Charles Duhigg wants his readers to understand how habits work and why they’re so central to human life, but his real goal is to give people the tools they need to change their habits for the better. This is why The Power of Habit is best known for its detailed advice on how to replace bad habits with good ones. While many people think of their habits as automatic, set in stone, and outside their control, Duhigg insists that it is possible—if not always easy—to change them. The same strategies won’t work for every person, organization, or society, but the same general framework always applies: by understanding the cues and rewards that drive their habits, people can replace their harmful routines. Duhigg calls this “the Golden Rule of habit change.” Similarly, by developing effective habit loops, people can build beneficial habits over time. Finally, by combining these two frameworks with other strategies—such as peer pressure, positive thinking, and prioritizing smaller keystone habits—people can make habit change more effective and durable. By following these evidence-based pathways to habit change, Duhigg concludes, people can take control of their lives and achieve wide-reaching changes that may even exceed their wildest expectations.
Duhigg argues that the key to changing bad habits is “the Golden Rule,” which means keeping the same cue and reward but changing the routine. Mandy, a lifelong nail-biter, shows how people can overcome bad habits through the Golden Rule. First, she identified the cue and reward that drove her habit: the cue was a feeling of tension, and the reward was a feeling of relaxation. Then, she replaced nail-biting with a different routine: making slash marks on an index card. Making an X instead of nail-biting helped her see her habit improving, and this reward pushed her to stop biting her nails. Mandy’s story shows that people can replace their bad habits through the Golden Rule. But first, they have to understand their habit loop—the cue, routine, and reward underlying their habit. And second, they have to experiment with new routines until they find one that effectively replaces their bad habit. Duhigg shows that this can work in many scenarios. Alcoholics Anonymous replaces the routine of drinking with that of attending meetings, for instance, and Lisa Allen quit smoking by replacing cigarettes with jogging. These examples show that eliminating bad habits is fully within people’s control.
Next, Duhigg argues that the key to building good new habits is creating a strong cue-routine-reward habit loop. In particular, people have to closely connect the cue with the reward until they start to crave the reward. Because habits tend to become automatic through repetition, people can engineer them: they can create a cue, routine, and reward, then continue repeating the cycle until it all becomes natural. However, Duhigg points out that people often quit their new habits—for instance, they might quit going to the gym after a few weeks. This is because the reward doesn’t motivate them enough—in other words, they don’t crave the reward. Thus, Duhigg concludes that people need to build cravings in order to keep to their new habits. He cites Wolfram Schultz’s research to illustrate this. Schultz set monkeys up with a computer game that gave them juice as a reward for correctly identifying shapes. The monkeys only chose to keep playing the game if they developed a craving for juice and began immediately associating the cue (the shape) with the reward (the juice). Similarly, to create sustainable new habits, Duhigg argues that people need to build cravings into their habit loop—which really just means finding a reward that makes them want to perform the routine whenever they see the cue.
Finally, Duhigg explains how other important factors can make habit change more or less effective. First, he argues that people and organizations that want to completely transform should take advantage of keystone habits—or smaller habits that spur larger change. Keystone habits lead to “small wins,” create frameworks for change, and alter organizations’ cultures. Paul O’Neill’s worker safety policies at Alcoa illustrate all three. Everyone at Alcoa could agree on the importance of working toward better safety protocols, and achieving these protocols was a “small win.” In turn, this “small win” eventually led to new leadership and communication structures, as employees were encouraged to actively work toward a better working environment. O’Neill’s policies changed Alcoa’s culture, making it more cohesive, honest, and transparent. Ultimately, by focusing on the keystone habit of worker safety, O’Neill made Alcoa far more efficient and profitable. Next, Duhigg argues that social support can help people change their habits more effectively. Groups show people that others share their concerns and care about them. Research shows that groups make positive habits stick—for instance, U.S. Military Academy students tend to be more successful if they attend regular support groups. Finally, to actually change their habits, people must believe in their ability to do so. Otherwise, they give up. The psychologist William James illustrated this: after struggling to feel in control of his life for years, he decided that, for one year, he would wholeheartedly believe in his capacity to change. In that year, his work and personal life both transformed for the better. While belief can’t cause change, Duhigg argues that it powerfully motivates people to pursue it.
In fact, besides understanding how habits work, motivation is the most important ingredient for habit change. Anyone can change their habits by following simple frameworks like the Golden Rule and the habit loop, but not everyone will care enough to try. This is why people tend to successfully change their habits when they experience profound pain, crisis, or spiritual epiphanies. But Duhigg hopes that people will build motivation for their habit change by simply learning how straightforward it can be.
Habit Change and Personal Growth ThemeTracker
Habit Change and Personal Growth Quotes in The Power of Habit
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.