The Golden Rule of Habit Change

The Golden Rule of Habit Change, subtitled “Why Transformation Occurs” is the third chapter in Duhigg’s The Power of Habit, and the final section of part one, The Habits of Individuals. 

The golden rule itself is “you can’t extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it.” Duhigg goes back to the 3-step habit loop and says that you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but change the routine.

Duhigg once again uses a couple of examples to demonstrate, this time a football coach who focused relentlessly on improving his players’ habits and the founders and members of Alcoholics Anonymous. Once again there are powerful, compelling examples of change, and strong results, so that you would think the above formula is “it.” But then Duhigg gives powerful counter-examples where each of the above failed – in both cases it was high-stress situations (the playoffs/superbowl for the football team, times of major personal crisis/loss for the alcoholics). Duhigg then comes in with the “secret ingredient” which was not explicit in the 3-step loop: belief. 

Duhigg doesn’t make it all seem easy, which is good. He first discusses the difficulty of identifying the cue, which can be subconscious in the case of many habits (Duhigg uses a brief but memorable example of an extreme fingernail chewer). Then, he discusses how it can also be difficult to identify the actual reward (e.g. with alcoholics, it is rarely the physical effects of alcohol, but a certain feeling). Only once these are properly identified can a new routine begin to replace the bad habit.

And of course, the belief part may be the most difficult. Duhigg quotes Lee Ann Kaskutas of the Alcohol Research Group:

There’s something really powerful about groups and shared experiences. People may be skeptical about their ability to change if they’re by themselves, but a group will convince them to suspend disbelief. A community creates belief.

I like that Duhigg takes the time to mention that while the process of habit change is easily described, it is not always easily accomplished. I wish that this was not relegated to a footnote, though.

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