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The Power of Habit – afterword and appendix

I found the afterword and appendix to actually contain some of the most powerful, straightforward stuff in Duhigg’s book (though you may need to read the entire thing for this to be the case).

The afterword includes follow-up stories with some readers who had written in with thier experience using Duhigg’s guidance to lose weight, quit smoking, stop procrastination and improve teaching. One of the things that struck me the most in this chapter was the discussion of setbacks, and the importance of developing a plan for dealing with them. Duhigg says that “if you plan for failure, and then plan for recovery – you’re more likely to snap back faster.”

The Appendix provides a practical guide to using all the ideas in the book. Duhigg is careful to warn that even with a common habit, such as overeating, the cues, cravings, rewards, etc may be different for each person – which is why he created the book as a framework rather than a prescription. His framework is:

1) Identify the routine – the habit loop of cue, routine and reward seems simple enough, but figuring out the cue can be more difficult than you might expect. The routine itself, however, should be simple to identify.

2) Experiment with rewards – the reason for experimenting with rewards is actually to help to figure out what craving the routine is satisfying. As you test each reward, look for patterns by jotting down the first three things that come to mind once you have completed your routine with the new reward. Then, set an alarm for 15 minutes and when it goes off ask whether you still have the craving for the routine. The rationale behind these steps is described in the book, and reviewing the notes on how you felt immediately after the replacement rewards as well as 15 minutes later will help identify exactly what craving this routine has been satisfying.

3) Isolate the cue – Duhigg shares scientific evidence that almost all habitual cues fall into one of five categories: location, time, emotional state, other people or immediately preceding action. So when he felt a craving for the routine he wanted to change, he wrote down answers to the questions: Where are you? What time is it? What’s your emotional state? Who else is around? What action preceded the urge?

4) Have a plan – Once the cue is identified and you already know the routine you want to change and a suitable replacement reward, all the elements are in place to create a better routine. The plan is crucial for dealing with setbacks, and gettting back on track.

 

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Are we responsible for our habits?

The final chapter of Duhigg’s The Power of Habit discusses neurology and personal responsibility. Once again, he uses two powerful examples to make his point.

One example is of a man who killed his wife while experiencing sleep terrors (a slightly less conscious version of sleepwalking). Scientific and circumstantial evidence showed that this man had no intent to kill his wife, and that he was simply following a deeply ingrained habit – fight or flight – and was left with a deep sense of guilt. Not only was he found not guilty, the judge attempted to console him.

The next example was of a woman who developed a habit of compulsive gambling, declared bankruptcy and moved to another state to avoid casinos, but was drawn back in by predatory marketing and grief over the loss of her parents – which ended up in the loss of her $1 million inheritance.

A study of the neurology of problem gamblers showed that their brains showed the same reward reaction to near wins as they did to wins, whereas other gamblers correctly interpreted near wins as losses. This showed up in the brain stem and basal ganglia, the same areas as sleep terrors. Further, people who have taken medication that affects these areas have been found not to be responsible for sudden binges of gambling, eating, shopping, etc. So should all problem gamblers who exhibit this deterioration be excused for their actions?

Duhigg says no:

We can choose our habits, once we know how. Everything we know about habits, from neurologists studying amnesiacs and organizational experts remaking companies, is that any if them can be changed, if you understand how they function.

Further:

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. You must know you have control and be self-conscious enough to use it…

The power of a crisis to instigate habit change

Chapter 6 of Duhigg’s book talks about the role crisis can play in instigating habit change. But first he explains the research of Nelson and Winter, who wrote about institutional habits as truces between warring factions within organizations. Duhigg says “There are no organizations without institutional habits. There are only places where they are deliberately designed, and places where they are created without forethought, so they often grow from rivalries or fear.”

Duhigg uses the examples of rampant medical errors and a major transit safety incident, which underscores his point: “Sometimes one priority – or one department or one person or one goal – needs to overshadow everything else, though it might be unpopular or threaten the balance of power that keeps trains running on time.”

Crisis brings this into sharp focus. Crisis brings a turmoil in which habits are more malleable and the sense that something must be done. It is easier to institute change and form new habits and routines in a crisis our its immediate aftermath.

While Duhigg emphasizes this for organizational leaders, it seems relevant to the individual as well. When we feel we are in crisis, out is easy to say “I can’t take on new changes during this time of chaos.” But maybe that’s actually the best time to make a change because we see the need and are open to it.

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.

The Power of Habit – The Habit Loop

Chapter 1 in Duhigg’s book is The Habit Loop: How Habits Work. It starts with the case of EP, who in 1993 lost a portion of his brain to viral encephalitis. EP was not able to recall anything recent, but his long-term memory seemed to be unaffected. His wife was told she would need to keep a close eye on him, as he would not remember that he had amnesia and his home would seem unfamiliar. However, researchers found that he would regularly take walks and find his way home without any problems, despite not being able to verbalize how to do so: “…the visitor asked Eugene where he lived. ‘I don’t know, exactly,’ he said. Then he walked up his sidewalk, opened his front door…”

Researchers hypothesized that this ability to form habits had somethign to do with the basal ganglia, and studies on rats seemed to show that the basal ganglia was central to recalling patterns and acting on them. The brain essentially looks for cues at the beginning of a routine task, then when it recognizes a cue it goes on a sort of auto-pilot as the routine takes over, and finally there is a reward once the task is completed successfully. This cue-routine-reward process is what Duhigg calls The Habit Loop.

The reason the habit loop is important is precisely because the brain shuts down during the routine. So once a habit is formed, unless you deliberately fight it, the pattern will unfold automatically.

Research shows that these routines and habits never really go away – even if we replace them with something else for a long period of time. This can be positive, like the way you never forget how to ride a bicycle. But it also highlights the difficulty of breaking bad habits when repeatedly exposed to the same old cues. The key, then, is to be very conscious of the cues and rewards if we want to change routines.