She needed a goal in her life, she thought. Something to work toward.
So she decided, sitting in the taxi, that she would come back to Egypt and trek through the desert.
It was a crazy idea, Lisa knew. She was out of shape, overweight, with no money in the bank. She didn’t know the name of the desert she was looking at or if such a trip was possible. None of that mattered, though. She needed something to focus on. Lisa decided that she would give herself one year to prepare. And to survive such an expedition, she was certain she would have to make sacrifices.
In particular, she would need to quit smoking.
When researchers began examining images of Lisa’s brain, they saw something remarkable: One set of neurological patterns—her old habits—had been overridden by new patterns. They could still see the neural activity of her old behaviors, but those impulses were crowded out by new urges. As Lisa’s habits changed, so had her brain.
“All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits,” William James wrote in 1892. Most of the choices we make each day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making, but they’re not. They’re habits. And though each habit means relatively little on its own, over time, the meals we order, what we say to our kids each night, whether we save or spend, how often we exercise, and the way we organize our thoughts and work routines have enormous impacts on our health, productivity, financial security, and happiness.
As they rounded the corner near his house, the visitor asked Eugene where he lived. “I don’t know, exactly,” he said. Then he walked up his sidewalk, opened his front door, went into the living room, and turned on the television.
Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often. This effort-saving instinct is a huge advantage. An efficient brain requires less room, which makes for a smaller head, which makes childbirth easier and therefore causes fewer infant and mother deaths. An efficient brain also allows us to stop thinking constantly about basic behaviors, such as walking and choosing what to eat, so we can devote mental energy to inventing spears, irrigation systems, and, eventually, airplanes and video games.
Over time, this loop—cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward—becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges. Eventually, whether in a chilly MIT laboratory or your driveway, a habit is born.
And in almost every experiment, researchers have seen echoes of Squire’s discoveries with Eugene: Habits are powerful, but delicate. They can emerge outside our consciousness, or can be deliberately designed. They often occur without our permission, but can be reshaped by fiddling with their parts. They shape our lives far more than we realize—they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense.
This explains why habits are so powerful: They create neurological cravings. Most of the time, these cravings emerge so gradually that we’re not really aware they exist, so we’re often blind to their influence. But as we associate cues with certain rewards, a subconscious craving emerges in our brains that starts the habit loop spinning.
Each change was designed to appeal to a specific, daily cue: Cleaning a room. Making a bed. Vacuuming a rug. In each one, Febreze was positioned as the reward: the nice smell that occurs at the end of a cleaning routine. Most important, each ad was calibrated to elicit a craving: that things will smell as nice as they look when the cleaning ritual is done. The irony is that a product manufactured to destroy odors was transformed into the opposite. Instead of eliminating scents on dirty fabrics, it became an air freshener used as the finishing touch, once things are already clean.
Dabbing a bit of sunscreen on your face each morning significantly lowers the odds of skin cancer. Yet, while everyone brushes their teeth, fewer than 10 percent of Americans apply sunscreen each day. Why?
Because there’s no craving that has made sunscreen into a daily habit. Some companies are trying to fix that by giving sunscreens a tingling sensation or something that lets people know they’ve applied it to their skin. They’re hoping it will cue an expectation the same way the craving for a tingling mouth reminds us to brush our teeth.
His coaching strategy embodied an axiom, a Golden Rule of habit change that study after study has shown is among the most powerful tools for creating change. Dungy recognized that you can never truly extinguish bad habits.
Rather, to change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.
That’s the rule: If you use the same cue, and provide the same reward, you can shift the routine and change the habit. Almost any behavior can be transformed if the cue and reward stay the same.
Notice how closely this study hews to the Golden Rule of habit change: Even when alcoholics’ brains were changed through surgery, it wasn’t enough. The old cues and cravings for rewards were still there, waiting to pounce. The alcoholics only permanently changed once they learned new routines that drew on the old triggers and provided a familiar relief.
Often, we don’t really understand the cravings driving our behaviors until we look for them.
It wasn’t God that mattered, the researchers figured out. It was belief itself that made a difference. Once people learned how to believe in something, that skill started spilling over to other parts of their lives, until they started believing they could change. Belief was the ingredient that made a reworked habit loop into a permanent behavior.
How do habits change?
There is, unfortunately, no specific set of steps guaranteed to work for every person. We know that a habit cannot be eradicated—it must, instead, be replaced. And we know that habits are most malleable when the Golden Rule of habit change is applied: If we keep the same cue and the same reward, a new routine can be inserted.
But that’s not enough. For a habit to stay changed, people must believe change is possible. And most often, that belief only emerges with the help of a group.
Where should a would-be habit master start? Understanding keystone habits holds the answer to that question: The habits that matter most are the ones that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns.
What most people didn’t realize, however, was that O’Neill’s plan for getting to zero injuries entailed the most radical realignment in Alcoa’s history. The key to protecting Alcoa employees, O’Neill believed, was understanding why injuries happened in the first place. And to understand why injuries happened, you had to study how the manufacturing process was going wrong. To understand how things were going wrong, you had to bring in people who could educate workers about quality control and the most efficient work processes, so that it would be easier to do everything right, since correct work is also safer work.
In other words, to protect workers, Alcoa needed to become the best, most streamlined aluminum company on earth.
Small wins are exactly what they sound like, and are part of how keystone habits create widespread changes. A huge body of research has shown that small wins have enormous power, an influence disproportionate to the accomplishments of the victories themselves.
