Subtitled “Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business,” this 2012 book’s author is an investigative reporter for the New York Times. He describes a habit as “a choice that we deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about, but continue doing, often every day.” One study by Duke University researchers found that more than 40% of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits. An astounding figure!
Habits are not as simple as they appear. Even though scientists have discovered how habits work, there is no recipe for rapid change; no one formula for changing habits. Rather, habits, like individuals, are all different.
Giving up cigarettes is different from curbing overeating, which is different from changing how you communicate with your spouse, which is different from how you prioritize tasks at work. But every habit, not matter its complexity, is malleable. However, to modify a habit, you must decide to change it. Duhigg delivers a framework for understanding how habits work and a guide to experimenting with how they might change. He writes that “Change might not be fast and it isn’t always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped.”
- Identify the routine
- Experiment with rewards
- Isolate the cue
- Have a plan
MIT researchers discovered a simple neurological loop at the core of every habit, a loop that consists of three parts: a cue, a routine, and a reward. To understand your own habits, you need to identify the components of your loops. Once you have diagnosed the habit loop of a particular behavior, you can look for ways to supplant old vices with new routines. This is also how new habits are created: by putting together a cue, a routine and a reward, and then cultivating a craving that drives the loop.
Step One: Identify the Routine
How do you start diagnosing and then changing your behavior? By figuring out the habit loop. And the first step is to identify the routine. The routine is the most obvious aspect: It’s the behavior you want to change.
Step Two: Experiment with Rewards
Rewards are powerful because they satisfy cravings. But we’re often not conscious of the cravings that drive our behaviors. To figure out which cravings are driving particular habits, it’s useful to experiment with different rewards and test different hypotheses. As you test for different rewards, jot down your thoughts, emotions, feelings, etc. and look for patterns. By experimenting with different rewards, you can isolate what you are actually craving, which is essential in redesigning the habit.
Step Three: Isolate the Cue
Once you have figured out the routine and the reward, what remains is identifying the cue. However, it is often difficult to identify the cues that trigger our habits because there is too much information bombarding us as our behaviors unfold. To identify the cue amid the noise, we can identify categories of behaviors ahead of time to scrutinize in order to see patterns. Luckily, experiments have shown that almost all habitual cues fit into one of five categories: location, time, emotional state, other people, and immediately preceding action.
So, keep a log of these five categories while you are trying to diagnose your habit. For example, track your behavior over time and log answers to questions like these: Where were you when you exhibited the behavior that you want to change? What time did it occur? What emotions were you experiencing at the time? Who else was around and what were they doing? And what had occurred just prior to your behavior?
Step Four: Have a Plan
Once you have figured out your habit loop, you can begin to shift the behavior. You can change to a better routine by planning for the cue and choosing a behavior that delivers the reward you are craving. What you need is a plan. A habit is a formula our brain automatically follows: When I see a CUE, I will do ROUTINE in order to get a REWARD. To re-engineer the formula, we need to begin making choices again. And the easiest way to do this, according to study after study, is to have a plan. Develop a plan to disrupt the current habit is some way, so that you can make more conscious decisions about your behaviors. Over time, you can alter your routine and change your habit.
Final note: There are numerous relevant quotes and other insights in the book that, if included, would make this book summary far too long. However, if you would like a copy of the list I compiled, send me a request and I will email them to you.