The Power of Habit

The Power of Habit summary video is at bottom of the page -

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that there are some things in your business and life that you'd like to change. Maybe you want to start eating healthier, exercising, or figure out a way to manage your inbox.

One of the best places to look to create new and lasting change in your life is your habits. Once you understand exactly how your habits work, you'll be free to change them.

The Power of Habit shows us exactly how to do just that. Join us for the next 12 minutes as we explore how habits are formed, how you can change them, and how you can make the change last.

The Habit Loop - How Habits Work

Our lives are made up of our habits. Looking back on your day, it might seem like we are making decisions all day long. But as a 2006 paper published by Duke University points out, up to 40% of the actions we take each day are actually driven by our habits.

The American Journal of Psychology (1903) defines a "habit, from the standpoint of psychology, [as] a more or less fixed way of thinking, willing, or feeling acquired through previous repetition of a mental experience."

Duhigg introduces us to the habit loop, which has three steps:

  • A cue is a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use.

  • A routine, which can be physical or mental, or emotional.

  • A reward, helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.

Over time, this loop becomes more and more automatic, until eventually the cue and reward become linked forever and you have a habit.

MIT researchers ran experiments with rats that help explain how this happens from a scientific basis. They put rats in a T-shaped maze with chocolate at one end. They were positioned behind a partition that opened when a loud click sounded. When the rat was exploring the maze and looking for the chocolate it could smell, its brain was exploding with activity.

As they repeated these experiments hundreds of times, the rats learned to navigate the maze, until eventually, they went directly to the chocolate. But something interesting was happening - as they got better at navigating the maze, their brain waves showed that they were thinking less and less.

Why is this?

Scientists tell us that it's because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort, which is an evolutionary advantage. If we are able to think less about basic behaviors - like walking and deciding what to eat for lunch - we are able to devote more mental energy to other things.

The Craving Brain – How to Create New Habits

Now that we know how habits work, it's time to start exploring why cues and rewards work so well to generate behaviors. To understand that, we need to understand the science behind cravings.

The most famous work in this area was done on monkeys in a lab at the University of Cambridge. Wolfram Schultz (who I think wins the award for neuroscientist with the coolest name) designed an experiment that helped us understand how cues and rewards get linked together.

A monkey sat in front of a computer screen, and its job was to touch a lever whenever colored shapes appeared on the screen. If the monkey touched the lever when a shape appeared, a drop of blackberry juice would run down a tube and onto the monkey's lips, which the monkey found delicious. Whenever the monkey received the reward, a spike in his brain activity would suggest that he was experiencing happiness.

Interestingly, as the experiment went on, the brain activity in the monkey started to change - instead of showing a spike when he received the reward, it started to spike as soon as he saw the shapes on the screen.

Finally, they changed the experiment to not deliver the reward when he pressed the lever. The brain pattern that showed up when this was happening was consistent with desire and frustration. The cue was creating a craving for the reward.

Essentially, habits create neurological cravings that we have no control over.

This, Duhigg explains, is how new habits are created: by putting together a cue, a routine, and a reward, and then cultivating a craving that drives the loop.

Here's an interesting example to drive the point home.

Back in the early 1900s, brushing your teeth wasn't the norm. Claude Hopkins - one of the original ad geniuses and author of the book Scientific Advertising - saw this as an opportunity when Pepsodent hired him to sell more toothpaste.

He focused on creating a new habit loop that looks something like this:

Cue: I feel a film on my teeth Routine: brush my teeth Reward: a beautiful, sparkling smile.

After running a campaign that focussed on this habit loop, sales of Pepsodent went through the roof. Before Pepsodent, less than 7% of Americans brushed their teeth. In the ten years following the Pepsodent campaign launch, that number climbed to 65%.

However, Hopkins wasn't aware of one important thing - toothpaste manufacturers had been trying this tactic for years, without success. The thing that made Pepsodent so successful was that it included mint oil and citric acid, which gave teeth a tingling feeling after using it.

The habit loop that Hopkins had helped create included a craving for tingling teeth, and customers started craving that feeling, so they kept buying Pepsodent.


The Golden Rule of Habit Change – Why Transformation Occurs

Now that we have a full understanding of how habits work and how they form, it's time to move on to how to change bad habits into good ones.

