The Power of Habit

This is part of our quick reads series; helping you stay informed without hogging your precious time. This post covers Duhigg’s book: The Power of Habit.

NB my thinking on habits has evolved since the writing of this post. Join the KAN PLAN to learn how to hack your own habits.

It’s not all good news

When habits form the brain stops fully participating in decision making’.  What does this mean to us mere mortals?  It is bad news unless you deliberately fight a habit and work hard to form new routines, the habit pattern will unfold automatically.

To start a new (good) habit:

First – choose a simple cue e.g. leave your runners beside your bed at night, so they will be waiting eagerly for you in the morning.
Second – choose a clear reward.  The reward might be simply having done the habit.  Or maybe it’s more tangible.  Today after my power walk with my ‘motivational app’ my app said to me, (in sexy male voice): “Well done, you deserve to sit down and drink an entire bottle of wine, just kidding seriously??” I wish I was kidding, even my 11yo laughed.

But wait there is more …. only when your brain craves its reward will it settle into habity-ness.  So you have to stick with it or experiment until the craving process kicks in. I feel pretty confident if I took my apps advice I could get my walking habit nailed in a week.

My question is; how do I know if I have the reward wrong or I just have not reached my asymptote of automatically yet (what the? you ask – you can read all about it!

Curing a (bad) habit:

Now this baby is different, one needs to maximize their understanding of their unique habit loop (see image).
Loosely all good (and bad) habits have this same process operating, there is a cue, followed by a routine and then a reward.   What drives the loop to unfold next time the cue appears is the craving of the reward.

So to transform a bad habit to a good one or benign one at least – the idea is to keep the same structure but change out key bits, namely the routine.  Swap the mid-afternoon trip to the chocolate machine for a chat to your colleagues, or a brisk walk around the block.  What to successfully “swap out” all depends on what you were actually craving: was it company or sugar, or just a break, that triggered your muffin habit? Our brains are so messed up we can’t just ask them, they don’t know … so it is trial and error.
I am at a bit of a loss, now that I  understand (thanks Duhigg) my habit loop around dry white wine in the evening (see image). What to swap out for a lovely crisp dry white wine, when the trigger pops up?  Seriously what on earth is going to give me more than one of these wonderful feelings? – Lowering my pain from my chronic illness, feeling happy and light and optimistic and carefree (which otherwise doesn’t happen with chronic illness).

I have spent a decade nailing the art of not (very often) drinking myself to an embarrassing stupor, so why the need to go further? Oh, breast cancer and death and stuff …. dam.

Good news is Duhigg offers me a process to try:

  1. When the trigger, triggers, try a new behaviour
  2. Once done set a timer for 15 minutes
  3. See if the craving is still there after that.

Interestingly I tried a bit of a (cop-out) alternative this week and instead had a Gin & Tonic (well actually three) when the happy hour feelings arrived.  I note I didn’t get any of my usual happy stuff, I got a bit of gin gloom going on.  So does this mean it isn’t alcohol itself I am craving or that not all alcohol is equal?


So what is the science behind Duhigg’s ideas? He is read widely, interviewed many learned folks and referenced quite well, and it reflects my personal experience – so I am going to move ahead assuming it is all good.  However he might just spin a good story, so let’s bear that in mind.

Duhigg, C. (2013). The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do and how to change: Random House

Leave a Reply