all the successful dieters eat a breakfast (which was cued by the time of day). But they also had very real, very desirable rewards in place for themselves if they stuck to their diet plans – and it was the reward that they craved. (For example, being able to fit into new clothes in a smaller size; etc.)
And if they felt themselves weakening in their commitment, they changed their focus onto the rewards that they would get if they kept to their plans. This visualisation of the very real rewards they would get, kept them strong in the face of temptation.
Apparently people who started new exercise routines showed that they were more likely to follow an exercise routine if they chose a specific cue (first thing in the morning, or as soon as they get in from work, or before bedtime). So having a cue in place is crucial to initiate the new behaviour.
The new routine follows from the cue.
And the reward is what people crave at the end. Some of the rewards mentioned were having a beer, or allowing yourself an evening of watching the TV without guilt.
As my own experiment, I wanted to establish a daily habit of exercising my arm muscles, to firm them up. Therefore, I set up a cue which is the start of the BBC TV programme “Pointless” at 5.15pm every day.
When I hear the theme music for Pointless, I get out our “Powerspin” device (illustrated above) and do a pre-planned (recommended) set of exercises.
This exercise routine is designed to strengthen our arms and back muscles, and core (stomach), and is very simple.
And the reward for me (which I crave strongly – otherwise it won’t work) is the knowledge that my arms and back and core muscles are getting stronger and fitter, and will keep me fit and able to carry heavy objects into old age! And so far so good – I’ve only missed a few times!
Duhigg’s own experiment
Charles Duhigg did a really interesting personal experiment to see if he could change one of his own habits. He was eating too many cookies and he was starting to put on weight. Here’s his explanation. His description of his experiment and the results are shown in the following YouTube video clip:
The importance of substitution
What if we have a habit that we want to change? Can we get rid of it?
How do we go about it? Charles Duhigg states that we can’t get rid of old habits – but what we can do is substitute new routines for the old ones, and get the same rewards.
He explains that a golden rule of habit change, which has been validated by repeated studies for a long time, is as follows:
“To change a habit, we must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but change the routine.
“That’s the rule: if you use the same cue, and provide the same reward, you can shift the routine and change the habit. Almost any behaviour can be transformed if the cue and reward stay the same”. (Page 62)
He gives the example of someone who wants to give up cigarettes. If the person wanting to quit smoking fails to find something else to do, when they start to crave nicotine, then they will be unable to stop! It will be too hard for them.
Charles Duhigg states that the organisation called ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’ is effective in helping people reduce their drinking habits because it examines and shines a very clear light on the cues which trigger drinking in people; and their program deliberately encourages people to identify the cues and rewards that encourages their alcoholic habits, and then assists them as they try to find new behaviours.
So the implied question that AA asks an alcoholic is: “What rewards do you get from alcohol?”
“In order for alcoholics to get the same rewards that they get in a bar, AA has built a system of meetings and companionship – (the ‘Sponsor’ each person works with) – that strives to offer as much escape, distraction and catharsis as a Friday night bender.” (Page 71)
If someone wants to get support from another person, they can receive this by talking to their sponsor or by going to a group meeting, rather than “toasting a drinking buddy”.
A researcher called J. Scott Tonigan has been looking at the work of AA for more than ten years, and he states that if you look at Step 4 of the 12 step program, (which is to make a ‘searching and fearless inventory of ourselves and to admit to God, to ourselves and another human being the exact nature of our wrongs’), then he considers that something crucial is taking place, which he sums up like this:
“It’s not obvious from the way they are written, but to complete those steps, someone has to create a list of triggers for all their alcoholic urges. When you make a self-inventory, you’re figuring out all the things that make you drink…” The cues!
The rewards of drinking
The AA organisation then asks alcoholics (or alcohol dependent individuals) to look really hard for the rewards they get from alcohol, and the cravings that are behind the behaviour. And what is discovered?
“Alcoholics crave a drink because it offers escape, relaxation, companionship, the blunting of anxieties and an opportunity for emotional release….the physical effects of alcohol are one of the least rewarding parts of drinking for addicts.” (Page 71)
So what AA does is gets you to create new routines for your spare time instead of going out drinking. You can relax and talk through any worries or concerns you might have at the meetings.
“The triggers (cues) are the same, and the payoffs (rewards) are the same, it’s just the behaviour that changes,” states Tonigan.
