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Habits: How They Form And How To Break Them

Routines are made up of a three-part "habit loop": a cue, a behavior and a reward. Understanding and interrupting that loop is key to breaking a habit, says journalist Charles Duhigg.
Routines are made up of a three-part "habit loop": a cue, a behavior and a reward. Understanding and interrupting that loop is key to breaking a habit, says journalist Charles Duhigg.

Think about something it took you a really long time to learn, like how to parallel park. At first, parallel parking was difficult and you had to devote a lot of mental energy to it. But after you grew comfortable with parallel parking, it became much easier — almost habitual, you could say.

Parallel parking, gambling, exercising, brushing your teeth and every other habit-forming activity all follow the same behavioral and neurological patterns, says New York Times business writer Charles Duhigg. His new book The Power of Habit explores the science behind why we do what we do — and how companies are now working to use our habit formations to sell and market products to us.

How Habits Form

It turns out that every habit starts with a psychological pattern called a "habit loop," which is a three-part process. First, there's a cue, or trigger, that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and let a behavior unfold.

"Then there's the routine, which is the behavior itself," Duhigg tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "That's what we think about when we think about habits."

The third step, he says, is the reward: something that your brain likes that helps it remember the "habit loop" in the future.

Neuroscientists have traced our habit-making behaviors to a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which also plays a key role in the development of emotions, memories and pattern recognition. Decisions, meanwhile, are made in a different part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. But as soon as a behavior becomes automatic, the decision-making part of your brain goes into a sleep mode of sorts.

"In fact, the brain starts working less and less," says Duhigg. "The brain can almost completely shut down. ... And this is a real advantage, because it means you have all of this mental activity you can devote to something else."

That's why it's easy — while driving or parallel parking, let's say — to completely focus on something else: like the radio, or a conversation you're having.

"You can do these complex behaviors without being mentally aware of it at all," he says. "And that's because of the capacity of our basal ganglia: to take a behavior and turn it into an automatic routine."

Studies have shown that people will perform automated behaviors — like pulling out of a driveway or brushing teeth — the same way every single time, if they're in the same environment. But if they take a vacation, it's likely that the behavior will change.

"You'll put your shoes on in a different order without paying any attention to it," he says, "because once the cues change, patterns are broken up."

That's one of the reasons why taking a vacation is so relaxing: It helps break certain habits.

"It's also a great reason why changing a habit on a vacation is one of the proven most-successful ways to do it," he says. "If you want to quit smoking, you should stop smoking while you're on a vacation — because all your old cues and all your old rewards aren't there anymore. So you have this ability to form a new pattern and hopefully be able to carry it over into your life."

Marketing Habits

It's not just individual habits that become automated. Duhigg says there are studies that show organizational habits form among workers working for the same company. And companies themselves exploit habit cues and rewards to try to sway customers, particularly if customers themselves can't articulate what pleasurable experience they derive from a habit.

"Companies are very, very good — better than consumers themselves — at knowing what consumers are actually craving," says Duhigg.

As an example, he points to Febreeze, a Proctor & Gamble fabric odor eliminator that initially failed when it got to the market.

"They thought that consumers would use it because they were craving getting rid of bad scents," he says. "And it was a total flop. People who had 12 cats and their homes smelled terrible? They wouldn't use Febreeze."

That's when Proctor & Gamble reformulated Febreeze to include different scents.

"As soon as they did that, people started using it at the end of their cleaning habits to make things smell as nice as they looked," he says. "And what they figured out is that people crave a nice smell when everything looks pretty. Now, no consumer would have said that. ... But companies can figure this out, and that's how they can make products work."

Companies can also figure out how to get consumers to change their own habits and form new ones associated with their products or stores. The megastore Target, for example, tries to target pregnant women, says Duhigg, in order to capture their buying habits for the next few years.

The biggest moment of flexibility in our shopping habits is when we have a child.

"The biggest moment of flexibility in our shopping habits is when we have a child," he says, "because all of your old routines go out the window, and suddenly a marketer can come in and sell you new things."

Analysts at Target collect "terabytes of information" on its shoppers. They have figured out that women who buy certain products — vitamins, unscented lotions, washcloths — might be pregnant and then can use that information to jump-start their marketing campaign.

This can get tricky: One father was upset after receiving coupons for baby products in the mail from Target addressed to his teenage daughter.

"He went in and said, 'My daughter is 16 years old. Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?' and the manager apologizes," Duhigg says. "The manager calls a couple of days later ... and the father says, ' I need to apologize. ... I had a conversation with my daughter, and it turns out there's some things going on in my house that I wasn't aware of. She's due in August.' So Target figured it out before her dad did."

Charles Duhigg writes for the business section of <em>The New York Times</em>.
Elizabeth Alter / Courtesy Random House
Courtesy Random House
Charles Duhigg writes for the business section of The New York Times.

Interview Highlights

On breaking habits

"What we know from lab studies is that it's never too late to break a habit. Habits are malleable throughout your entire life. But we also know that the best way to change a habit is to understand its structure — that once you tell people about the cue and the reward and you force them to recognize what those factors are in a behavior, it becomes much, much easier to change."

On his bad habits

"I felt like I had a lot of habits that I was powerless over. ... I have a 3-year-old and a 10-month-old. And I remember when my 3-year-old was 1 1/2 or 2. I was writing the book. We would feed him chicken nuggets or other stuff for dinner, which was the only stuff he would eat. And it was impossible for me to stop from reaching over and grabbing his chicken nuggets. It was a struggle every night not to eat his dinner because a 2-year-old dinner is designed to taste delicious and to disintegrate into your mouth into carbs and sugar. And so, I was really interested in this, and I wanted to exercise more and I wanted to be more productive at work."

On rewards

"The weird thing about rewards is that we don't actually know what we're actually craving."

On spirituality and habits

"When [Alcoholics Anonymous] started, there was no scientific basis to it whatsoever. In fact, there's no scientific basis to AA. The 12 steps that are kind of famous? The reason why there's 12 of them is because the guy who came up with them — who wrote them one night while he was sitting on his bed — he chose them because there's 12 apostles. There's no real logic to how AA was designed. But the reason why AA works is because it essentially is this big machine for changing the habits around alcohol consumption and giving people a new routine, rather than going to a bar or drink. ... It doesn't seem to work if people do it on their own. ... At some point, if you're changing a really deep-seated behavior, you're going to have a moment of weakness. And at that moment, if you can look across a room and think, 'Jim's kind of a moron. I think I'm smarter than Jim. But Jim has been sober for three years. And if Jim can do it, I can definitely do it,' that's enormously powerful."

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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