The third step, he says, is the reward: something that your brain likes that helps it remember the "habit loop" in the future. Interview Highlights On breaking habits "What we know from lab studies is that it's never too late to break a habit. 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. In his book, DuHigg, a New York Times reporter by day, provides fascinating insight into the nuts and bolts of habit formation — and change. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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. What I did for a couple of days was every time I felt the cookie urge, I wrote those five things down. 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.
Yes and maybe for some people it turns out that their reward is the cookie, but even that’s a bit complicated. 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. 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.
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. 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.

Understanding and interrupting that loop is key to breaking a habit, says journalist Charles Duhigg. Duhigg says there are studies that show organizational habits form among workers working for the same company. Many such habits are healthy or innocuous — like eating oatmeal for breakfast or vacuuming on Sundays — but some come with life-threatening consequences. Healthland spoke with him about how to better understand and take control of these routines. She monitored people’s daily behavior and found that 45% of the decisions we make are actually habits.
Once you’ve established that neurology, it’s there essentially forever so you have to change the routine.
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. 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. We know from organizational psychology that very often, this habit loop can play out across thousands of people.
No one ever writes down things like, If you are too aggressive in your rivalry with your peers, you’re going to get fired. 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.
One of the ways that they do this is to look very closely for times when habits are flexible.
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. 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.
And companies themselves exploit habit cues and rewards to try to sway customers, particularly if customers themselves can't articulate what pleasurable experience they derive from a habit.
But we also know that the best way to change a habit is to understand its structure a€” that once you tell people about the cue and the reward and you force them to recognize what those factors are in a behavior, it becomes much, much easier to change." On his bad habits "I felt like I had a lot of habits that I was powerless over.
NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. And changing them, as anyone who has tried to diet or quit smoking knows, can be torturous. 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. Things we really enjoy are usually easy to establish as habits, whereas exercising takes a bit longer.
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.
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.

They are cues — and there are also rewards — and people who observe and adhere to them are people who end up getting promoted.
People could use cash to buy things, not use credit cards and not give out their names, but it’s such a hassle. It gives us this opportunity to take a break a bit and act without having to think about it constantly. Decisions, meanwhile, are made in a different part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. 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.
When someone is pregnant or buying a new house or getting divorced, their shopping habits become more flexible. 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. But as soon as a behavior becomes automatic, the decision-making part of your brain goes into a sleep mode of sorts. As long as I socialized, the cookie urge would go away and if I didn’t socialize, it didn’t matter what I ate.
His new book The Power of Habit explores the science behind why we do what we do a€” and how companies are now working to use our habit formations to sell and market products to us.
But it’s a matter of taking apart the behavior and understanding the habit loop and then anything can change.
We would feed him chicken nuggets or other stuff for dinner, which was the only stuff he would eat. First, there's a cue, or trigger, that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and let a behavior unfold.
It was a struggle every night not to eat his dinner because a 2-year-old dinner is designed to taste delicious and to disintegrate into your mouth into carbs and sugar. They wouldn't use Febreeze." That's when Proctor & Gamble reformulated Febreeze to include different scents. The reason why there's 12 of them is because the guy who came up with them a€” who wrote them one night while he was sitting on his bed a€” he chose them because there's 12 apostles. But the reason why AA works is because it essentially is this big machine for changing the habits around alcohol consumption and giving people a new routine, rather than going to a bar or drink. But companies can figure this out, and that's how they can make products work." Companies can also figure out how to get consumers to change their own habits and form new ones associated with their products or stores.
The megastore Target, for example, tries to target pregnant women, says Duhigg, in order to capture their buying habits for the next few years. At some point, if you're changing a really deep-seated behavior, you're going to have a moment of weakness.

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