As Duhigg points out, changing old habits is incredibly hard. That's why we need to rely on the habit loop that is already there to change it.

Quite simply, the formula for creating a new habit is to keep the old cue and deliver the old reward but to insert a new routine into the loop.

First, we need to identify the cues that trigger our old habits. Then, we need to identify the rewards that we get after the routine.

Here's how Nathan Azrin, an expert in habit reversal training, puts it:

"It seems ridiculously simple, but once you're aware of how your habit works, once you recognize the cues and rewards, you're halfway to changing it."

As it turns out, this is exactly what Alcoholics Anonymous does for alcoholics. As Ulf Mueller - a German neurologist who has studied brain activity among alcoholics points out, people use alcohol for many reasons. There is a hedonistic element to alcohol, but they also use it because they want to forget something or are looking for relief from stressful situations.

AA offers alcoholics some of the same rewards that people get at a bar - escape, distraction, and catharsis - with none of the hangovers and regrets that usually come along with it.

By getting people to commit to coming to meetings 90 times in their first 90 days in AA, they are forcing them to create a new routine for what people do each night instead of drinking. The cues and the rewards are the same, it's the routine that changes.

AA provides a method for attacking the habits that surround alcohol use and is a giant machine for changing habit loops.

Keystone Habits – Which Habits Matter Most

Now that we know exactly how habits work and how they eventually turn into cravings, it's time to explore the idea that some habits matter more than others.

Duhigg calls these keystone habits. They are the ones that, when they are created, have a domino effect on the rest of your life and naturally create other good habits.

For instance, people who create the habit of exercising start eating better and become more productive at work. They smoke less and are more patient with the people in their lives. They use their credit cards less frequently and feel less stressed. Clearly, exercise is a keystone habit for many people.

In another study, the National Institutes of Health published a new approach to weight loss. They gathered together a group of sixteen hundred obese people and asked them to write down everything they ate at least one day a week.

At first, it was hard. Eventually, it became a habit for them, and they started looking at their journals and seeing patterns they hadn't expected. Some people noticed they snacked mindlessly mid-morning, and so started to keep a piece of fruit on their desk. Other people started to plan their dinners in the journal and ate more healthy options when dinner time rolled around.

Food journals, it turns out, were a keystone habit for many other good habits. Six months into the study, the people who kept daily food records had lost twice as much weight as everyone else.

Finding a keystone habit in your life is all about finding small wins. Small wins help other habits flourish by creating new structures, and creating cultures where change becomes contagious.

Starbucks and The Habit of Success – When Willpower Becomes Automatic

At the time of this books writing, Starbucks had more than 137,000 employees, and more than a million alumni. In one sense, it is one of the nations largest educators - its first-year employees spend at least fifty hours in Starbucks classrooms. At the core of that education is an extreme focus on a critical habit: willpower.

Willpower is the ability to delay short-term rewards to reach long-term goals. Many studies have shown that students who have high levels of willpower go on to get better grades, better jobs, and make more money.

For a while, scientists and researchers believed that willpower was a skill that could be learned. However, as time progressed, it become to be viewed more like a resource.

Willpower, as it turns out, is a habit you can create. As psychology professor Mark Muraven puts it:

"There have been more than two hundred studies on this idea since then, and they've all found the same thing. Willpower isn't just a skill. It's a muscle, like the muscles in your arms or legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there's less power left over for other things."

Starbucks understands that willpower is an important habit to cultivate in their employees, who could easily let stress overwhelm their ability to provide the customer service their customers have come to expect.

They knew that their baristas would be most likely to fail at providing spectacular customer service at times when their willpower was weak. So, they spelled out routines for their employees to use when they hit rough patches.

In particular, they were taught how to respond to specific cues, like a screaming customer or when there was a long line at the cash register. Then, they were taught to look for specific rewards in each instance, such as a grateful customer or praise from a manager. This training added up to willpower habit loops.

Here's an example of how to deal with an unhappy customer, which they call the LATTE method:

  • Listen to the customer
  • Acknowledge the complaint
  • Take action by solving the problem
  • Thank the customer
  • Explain why the problem occurred

Create your willpower habit loops by choosing a behavior ahead of time, and then following that routine when that situation comes up.


Habits are powerful. They can be a force for good in your life if you understand them, and know exactly what to do in order to create new ones, and turn bad ones into good ones.

Happy habit hunting!

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