Duhigg includes in his book a summary of a valuable experiment conducted in 2007 by a German neurologist called Muellor. He and his fellow researchers at the University of Magdeburg, identified the specific part of the brain (the basal ganglia) where the habit loop is based, and recruited alcoholics who had been in rehab and had been unable to give up drink. They recruited five alcoholics.
What they did next was embed small electrical appliances into the brains of these men. They put them in the part of the brain where the ‘habit loop’ resides, which is in the basal ganglia.
These appliances gave off a small electrical charge which interrupted the neurological reward sequence that created a craving in people. This stopped the habit loop completely.
After the operations had taken place and the participants had recovered, they were shown a sequence of images. The images were related to their drinking habits, and they were pictures of a glass of beer, or people going into a bar.
When the electrical charges were being run, they stopped the men reacting in their habitual way, and they stopped drinking. And one of the participants told Mueller that when this electrical current was operating on his brain, then his longings for alcohol disappeared.
However these cravings came back as soon as the participants’ brains were not receiving an electrical charge. The participants’ drinking habits returned with full force for four out of the five subjects.
What was noticed was that the participants relapsed when very stressful events happened in their lives, and to curb their anxiety they turned to self-medication: i.e. alcohol.
But the good news was that once they learned new routines for managing their stress, their drinking stopped completely! Some of the participants decided to go for therapy, and one participant started attending AA meetings.
So the men taking part in the experiment embedded these new behaviour patterns, or routines – (going to therapy/learning and using new stress management techniques; or going to the AA meetings) – into their lives, and were successful at managing their alcohol use. And one of the men, who had tried to detox from alcohol sixty times previously and was unsuccessful, found that, after this routine change, he never had another drink.
The result of the experiment
To summarise the value of the experiment, it showed that the former alcoholics only succeeded in eliminating their drinking behaviour because they developed new routines which followed the old triggers (or cues), and gave them their comforting rewards.
Apparently the techniques that were developed by the AA for changing habits have also been successfully applied to children’s temper tantrums, sex addictions and other types of behaviour.
The AA is described in Duhigg’s book as an organisation which creates techniques to change the habits associated with the use of alcohol:
“AA is in essence a giant machine for changing habit loops and though the habits associated with alcohol consumption are extreme, the lessons AA provides demonstrates how almost any habit – even the most obstinate – can be changed.” Charles Duhigg
He makes it clear in his book that overeating, alcoholism, or smoking, are ingrained habits that take real commitment to change. But if you know how your habits are working, this makes it easier to experiment with new behaviours.
Essentially, Duhigg considers that if you look very carefully at the cues (or triggers) and cravings and the rewards that fuel any unhealthy or self-destructive habit that you have, then this scrutiny will help you choose more constructive routines which deliver the same rewards.
The book has several really interesting case studies in it. For example, right at the beginning of the book, Lisa Allen is described. She focussed on one specific pattern – smoking – and this was described as a ‘Keystone habit’. This smoking habit, after being successfully changed by her, led her to reprogram a lot of the other routines in her life as well, because her achievement had a knock-on effect.
What is a ‘keystone’ habit?
Duhigg admits that identifying keystone habits isn’t easy: they are the habits which, if you change them, will give you ‘small wins’. They facilitate new structures of behaviour in someone’s life and start to make it easier to change other, bigger habits. Here are some examples taken from research:
Exercise seems to be a keystone habit that has a beneficial, ‘knock-on’ effect. When people begin exercising, and it can be as little as once a week, they begin to change other, unconnected habits in their lives. It has been discovered that they reduce their smoking, spend money less, and have more understanding for their family and the people they work with.
“Exercise spills over“, stated James Prochaska (a University of Rhode Island researcher). “There’s something about it that makes good habits easier.”
Other studies have revealed that families who have their meals together regularly raise children with higher school grades, more emotional control, better homework skills and increased confidence.
Apparently making your bed every morning is also a habit that has a spill over effect. It is correlated with a higher level of happiness, stronger skills at sticking to a budget and a higher level of productivity.
A powerful example
Here is an example of the full process of habit change.
Mandy, a chronic, nail-biting graduate student who was at the Mississippi State University, went into the counselling centre at the university and they referred her to a doctoral psychology student who was studying a type of therapy called: “habit reversal training.”
