We sat down with journalist Charles Duhigg, author of Smarter Faster Better and The Power of Habit, to talk about chocolate chip cookies, the science of habit formation, and what he’s learned from both.
Why did you decide to research and write about habits?
I was good at a lot of stuff. I viewed myself as an intelligent person able to exercise control over my decisions and get things done. But I was frustrated, because no matter how much I wanted to lose weight, I couldn’t seem to exercise control over my fitness and eating patterns. I kept thinking, “I am a smart person. I should be able to exercise control over what food I put into my body and how and when I move my body. Why is this so hard for me?” I was truly bewildered.
Around the same time that I was experiencing a behavioral-change crisis, I was covering a story in Iraq as a journalist with the Army. While there, I observed that the Army is a habit change machine. People come into the military from all over the country bringing unique habits and behaviors and beliefs with them and when they leave the military, they have the same disciplined habitual responses to crises and routine. Soldiers are conditioned to have control over both their organizational and individual behaviors and I was fascinated with how an enormous body of individuals could exert the same behaviors simultaneously. I was so interested in how this behavioral sync was accomplished and puzzled about how the military could enlist such powerful change in thousands of individuals and I was still trying not to eat sweets. I knew there was a solution for me if I could spend more time researching the science behind habits.
How do chocolate chip cookies relate to habits?
Well, like I said: I have a sweet tooth. While writing The Power of Habit, I applied what I was learning to a personal habit, one of eating a chocolate chip cookie every afternoon. I mean, who doesn’t love chocolate chip cookies? It was still challenging, but I was able to change that habit by experimenting with cues, routines, and rewards. I think it’s an easy example to relate to when it comes to changing habits.
How do you know when a habit is holding you back?
Personally, I have conditioned myself to respond to being at odds with myself. When I feel like I have lost control over something that I should rationally and reasonably have control over, and I have a desire to control it, I look for the primary driver of that behavior to address it at its root. The brain is always at odds with itself. We know the habits that are keeping us from getting where we want to go, yet we ignore the rational part of our brain that is trying to help us get there. By looking for the cues and rewards that prompt and reinforce behaviors, we bring our near unconscious thinking to the pre-frontal cortex, so we are aware of it and can pay attention to it. Until we do that, any effort to change a behavior will be minimal and we will find ourselves still stuck in a habit loop.
Habits themselves are neither good nor bad. We determine whether a behavior is productive or counterproductive. We decide if the habit is beneficial or not. If the behavior takes us where we want to be, then we keep it. If the behavior constantly keeps us from moving forward, then it’s not doing what we want it to, and we get stuck in the lag. The point of this research and training is to put us back in control and arm us with a blueprint for diagnosing why we make the decisions we do, while giving us the tools we need to determine if our behavior is aligned with our goals.
Why are individual habits relevant to organizational success?
Habits are all around us. They are not good or bad until we determine if the behavior behind the habits are moving us toward a place we want to go. Everything we do in our jobs are habit-based; how we answer emails, how we check our inbox, how we schedule our day, how we prioritize projects, how we talk to our co-workers and how we utilize our meeting times. Our lives and companies both thrive and die by habits.
For example, let’s say you are part of a leadership team that wants to achieve a specific goal with your team. Your company meetings are often derailed by conversations unrelated to the intended meeting topic. Before long, time has flown by and the meeting ends not having moved any closer toward the goal. Now, there is nothing good or bad about that scenario. It just is what it is. The fact that you are trying to accomplish something specific in your meetings and you often feel frustrated at having lost control over making that happen indicates that there are individual and cultural behaviors within your team causing a lag. So, what would you need to do to help your meeting culture shift toward your goals? We are often prisoners of our cultural habits and until we can recognize them, explore the drivers behind them, and talk about how they are impacting us, we can’t change them.
How has The Power of Habit enhanced your life personally and professionally?
I used to constantly be bothered by the fact that even though I had control over so many other things in my life, there were still important things I wasn’t achieving because I couldn’t align my behavior with my desire. When you can’t control something that you believe you can, it wears you down emotionally, physically, and mentally.
The Power of Habit has influenced my life in every way possible. I no longer allow distractions to dictate my behavior. Exercise is easier, work gets done more efficiently, and my ability to focus on projects and the most important people in my life—my family—has just become so tight, like muscle memory. Understanding what motivates my habits, how the brain operates to create or change a habit, and what rewards I am seeking with my actions has enabled me to control my behavior, thoughts, decisions, health and wellness. I am no longer a prisoner of habits that do not align with my professional or personal goals. It feels great!
Click HERE to learn how The Power of Habit Training can help you create habits by design, not by default.