Tag Archives: habit loop

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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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.