What this psychology student got Mandy to do was very simple: He got her to describe what triggered her nail-biting. (That is her cue!) She was asked to describe what she felt just before she lifted her hands to nibble at her nails. (What cued her?)
The answer Mandy gave was that she felt tension in her fingers (the cue) and once she had started to bite her nails to reduce the tension, she felt she couldn’t stop until she had bitten all her nails.
As they talked, it became clear that she bit her nails when she was bored, and as she described a number of situations, it also became apparent that when she had bitten all her nails, she felt a “sense of completeness”. This was a physical experience that was rewarding for her.
At the end of their first session, this psychologist asked Mandy to do some homework:
“Carry an index card and each time you feel the cue – a tension in your fingers – make a check mark on the card”.
The following week she came back to the psychologist and she’d made 28 marks on the card, at times when she was conscious of feeling tension in her finger tips, which was her cue to start biting her nails.
The next thing the psychologist taught Mandy was to create a “competing response”. When she experienced the familiar tension in her fingers (which had always led to her biting her nails), she was to look around quickly for something that would make her unable to put her fingers into her mouth e.g. putting her hands in her pockets, or underneath her legs, or take hold of a pencil.
Then she was to look around for something physically stimulating like rubbing her arms, or any type of physical movement.
The cue – tension in the fingers – stayed the same. But the routine changed (to rubbing and/or physical movement); and the rewards stayed the same (relief from tension in her fingers).
She practised the new routine and when she left the psychologist’s office she was given another homework task. This time, she was to keep using the card to do a checkmark whenever she felt the urge to bite her nails, and to make a hash mark when she succeeded in overcoming her nail-biting habit.
The result: The following week Mandy showed that she had only bitten her nails three times, and had made the competing response (rubbing arms, or physical movement) seven times. So she rewarded herself with a manicure, and continued using the cards.
After a month had passed, her habit had disappeared, and her new ways of responding to the feelings of tension in her fingers, the “competing responses”, were now totally automatic! One habit had taken the place of the previous habit.
Here is a quote by Nathan Azrin, who was one of the people who developed habit reversal training:
“It seems ridiculously simple, but once you are aware of how your habit works, once you recognise the cues and the rewards, you’re half-way to changing it.”
Apparently today, habit reversal is used to treat gambling, depression, smoking, anxiety, procrastination, and sex and alcohol addiction etc.
Charles Duhigg makes the point that although the habit process can be simply described, it doesn’t mean that it’s easily changed.
Charles Duhigg states:
“It’s facile to imply that smoking, alcoholism, over-eating or other ingrained patterns can be upended without real effort. Genuine change requires real work and self-understanding of the cravings driving the behaviours. No one will quit smoking because they can sketch a habit loop.
“However, by understanding habits’ mechanisms, we gain insights that make new behaviours easier to grasp. Anyone struggling with addiction or destructive behaviours can benefit from help from many quarters, including trained therapists, physicians, social workers and clergy.
“Much of those changes are accomplished because people examine the cues, cravings and rewards that drive their behaviours and then find ways to replace their self-destructive routines with healthier alternatives, even if they aren’t aware of what they are doing at the time. Understanding the cues and cravings driving your habits won’t make them suddenly disappear – but it will give you a way to change the pattern.” (Page 77)
Why do I think this is such a valuable and useful book for people to read? Its value lies in the way it makes habit change understandable, and this is very hope-inspiring in all of us who have habits we want to change. And also for those of us who are committed to helping other people change their unwanted habits.
The book also has examples of organisations that tried to develop the habits of their employees to make them create more productive businesses and other very interesting information.
So what habit would you like to change? If you have one specific habit in mind, for example like reducing your weight and as a reward, wearing a particular dress or outfit at Christmas, then what this book gives you are the tools to help you change your behaviour.
It’s very tough to do it on your own, and having a lifestyle coach or counsellor can help you achieve these goals. So that’s where I come in.
Contact me if you’ve got a sense of hope from reading about the techniques I have summarised from this book, and you want to change your life in a positive way.
That’s all for now.
01422 843 629
The Power of Habit – Why we do what we do and how to change. By Charles Duhigg, (2012), London, William Heinemann.
Bargh, J.A. and Chartrand, T.L. (1999). ‘The unbearable automaticity of being’. American Psychologist, 54(7): 462-479.