I think I'm going through mid-life crisis. Sitting in a cafe, re-evaluating my career options, I am suddenly overcome by a certain adulation for the art of story-telling. The only other reasonable explanation for this thought is that it could be a culmination of my love for the written word, the recollection of some of my favourite authors, and the latest addition to my book repertoire - The Power of Habit. For now, I'll go with the second option and park mid-life crisis for a deeper analysis later on.
Now that I think about it, some of my favourite authors like Malcolm Gladwell, Shashi Tharoor, are all masterful story tellers who know how to weave those seemingly divergent strands of ideas into a consistent story. After reading The Power of Habit, I think Charles Duhigg is no stranger to this art. In this book, Duhigg combines brilliant story telling and some life-changing ideas to create the perfect recipe for a successful book. 'The Power of Habit' is a simple concept - a neglected one, but so basic that its mastery can have a huge impact in our lives. Everyone should read it.
Now let me tell you why this book is so effective.
The general perception about bad habits is that they are really difficult to change, and even if they do, they are bound to be back if we are not careful. We've all spent endless days (and nights) trying to change our habits. Families have fallen apart because of a 'seemingly unchangeable' habit of one of the spouses. After a while, we take pride in our efforts, resign to our fates and go back to our routines, declaring with a heavy heart, I can't.
More often than not, when it comes to changing a bad habit or developing a new one, we fall back on our 'will power', or blame its lack thereof! Research suggests that 'will power' is a limited resource. For example, if you want to hit the gym in the evening after work, it could be a lot more difficult if you have already used up your will power resisting cookies or attending unnecessary meetings during the day. In fact, your will power may not be a perfectly reliable companion under all circumstances - especially when it comes to changing deep-rooted habits.
If 'will power' can't help us, then what can? Understanding the psychology of habits can!
Charles Duhigg is here to tell you that if you want to change your habits or develop new ones, you can, even if you have failed multiple times. The book lays down the foundations of habit formation and gives you practical advice on what do with that knowledge. Additionally, it not only focuses on the habits of individuals, but talks about organisational habits and the habits of societies.
The prologue to the book is quite intriguing; there are some brilliant examples meant to emphasise the importance of understanding the psychology of habits. Imagine this - an Army Major of Kufa (a small city ninety miles south of Iraq's capital Baghdad) was able to avert some major riots by just getting the food vendors out of the plazas where the crowd would gather. In an area that's notorious for frequent riots, the usual response would be to keep the forces on standby and wait till the riot breaks out, or to get the forces to break up any congregation before it becomes a riot. But by analysing the social habits of groups, the Major was able to hypothesise that one seemingly unrelated action of keeping the food vendors can create such a ripple effect. It worked; there hadn't been a riot since he arrived.
What's more? If done correctly, you no longer have to worry about the habit rearing it's dirty head again. In a research funded by the National Institutes of Health, the scientists noticed that as the subjects replaced their old habits with new ones, their brains got re-wired. One of the subjects from the study, Lisa Allen, who was at the time, thirty-four years old, had started smoking and drinking when she was sixteen and had struggled with obesity for most of her life. At one point, in her mid-twenties, collection agencies were hounding her to recover $10,000 in debts. An old resume listed her longest job as lasting less than a year. Interestingly, within a year, Lisa had completely turned her life around. She was now lean and vibrant, with the toned legs of a runner. She looked a decade younger than the photos in her chart. According to the most recent report, Lisa had no outstanding debts, didn't drink, and was in her thirty-ninth month at a graphic design firm. In her brain images, the researchers found something spectacular: one set of neurological patterns - her old habits - had been replaced by new patterns. They could still see the neural activity of her old behaviours, but those impulses were crowded out by new urges. As Lisa's habits changed, so had her brain!
Here's another anecdote on how the psychology of habit can be used in business. Marketers have been, from time immemorial, manipulating our habits against our wishes to make us do things we are not used to - like brushing our teeth. Once upon a time, when the US government was drafting men for the World War I, so many recruits had rotting teeth that officials said poor dental hygiene was a national security risk. Then comes the advertising wizard Claude Hopkins, who, within 5 years, turned Pepsodent into one of the best-known products on earth and, in the process, helped create a tooth brushing habit that moved across America with startling speed.
