The Power of Habit

by

Charles Duhigg

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The Power of Habit: Chapter 3 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Tony Dungy, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ head coach, feels hopeful during the closing minutes of a game against the San Diego Chargers. Perhaps he shouldn’t—the Buccaneers are one of the worst football teams in the league, and they’re losing. For 17 years, Dungy had been trying and failing to get head coach jobs. Teams didn’t like his unusual coaching philosophy: that players have to change their habits in order to win. Specifically, he believes in the “Golden Rule of habit change,” which advocates for keeping the cue and reward the same while changing the routine. After Dungy got his job at the Buccaneers, he quickly turned the team into one of the NFL’s most successful teams. Other coaches quickly started imitating his methods.
The “Golden Rule of habit change” allows people to directly replace one habit with another by tapping into their existing habit loops (rather than developing a totally novel one). Tony Dungy’s coaching strategy shows how habit change can make organizations more successful by transforming the principles on which they operate. But it also suggests that many organizations are resistant to restructuring themselves around evidence-based habit change strategies. (Of course, Duhigg hopes that his book will help managers take these strategies more seriously in the future.)
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During the game against San Diego, the Buccaneers get into formation. Rather than teaching them hundreds of different formations, coach Dungy only taught them a few—he wanted his players to act so automatically that they would be faster than anyone else. And it works: unlike the Buccaneers, who have mastered their few strategies, the San Diego players briefly hesitate. The Buccaneers, in contrast, react reflexively, and their speediness wins them the game.
Dungy’s strategy is based on the insight that habits save time and energy over decisions. This enabled the Buccaneers to play faster and more efficiently, which gave them a significant edge in the game. While Dungy’s strategy restricted the Buccaneers’ range by limiting them to just a handful of possible plays, their success shows that efficiency was more important than flexibility. In other words, Dungy proved that football strategy is one of the many challenges better addressed through automation than creativity.
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In 1934 New York, Bill Wilson—who struggled with alcoholism—met an old drinking buddy in his basement. But his friend refused a drink: he was sober. He said that his secret was religion. When Wilson went to rehabilitation a month later, he started having terrible pain and hallucinations from the withdrawal. He called out to God, and he suddenly felt better. He never drank again. In fact, he went on to found Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which now helps millions of people quit drinking every year. Programs to change all sorts of destructive habits have copied its 12-step program—even though it’s not based on science. Rather than addressing people’s psychological and neurological motivations for drinking, AA focuses on habits.
Just as Dungy showed that good habits are secretly the key to effective football, Wilson showed that habits are actually more central to alcoholism than chemical addiction is. This again demonstrates how habit change can serve as a one-size-fits-all tool for overcoming a wide variety of obstacles. Meanwhile, AA’s reliance on religion illustrates this chapter’s second main principle: that belief plays a crucial role in motivating people to change. Through religion, both Wilson and his friend learned to believe in their own capacity to change. In turn, this belief motivated them to take the crucial steps necessary to achieve this change.
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AA essentially ignores the science around alcoholism. Bill Wilson came up with the 12 steps during a flash of insight in a single night. AA focuses on spirituality, doesn’t include addiction professionals, and hasn’t adapted to new discoveries in addiction research. Academics long criticized it, but now some believe that it succeeds by using the Golden Rule of habit change. It teaches people to understand the cues and rewards that drive them to drink and then replace drinking with a different routine. AA members have to make a list of their triggers, admit their errors to others, and go to meetings that give them the same social rewards and release from anxiety as going to a bar.
AA succeeds because it recognizes that alcoholism isn’t just a chemical addiction—rather, it’s a habit pattern that affects the entirety of someone’s lifestyle. This is why therapy and chemical treatments can help weaken the habit loop associated with alcoholism, but not replace it. In contrast, even if AA doesn’t necessarily weaken the existing habit loop, it creates a powerful replacement—it gives people a consistent, trustworthy framework for changing their habits. This is the core of Duhigg’s advice about habit change: people should focus less on fighting their bad habits and more on replacing them with good ones.
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The German neurologist Ulf Mueller implanted devices in the basal ganglia of five alcoholics who had repeatedly failed to quit drinking. By emitting electrical signals, these devices interrupted the habit loop and stopped the men’s alcohol cravings. They largely drank because it was their only tool for coping with stress, but they soon learned to switch drinking out for different routines like AA meetings and therapy. Again, new routines were key to changing habits.
Mueller’s research confirms what AA discovered long ago: alcohol addiction is more about habit than chemistry. Of course, the chemical rewards associated with alcohol certainly contribute to the strong habit loop that alcoholics form. But once that habit loop exists, behavioral change—not chemical change—becomes the key to overcoming it.
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Scientists have adapted AA’s techniques to address all sorts of other bad habits. For instance, Mandy, a chronic nail-biter, desperately wanted to stop. Brad Dufrene, a psychology PhD student, had her describe the cue for her behavior and then analyze the underlying reward. The cue was a feeling of tension in her hand. The reward was a feeling of physical stimulation. He told her to make a check mark on an index card every time she felt the cue, and another every time she overrode the nail-biting habit. In just a month, she stopped biting her nails, suggesting that habit reversal can be very simple—it’s just about identifying cues and rewards and then switching out the routine. This can work for any sort of habit, ranging from snacking to smoking.
