Charles Duhigg on habits and habit formation: ’tis all about cue, routine and reward

In a way, habits are everything in your life — and Charles Duhigg is getting a bunch of attention recently for his book The Power of Habit, which talks about basic issues like “How are habits formed?” and “How can we change them?” There is a requisite amount of Malcolm Gladwell-esque “pop psychology” in there, because that type of stuff ultimately ties an average reader back to a more complicated work. Example:

While working as reporter in Iraq, he closely observed how one army major studied the habits of crowds in an effort to reduce rioting. After recognizing that food vendors placed within a busy plaza increased public gatherings (and potential problems) near dusk, the major met with the town’s mayor to suggest removing these vendors. Within weeks the crowds would gather, but quickly break apart as they discovered there was nowhere to eat.

Here’s the whole idea behind how habits work in his own words, including this crucial note at the beginning:

The difficult thing about studying the science of habits is that most people, when they hear about this field of research, want to know the secret formula for quickly changing any habit. If scientists have discovered how these patterns work, then it stands to reason that they must have also found a recipe for rapid change, right?

If only it were that easy.

It’s not that formulas don’t exist. The problem is that there isn’t one formula for changing habits. There are thousands.

Individuals and habits are all different, and so the specifics of diagnosing and changing the patterns in our lives differ from person to person and behavior to behavior. Giving up cigarettes is different than curbing overeating, which is different from changing how you communicate with your spouse, which is different from how you prioritize tasks at work. What’s more, each person’s habits are driven by different cravings.

Ultimately, then, everything about habits also comes back to context, which makes sense because everyone is ultimately different and the challenges they face day-to-day are ultimately different as well.

45 percent of what we do in a given day — so basically, half our day — is rooted in habit. If some of those are negative, it would be helpful to change them, right?

Every habit essentially functions the same way: a cue (a trigger), a routine (the series of actions), and a reward (goes without saying). In some way, the reward is the most important part — because we’re doing the sequence of cue + routine to get the reward, no? If you want to shift your habits, then, you essentially need to find ways to manipulate your cue (time of day, presence of others, environment, etc.), your routine (what you’re actually doing, i.e. going to get fast food, alcohol, smoke a cig, etc.), or your reward structure (how you reward the new routine, essentially).

This all clearly has day-to-day life applications — because we all have things we do fairly regularly that we’re not 100 percent proud of and would like to shift — but it also has legit business applications, i.e.:

No one bought Febreze at first because P&G initially marketed it as a product that got rid of bad smells. They then learned something interesting about people—no one thinks their car/home/clothing smells bad. Since bad smells were not a problem most people believed they had, they didn’t think they needed Fabreze.

Though P&G considered shelving the product, instead they pushed through, added a perfume to it (no small feat given that the chemical eliminates smells) and re-pitched it to the American people as something that would make everything smell good. And today everyone keeps a bottle of it in their car or home, not because those places smell bad of course, but because they could smell nicer.

Again we’re back to a very Gladwell-esque type of writing — look at Febreeze, emerging from the intersection of psychology and consumerism! — but it’s interesting. So is this: if you do something as simple every day as “making the bed” or “washing the dishes,” those can become keystone habits. Keystone habits essentially provide a platform for small wins — which can lead to the confidence needed for big wins — as well as making other positive virtues feel almost contagious:

One of the most powerful aspects of keystone habits, Duhigg says, is that they make virtues like excellence, transformation, and perseverance, seem commonplace. “Keystone habits are powerful because they change our sense of self and our sense of what is possible,” Duhigg writes.

I always find stuff like this interesting — there’s a certain point in your life, usually when you have a job you intend to stay at for a while or a family (or both), when you flip the switch to “automatic” in some respects as regards your day-to-day life. 2pm Wednesday? I’m probably eating lunch. That can get up to a percentage equivalent to about half your life, and soon enough you don’t realize “Oh, I’m doing a lot of things well and it’s all positive, but these habits over here…” A lot of this comes back to stopping and thinking about what’s what — kinda taking stock of where you’re at and how you could change some things, which people usually only do when they hit a rough patch (as opposed to here and there consistently, which can seem depressing on surface but might be the better approach).

There’s some interesting stuff in Duhigg’s book about why certain types of eyewitnesses to crimes remember events better than others; turns out a lot is related to the cue (context) of the person asking them questions. If the person is more friendly, the eyewitness wants to please them; details may hence be shifted. If the person is more aggressive, the eyewitness accounts can be closer to reality. This guy worked on similar theories in his career. That all seems to roll up with the idea that if you want better performance out of people, you should be a bit more aggressive and less friendly — although I think that has drawbacks as well, and might lead to people changing the habit of “working at this place.”


Ted Bauer


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