[Side note: I'm not adding fuel to the fire here, but did you know that Shampoo doesn't have to foam, but every shampoo company adds foaming chemicals because people expect it each time they wash their hair? Also that almost every toothpaste contains oils and chemicals that causes gums to tingle, because people crave it and if it wasn't there, their mouths didn't feel clean? When Savlon antiseptic was first launched in India, their campaign against rival Dettol was along the lines of, An antiseptic that doesn't sting. This whole premise in fact backfired because people expected antiseptics to sting - otherwise how would they know if they were effective or not! It took Johnson & Johnson, the company that came up with Savlon, a while to even fathom what had hit them. They eventually recovered, but had to take the bull by it's horn with a campaign that said, 'less sting but more effective'.]
Duhigg points out:
In the past decade, our understanding of neurology and psychology of habits and the way patterns work within our lives, societies and organisations has expanded in ways we couldn't have imagined 50 years ago. We now know why habits emerge, how they change, and the science behind their mechanics. We know how to break them into parts and rebuild them to our specifications. We understand how to make people eat less, exercise more, work more efficiently, and live healthier lives. Transforming a habit isn't necessarily easy or quick. It isn't always simple. But it is possible. And now we understand how.
To understand the psychology of habits, let's start with the most important diagram in this book called 'the habit loop' or 'cue-routine-reward cycle'. If you can understand how these three are linked, then you can effect habit changes.
The science behind Habits
All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits - William James, 1892
- One paper published by a Duke University Researcher in 2006 found that more than 40% of the actions people performed each weren't actual decisions but habits.
- The outer layers of the Brain - those closer to the scalp are generally the most recent additions from an evolutionary perspective. That's where the most complex thinking occurs. But deeper inside the brain, and closer to the brain stem - where the brain meets the spinal column - are older primitive structures that control our automatic behaviours such as breathing and swallowing, or the startle response we feel when someone leaps out from behind a bush. Toward the centre of the skull is a golf ball-sized lump of tissue called the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia is central to recalling patterns and acting on them. The basal ganglia, in other words, stores habits even while the 'rest of the brain' goes to sleep.
- Habits emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. When ever we do something for the first time, and the first few times after that, the brain has to work at full potential to make sense of all the new information. As we learn to do that actively, our mental activity becomes more and more automatic, we start thinking about it less and less. For example, driving or swimming. After a while, the routine becomes so automatic that we don't have to think too much about what we are doing.
- Our basal ganglia have devised a clever system to determine when to let habits take over. It's something that happens when a chunk of behaviour starts or ends. That's why the habit loop (shown in the image above) is very important.
Habits can emerge without our permission
- The process within our brain is a 3-step loop. First there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode, and which habits to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical, mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop - cue, routine, reward - becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become inter-twined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges. Note that this craving is particularly important in developing new habits - we will discuss about this in detail later.
Cues can be anything, from a visual trigger such as a candy bar or a television commercial, to a certain place, a time of day, an emotion, a sequence of thoughts or the company of particular people. Routines can be incredibly complex or fantastically simple (some, such as those related to emotions, are measured in milliseconds). Rewards can range from food or drugs that cause physical sensation, to emotional pay offs, such as the feelings of pride that accompany praise or self-congratulation.
- As we have already established using common skills like driving or swimming, when a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard or diverts focus to other tasks.
- Habits are encoded into the structures of our brain, so they never really disappear. Since our brains can't differentiate between bad and good habits, the bad habit is always lurking there, waiting for the right cue and rewards. So unless you deliberately fight a habit by finding new routines, the old pattern will unfold automatically on seeing the cue.
- Once someone creates a new pattern, studies have demonstrated, going for a jog or ignoring doughnuts becomes as automatic as any other habit.
Without habit loops, our brains would shut down, overwhelmed by the minutiae of daily life
Now that we have looked at some of the important properties of habits, in the next blog post, we will explore how to create new habits and replace existing ones.