Mandy’s nail-biting is a classic example of how and why the Golden Rule of habit change succeeds. First, Dufrene asked Mandy to identify her cues and rewards. Second, he showed her how to insert a new routine into the same habit loop. Notably, Dufrene didn’t teach her to avoid or resist biting her nails—instead, he taught her to replace it with a new habit. Her new habit was so successful because it followed the same cue as nail-biting and offered a better version of the same reward. Making the first mark on her index card helped relieve the tension in her hand, and making the second mark showed her that she was making progress toward habit change. Thus, the index card let her see—and start to crave—this progress. While most real-world habit change might not be so quick or straightforward, Mandy’s case shows that it’s absolutely possible—so long as people follow the Golden Rule.
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After becoming the Buccaneers’ head coach, Tony Dungy made the team repeatedly practice their most important moves until those moves were automatic. He figured out what visual cues they were looking for at the beginning of every play and then changed their routines. For instance, instead of looking at all of the opposing players and trying to choose a formation, Dungy taught his defense to automatically adjust their formation by looking at the opposing players one at a time—a much quicker and more efficient technique.
Dungy’s method was very similar to Dufrene and Mandy’s. His players already knew how to look for cues from their opponents, but their original routine was to assess all of those cues together and decide what to do. (Since they had to make a different decision every time, this was really no routine at all.) Instead, Dungy taught them a new, more efficient routine. It stuck because it provided a more reliable route to the reward—playing well and winning games.
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The Buccaneers gradually improved. After failing to make the playoffs for fifteen years, they made it three years straight. But they also fell apart in high-stakes playoff games—at key moments, the players abandoned Dungy’s method and went back to their old ways. Dungy got fired—and the next year, the Buccaneers won the Super Bowl using his techniques.
The Buccaneers failed when they abandoned the new habits Dungy taught them. This proves that his approach was effective—even if it also got him fired. This leads Duhigg to another crucial question: how can people stick to new habits in stressful times? What prevents them from relapsing into their earlier, more destructive patterns?
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At an AA meeting, a man named John explains how he quit drinking after injuring his son while driving drunk. He then relapsed two years later when his mother got cancer. He got into another, more severe car accident while drunk driving, and then he started going to AA, which has kept him sober for seven years. Duhigg explains that stories like John’s show the limits of habit replacement: when life gets too stressful, people often relapse into their former bad habits.
As Duhigg pointed out in the first chapter, old habit loops stay in the brain even after new ones are formed. This helps explain why, under stress, people like John (or organizations like the Buccaneers) can relapse into years-old destructive habits. These relapses show that people need more than just new routines in order to make habit change sustainable.
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Researchers have also repeatedly found that former alcoholics who believe in a higher power are more likely to stay sober during stressful periods. This is because “believ[ing] in something” helps people learn to believe in their own capacity for change. Similarly, AA can succeed because it teaches people to believe in the program itself and shows them that it has worked for others.
At critical moments of stress, belief is the key element that can prevent people from relapsing into unhealthy former habits. However, Duhigg suggests that belief in a higher power only matters because it leads people to truly believe in themselves. People who expect to relapse can use these moments as an excuse to do so, while people who truly believe in sustainable habit change can use these moments as a test to prove their commitment to change.
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After leaving the Buccaneers, Tony Dungy moved to the Indianapolis Colts. He used the same techniques, and the Colts followed the same pattern: they were successful during the season but struggled in the playoffs. Then, Dungy’s son committed suicide. After the tragedy, the players felt like they owed it to him to play well. They started taking his techniques more seriously and bonding with one another. In other words, they started to believe in their own team. However, people don’t need a tragedy to learn to believe—more often, they just need to surround themselves with a community of new people. But the Colts had both.
The tragic death of Dungy’s son spurred change because it changed the way his players thought about their place on the team. This exemplifies the way that people often need a deeper motivation—like belief or a sense of obligation—in order to successfully change their habits. While Duhigg suggests that both tragedy and social support can spur belief, he again emphasizes that these are only two of the numerous possible paths to it. There are many others, and each person will have to find one suitable for their unique situation.
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In 2006, the Colts had a strong season and won their first two playoff games. But during the third, against the Patriots, they started overthinking things in the first half, and they fell far behind. At halftime, Dungy reminded them to stick to their habits. They did, and they pulled ahead. In the final few seconds, the Patriots were positioned to score a game-winning touchdown, but the Colts’ cornerback intercepted a key pass by following Dungy’s rules. The Colts won the Super Bowl two weeks later, and many of the players credited their victory on believing in Dungy’s method.
Duhigg uses this playoff game to emphasize how believing in oneself (or one’s organization) can spur lasting change. Unlike the Buccaneers, the Colts stuck to their training because they believed in their team’s potential and their coach’s unconventional methods. While other teams might have tried new, complex tactics in such an important playoff game, the Colts managed to stick to their routines because of this faith.
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While there’s no automatic formula for changing habits, Duhigg concludes, this chapter has illustrated two key principles. The first is the Golden Rule: use the same cue and reward but change the routine. The second is that for new habits to stick, people have to believe they can change. One of the best ways to do this is by finding support from other people.
These two principles (the Golden Rule and belief) work together to create lasting change. While the Golden Rule is the key to getting new habits started, belief is the key to keeping them going after they’re established. Thus, without the Golden Rule, people will struggle to break free of their bad habits, and without belief, people won’t maintain their new habits in the long term.
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