O’Neill’s experiences with infant mortality illustrate the second way that keystone habits encourage change: by creating structures that help other habits to flourish. In the case of premature deaths, changing collegiate curriculums for teachers started a chain reaction that eventually trickled down to how girls were educated in rural areas, and whether they were sufficiently nourished when they became pregnant. And O’Neill’s habit of constantly pushing other bureaucrats to continue researching until they found a problem’s root causes overhauled how the government thought about problems like infant mortality.
Starbucks has taught him how to live, how to focus, how to get to work on time, and how to master his emotions. Most crucially, it has taught him willpower.
“Starbucks is the most important thing that has ever happened to me,” he told me. “I owe everything to this company.”
“Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like the muscles in your arms or legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there’s less power left over for other things.”
What employees really needed were clear instructions about how to deal with inflection points—something similar to the Scottish patients’ booklets: a routine for employees to follow when their willpower muscles went limp. So the company developed new training materials that spelled out routines for employees to use when they hit rough patches. The manuals taught workers how to respond to specific cues, such as a screaming customer or a long line at a cash register. Managers drilled employees, role-playing with them until the responses became automatic. The company identified specific rewards—a grateful customer, praise from a manager—that employees could look to as evidence of a job well done.
Starbucks taught their employees how to handle moments of adversity by giving them willpower habit loops.
It may seem like most organizations make rational choices based on deliberate decision making, but that’s not really how companies operate at all. Instead, firms are guided by long-held organizational habits, patterns that often emerge from thousands of employees’ independent decisions. And these habits have more profound impacts than anyone previously understood.
Now, imagine what you would tell a new colleague who asked for advice about how to succeed at your firm. Your recommendations probably wouldn’t contain anything you’d find in the company’s handbook. Instead, the tips you would pass along—who is trustworthy; which secretaries have more clout than their bosses; how to manipulate the bureaucracy to get something done—are the habits you rely on every day to survive. If you could somehow diagram all your work habits—and the informal power structures, relationships, alliances, and conflicts they represent—and then overlay your diagram with diagrams prepared by your colleagues, it would create a map of your firm’s secret hierarchy, a guide to who knows how to make things happen and who never seems to get ahead of the ball.
The same kinds of shifts are possible at any company where institutional habits—through thoughtlessness or neglect—have created toxic truces. A company with dysfunctional habits can’t turn around simply because a leader orders it. Rather, wise executives seek out moments of crisis—or create the perception of crisis—and cultivate the sense that something must change, until everyone is finally ready to overhaul the patterns they live with each day.
As Pole’s computer program crawled through the data, he was able to identify about twenty-five different products that, when analyzed together, allowed him to, in a sense, peer inside a woman’s womb. Most important, he could guess what trimester she was in—and estimate her due date—so Target could send her coupons when she was on the brink of making new purchases. By the time Pole was done, his program could assign almost any regular shopper a “pregnancy prediction” score.
This insight helped explain why “Hey Ya!” was failing on the radio, despite the fact that Hit Song Science and music executives were sure it would be a hit. The problem wasn’t that “Hey Ya!” was bad. The problem was that “Hey Ya!” wasn’t familiar. Radio listeners didn’t want to make a conscious decision each time they were presented with a new song. Instead, their brains wanted to follow a habit. Much of the time, we don’t actually choose if we like or dislike a song. It would take too much mental effort. Instead, we react to the cues (“This sounds like all the other songs I’ve ever liked”) and rewards (“It’s fun to hum along!”) and without thinking, we either start singing, or reach over and change the station.
The reason why social habits have such influence is because at the root of many movements—be they large-scale revolutions or simple fluctuations in the churches people attend—is a three-part process that historians and sociologists say shows up again and again:
A movement starts because of the social habits of friendship and the strong ties between close acquaintances.
It grows because of the habits of a community, and the weak ties that hold neighborhoods and clans together.
And it endures because a movement’s leaders give participants new habits that create a fresh sense of identity and a feeling of ownership.
Usually, only when all three parts of this process are fulfilled can a movement become self-propelling and reach a critical mass.
When faced with the prospect of getting arrested (or worse) in Mississippi, most students probably had second thoughts. However, some were embedded in communities where social habits—the expectations of their friends and the peer pressure of their acquaintances—compelled participation, so regardless of their hesitations, they bought a bus ticket. Others—who also cared about civil rights—belonged to communities where the social habits pointed in a slightly different direction, so they thought to themselves, Maybe I’ll just stay home.
This is the third aspect of how social habits drive movements: For an idea to grow beyond a community, it must become self-propelling. And the surest way to achieve that is to give people new habits that help them figure out where to go on their own.
Thomas is the most sympathetic murderer conceivable, someone so close to being a victim himself that when the trial ended, the judge tried to console him.
Yet many of those same excuses can be made for Angie Bachmann, the gambler. She was also devastated by her actions. She would later say she carries a deep sense of guilt. And as it turns out, she was also following deeply ingrained habits that made it increasingly difficult for decision making to intervene.
Every habit, no matter its complexity, is malleable. The most addicted alcoholics can become sober. The most dysfunctional companies can transform themselves. A high school dropout can become a successful manager.
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—and every chapter in this book is devoted to illustrating a different aspect of why that control is real.
Perhaps a sleepwalking murderer can plausibly argue he wasn’t aware of his habit, and so he doesn’t bear responsibility for his crime. But almost all the other patterns that exist in most people’s lives—how we eat and sleep and talk to our kids, how we unthinkingly spend our time, attention, and money—those are habits that we know exist. And once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom—and the responsibility—to remake them. Once you understand that habits can be rebuilt, the power of habit becomes easier to grasp, and the only option left is to get to work.
Later, [William James] would famously write that the will to believe is the most important ingredient in creating belief in change. And that one of the most important methods for creating that belief was habits.
If you believe you can change—if you make it a habit—the change becomes real. This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be.