Even as the number of hours in the day remains fixed, the number of decisions we must make grows. Organic versus non? Public versus private? Paper versus digital? Modern adults must navigate real and virtual worlds, and if they have children, they need to keep an eye on their increasingly complicated worlds as well. Indeed, there is now a well-established body of science showing that there are only so many decisions you can make in a day before all your choices become bad ones. Decision-making doesn’t just feel exhausting, it really drains us.
Still, even as scientific innovation threatens to sabotage our lives, it also presents solutions. In the last fifteen years, researchers in food sciences, psychology, the military, addiction and business, have been busy investigating our habits. In each domain, they have tried to extract the golden rules of routine so that we will eat better, exercise more, and aim higher—all without having to constantly think about it. It turns out that every time we create a habit, we offload hours of exhausting thought and second-guessing. The challenge is to have good habits, not bad ones. Of course, wanting to be better is as old as the hills. Can the new science of habit tell us anything that a handful of old proverbs won’t?
What about good, old-fashioned self-discipline? I asked Charles Duhigg, author of the fascinating new book, “The Power of Habit,” if it was the key to success. “It’s the opposite,” Duhigg told me. If you want to change any habit, he said, you can’t just control it, you have to understand the anatomy of habit itself. Duhigg, who looked at hundreds of habit studies, found that no matter what your habits are, their basic pattern is the same. Habits start with a cue, often an unconscious trigger, like a time of day, a feeling, or a place. Next comes a routine—this is what we usually think of as being the habit—chewing our nails, having a drink, eating a cupcake. Finally, there’s a reward—a feeling of relief, some companionship, or a satisfying hit of sugar.
All habits are powered by a tight connection between the cue and the reward. “When they become intertwined, a sense of craving emerges,” said Duhigg. The problem is that it’s not possible to simply squash a bad habit by somehow breaking the bond between the cue and reward. It is too powerful. Even if we’ve stopped smoking, or slouching, or getting up late, neuroscientists have shown that our brains play out the old habit’s pattern of activation if we are exposed to the old cue.
The key to real change then is replacing old habits with new ones. Typically, when people want to change their lives, they tend to think about the problem behavior, but “to get a big behavior change, you must pay more attention to the cue and the reward,” said Duhigg. The idea is that once you work out what your triggers and rewards are, you can insert a new routine between them. It’s not easy—cues and rewards are often unconscious. Duhigg had to experiment with his work-day in order to understand why he’d developed a nasty cookie habit in the afternoons. It turned out, he wasn’t even hungry, he just wanted to catch up with people in the cafeteria. When he committed to visiting a colleague at ‘cookie’ time each day, the new routine happily replaced the old.
Cues are different for different people, but they tend to fall into a limited set. Brian Wansink, a food researcher at Cornell University and the author of “Mindless Eating,” has run dozens of experiments that expose the unconscious cues that drive bad food habits. Wansink found that people can change a snacking habit if they restrict snacking to one location in the house. In this case, it’s really the room, not the food, that’s driving overeating.
For some people, the science won’t come as entirely new. Some of the most successful programs are built on an intuitive grasp of the cue-routine-reward pattern. Duhigg said that the twelve steps developed by Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, essentially forces drinkers to examine their triggers, routines, and the nature of their reward. By making these conscious, drinkers have a chance to change them. (Keep in mind, alcoholism and other addictions are far more complicated than a simple habit. Nevertheless when drinkers tackle their habitual behaviors, as they do in AA, they are often able to defeat the other components of addiction).
Remarkably, the cue-routine-reward pattern applies to organizations, not just individuals. Juliet Bourke, at Deloitte Australia, runs a program for changing the thought habits of business leaders. Her goal is to get bosses to think differently about diversity. In the first of four steps, she asks participants to engage in quiet reflection, essentially becoming aware of their own cues and routines that are not consistent with the kind of leader they want to be. “Most people want to make decisions based on the facts, but their habitual ways of thinking sometimes leads them astray,” said Bourke. When that changes, a whole organization can change.
Even the smallest changes in habit can have a huge effect. This is especially true with behaviors that affect how we feel about ourselves. It’s weird but true, said Duhigg, that people with a good exercise habit often have less credit card debt and they do their dishes earlier in the evening.
Possibly, the most useful message is that we like rewards that signal our efforts are working. The funny thing is the sign doesn’t need to be real. Toothpaste became wildly popular when it included a substance that slightly abraded people’s gums. The substance didn’t do any actual cleaning, it was just that people associated the sensation with clean teeth. The tingle was their reward. The same goes for suds in detergent and shampoo, said Duhigg. These products work perfectly well without foam, but people see bubbles as a sign of cleaning--which brings us back to the science: knowing about cues, routines and rewards doesn’t make change easy, but it can give us some sudsy confidence that if you try in the right way, change is possible.
(I wrote about Duhigg's book for an Aussie magazine that lost a few pages, and unfortunately this piece. But the science is great and the book is wonderfully interesting. It should be read!)