Book Review: The Power of Habit (Part 2)

One of the things I found most fascinating about Duhigg's The Power of Habit was his insight into how to create habit-change.

He maps out our habitual patters as:
And it's all driven by CRAVING.

Here's an example of one of my bad habits (and Duhigg uses a similar example in his book).

On days when I'm in the office by myself, I often find myself wandering into the kitchen around 3pm for cookies or candy or soda. Those extra calories add up in unhealthy ways over time. If I want to be healthier, I need to change that habit.

How do we normally attempt to change habits?

Option A: We try to cut off the reward.

Here's how this would work in the above example: I could force myself to give away a book every time I go get my snack. This replaces the boost from the snack with a punishment.

But this has been proven to be a poor method for habit transformation. People continue their bad habits despite the consequences. We aren't making rational choices - weighing the pros and cons - before we do the habitual things that aren't healthy for us. We will regret our actions when the consequences hit, but the threat of consequence isn't a guarantee that we'll break free.

Option B: We try to break the cue-routine link.

My cue in the above example is that blah feeling that hits me in the mid-afternoon. That feeling can be caused by a dip in blood sugar, an exhaustion of environmental stimulus, or even loneliness. That's what sends me to the kitchen. But what if the kitchen is empty? There's nothing to say that I have to keep snacks at the office. I'm certainly not going to eat the youth group's snacks and replace them later (umm ... well ... ok).

We try to break bad habits by making the routines unavailable. We throw out the junk food, trash our cigarettes, cut up our credit cards, delete his phone number ... but the habits keep coming back. That's where Duhigg's insight into craving comes in. Our underlying cravings drive our habitual behaviors. If we cut off food in the kitchen, we'll find some in the car or at the gas station or we'll feel miserable. There has to be another way to break bad habits.

Option C: We try to create totally new habits.

What if I decided that I was going to develop new, healthier habits to replace my bad habit? Instead of going to the kitchen when that blah feeling hits in the afternoon, I could set an alarm for 3pm and take a 15 minute bike ride around the office. That would certainly be healthier than eating a handful of Rolos. But what's to keep me from eating the Rolos when I get back to the office?

This approach to habit-change comes closest to what Duhigg recommends, but fails because it doesn't address the underlying craving.

How to change a habit

Duhigg's advice - based on his research - is so insightful and counterintuitive. He says to fulfill the core of the craving by leaving the cue intact and replacing the routine with something that delivers the same reward. So, in the above example, I could replace my Rolos for honeycrisp apples (the world's most perfect apple). When that blah feeling hits and I need a sugar boost, a change of scenery and a chance of human contact, going to the kitchen for an apple would be a healthy move.
I'm going to try this this week, replacing Rolos with Honeycrisps.

What's a habit you'd like to change?

Take a few minutes to identify the cues, rewards and cravings that drive your routines. Can you find a new routine that would deliver the same reward? That give you the highest likelihood of habit change.

In my next (and final) post on this book: I'll share about Duhigg's insight into organization habits and what he calls the "keystone habit."

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