Q&A: Charles DuHigg on Changing Your Habits

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They mostly operate below the level of consciousness, but everyday habits and routines govern a surprisingly large portion of our behavior, according to Charles DuHigg, author of The Power of Habit. Many such habits are healthy or innocuous — like eating oatmeal for breakfast or vacuuming on Sundays — but some come with life-threatening consequences. And changing them, as anyone who has tried to diet or quit smoking knows, can be torturous.

In his book, DuHigg, a New York Times reporter by day, provides fascinating insight into the nuts and bolts of habit formation — and change. Healthland spoke with him about how to better understand and take control of these routines.

How much of our habitual behavior is actually unconscious?

We know two things from studies done by a woman named Wendy Wood. She monitored people’s daily behavior and found that 45% of the decisions we make are actually habits. They’re not really decisions and from that, we know that every habit happens at a kind of border: It’s a decision we made at some point but then stopped making and continued acting on.

Elizabeth Alter

How long does it take to create a habit?

It differs from pattern to pattern. If it’s something like eating chocolate, you can probably develop one in 5 to 7 minutes. Things we really enjoy are usually easy to establish as habits, whereas exercising takes a bit longer. There’s no hard and fast rule. But there is one rule: a habit has to deliver a reward that you actually enjoy.

We know from studies that the best way to develop an exercise habit is during the first week or two, give yourself a piece of chocolate or some other treat that you really enjoy right afterwards because you have to teach your brain to enjoy exercise for exercise’s sake.

What is the ‘habit loop’?

It has three stages: the cue, which is the trigger that causes the habit to occur in the first place; the routine, which is the behavior itself; and then there’s the reward, [which] is really how the brain learns to save the habit and encode it for future use.

That’s particularly interesting because people tend to think habitual behaviors like addiction can be stopped through punishment, when they’re really driven by reward.

Positive reinforcement works much better than negative in almost every situation.

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So how do you get rid of a bad habit?

What we know is that you can’t eradicate a habit, you can only change it. Once you’ve established that neurology, it’s there essentially forever so you have to change the routine.

The golden rule of habit change is that it’s easiest to change when you keep the same cue and reward and change the behavior. AA basically does this. It says, O.K., it used to be that the cue was that you feel stressed out and go to bar and have a drink. You see your friends and the reward was socializing and a chance to lessen your anxiety.

What AA says is that you can keep the same cue and reward, but when you’re stressed out, instead of going to the bar, go to a meeting. We’re providing you with companionship and that emotional [support]. AA is this almost unwitting embodiment of this golden rule of habit change.

How does stress itself influence your ability to change habits?

Tony Dungy [the first black head coach to win the Super Bowl] would teach his players new habits, but at moments of intense stress the new habits seemed to break down.

So, they would “relapse”?

Yes. And what he did is figure out that the key to avoiding relapse — and we know this from addiction as well — was to essentially get people to believe that their change was permanent. The number one way to do that is in a social setting.

There’s a dynamic when you sit in a group and you look across the room and see Jim, who’s been sober for five years, and think, He’s an idiot so if he can do it, I can. Other people encourage us to believe that we have that capacity. Even if we’re very self-confident, at some point we all falter in our belief in ourselves and it’s important to have others around to help remind us of what we can do.

When AA works, it usually works because of the social [support] and when people recover [without AA or treatment], they tend to embed themselves in a socially supportive environment where people support that recovery.

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You used these ideas to change one of your own habits and wound up losing a great deal of weight.

I had this bad cookie habit where in the afternoon, I would get a chocolate chip cookie in the cafeteria. As I talked to the scientists, I would ask them, How should I change this?

Well, first you need to define the cue and the reward to change the behavior. Most cues fall into one of five buckets: a time, a place, a certain emotional state, the presence of other people or a preceding action.

What I did for a couple of days was every time I felt the cookie urge, I wrote those five things down. It became clear that I was cued by certain time of day, around 3:15 to 3:45 and then I needed to figure out the reward.

It’s easy to say it was the cookie itself, but I ran experiments. One time I took a walk around block. Or instead of the cookie, I’d have an apple or a cup of water. But each time, I would talk to my colleagues and I would socialize, and then … it became clear that it was the socializing and not the cookie that really was important. As long as I socialized, the cookie urge would go away and if I didn’t socialize, it didn’t matter what I ate.

So now I look around for someone to go and gossip with and I do that for 10 minutes and I don’t have the cookie urge anymore.

Many people actually do get hungry around that time of day, though.

Yes and maybe for some people it turns out that their reward is the cookie, but even that’s a bit complicated. Can you have an apple instead? Are you looking for a burst of stimulation, in which case coffee might do.

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You write that organizations can also develop habits. How does that work?

An organization has a habit in a way that’s similar to how an individual has a habit. We know from organizational psychology that very often, this habit loop can play out across thousands of people.

One of best examples is how unwritten rules develop in companies. No one ever writes down things like, If you are too aggressive in your rivalry with your peers, you’re going to get fired. But the culture of our company says, Look it’s great to try to get promoted but if you try to sabotage your colleagues, that’s crossing the line.

The way this culture gets spread is very similar to the way that habits work. You often see subtle cues developing, like the way people talk to each other in meetings or the way they cc people on emails or route memos. They are cues — and there are also rewards — and people who observe and adhere to them are people who end up getting promoted.

The excerpt in the New York Times Magazine from your book was eye-opening, showing how companies can use information about our purchasing habits to figure out, for example, that a teen girl was pregnant before she even had a chance to tell her father.

Target: that’s a great example of how companies study habits to try to take advantage of them. One of the ways that they do this is to look very closely for times when habits are flexible. One time is during major life changes and one example of that is pregnancy. When someone is pregnant or buying a new house or getting divorced, their shopping habits become more flexible. They’re kind of up for grabs. And there’s a time when companies can try to intervene and influence our habits.

So what you can do to resist that?

First of all, just being aware of it helps. I don’t know if it’s bad to send pregnancy-related coupons when someone is pregnant, but the key is to be aware of what’s going on, that this is because they know something about my life.

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Should you try to keep your data private?

It’s hard to say how to draw the line over data privacy. It’s hard to come up with rules in ways that are enforceable. People could use cash to buy things, not use credit cards and not give out their names, but it’s such a hassle. The reason we hand over so much information is because it makes life easier.

People who focus on mindfulness try to get out of the habit loop and become more aware, but it would rapidly become impossible to live if you had to, say, monitor your every breath or have no habits at all.

Our brains would be so overwhelmed that we wouldn’t have a chance to really focus on what we need to focus on. That’s why habits exist. It gives us this opportunity to take a break a bit and act without having to think about it constantly.

What was the most surprising thing you learned in researching this area?

I think the thing that most surprised me was just how malleable habits are, that what we’ve learned in the last 15 years from neuroscience and psychology is that at nearly any point someone’s habits can change.

There used to be this sense that habits are locked in at [age] 25. We now know that that’s not true. If you take this approach, you can change any behavior. It’s true that people become more comfortable in their behavior as they get older. They have less desire to change. But it’s a matter of taking apart the behavior and understanding the habit loop and then anything can change.

You make it sound so easy, and yet most people don’t succeed in 12-step programs for addiction and we’re struggling to address an obesity epidemic as a nation.

Knowing unfortunately doesn’t make it easy, just easier. Everyone still has to struggle with this, but once you understand where to start focusing, then you can learn about what steps you should take next. For a lot of people, the hard part is figuring out a place to start. I can’t promise you will change overnight but I can promise that this is a place to start and once you start, you’re on the path to success.

See more of Healthland’s ‘Mind Reading’ series.

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer for TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.