The Power Of Habit

We all have our habits. I know that if I don’t get my porridge, protein smoothie and a cup of coffee in the morning, it’s going to be a grumpy day for me. It’s a habit that I’ve created for myself, but this is certainly not the only kind of habit I, or anyone else for that matter, will have.

Habits are formed based on your familiarity to a certain thing, what’s your current life situation, as well as some other factors. Habits can also be artificially created with the right kinds of methods. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Businessby Charles Duhigg,  is about exactly this, what habits are, how we acquire and possibly change them, and how companies use knowledge of our habits to their advantage in targeted advertising.

This is another one of those books I recommend you read for yourself, but I’ll give you a brief summary on what’s in the book.

The Power Of Habit

The Habit Loop: How Habits Work

The book begins with the story of Eugene Pauly, a 71-year-old man who lost the medial temporal lobe of his brain to viral encephalitis. The rest of Eugene’s brain remained perfectly intact, and he had no problem remembering anything that occurred prior to 1960 – but suffered from total short-term memory loss, unable to retain knowledge of any new event for more than a minute and constantly repeating his words and actions from a minute before. Eugene had no memory of his grandchildren, and couldn’t even tell you where his kitchen or bedroom was located, even when he was sitting in his own home.

However, in an effort to make sure Eugene got some exercise, his wife had begun taking him on a walk around the block each day. She became frantic one day when he disappeared, only to show up 15 minutes later after taking the walk by himself. He couldn’t draw a simple map of his block or even tell you where his house was, but he began taking that same walk around the block every day. Eugene had demonstrated what scientists had suspected but never before proved: that habits are formed and operate entirely separately from the part of the brain responsible for memory. Later tests confirmed that we learn and make unconscious choices without having to remember anything about the lesson or decision making.

Your brain is constantly seeking new ways to save effort, and is always “chunking” sequences of actions into automatic routines. Backing out of the driveway, for example, requires over a dozen separate actions, but many of us do it daily without a second thought.

The habit process consists of a three-step loop:


  1. Cue is a trigger that tells your brain to perform an automatic reaction, as well as which routine to use.
  2. Routine is a physical, mental or emotional reaction or behaviour that comes after the cue.
  3. Reward is a positive stimulus that is letting your brain know the routine is working, and that its worth remembering.

By knowing how habits work should make your habits easier to control. You can also see how to start changing your own (bad) habits based on this formula, or how to create new good habits.

The Craving Brain: How to Create New Habits

You might be surprised to hear that during the first world war, almost no one in America was brushing their teeth. This caused the government officials to declare poor dental hygiene a national security risk. That was until the marketing mastermind, Claude Hopkins (I wrote an article about his book Scientific Advertising), was convinced to use his genius advertising skills on the hawking toothpaste, which eventually lead to a very successful ad campaign.

Claude was known for creating ads for companies, that specifically focused on creating habit loops in people.

For the hawking toothpaste Caude chose to create an ad campaign where you were asked to simply: “Just run your tongue across your teeth. You’ll feel a film – that’s what makes your teeth look ‘off color’ and invites decay.” After givig people the cue, he then continued the ad with images of beautiful white teeth, and the statement  “Note how many pretty teeth are seen everywhere. Millions are using a new method of teeth cleaning. Why should any woman have dingy film on her teeth? Pepsodent removes the film!”

This was what we call these days ‘false/fake advertising’; the “film” occurs naturally, and the toothpaste doesn’t actually do anything to remove it. However, the cue was universal and easily apparent. This caused people to get into the habit of cleaning their teeth (habit) in hopes of the reward (clean, beautiful white teeth). A decade later, the number of people using toothpaste had gone up from measely 7% to a whopping 65%.

This is just one example of many great advertising campaigns, but it also tells a story about creating habits in people.

How can you use that information to create habits yourself?

The Golden Rule of Habit Change: Why Transformation Occurs

Tony Dungy changed the game of American football with a counterintuitive coaching approach: instead of trying to outmatch his opponents with thicker playbooks and complex schemes, Tony drilled his team on only a few key plays. He did everything he could to get his team to stop thinking, and react based on habit instead.

Tony was aware of the fact that habits can’t usually be overcome; instead, a habit can only change once it’s inserted into a new routine with the same cue and reward. He then trained his teams to automatically link the cues they already knew to different types on-field routines. These new routines were less complex, with fewer choices, and more subconcious reactions. With this approach Tony was able to turn two abysmal teams into championship contenders.

Perhaps the most famous and widespread example of a successful habit change is the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous. This is, of course, the same program most AA groups use around the world, and it does work, if applied correctly. The first key is that AA inserts a new routine into the cue/reward system by finding out what need the alcohol is fulfilling (relaxation, escape, companionship, relief, anxiety, etc.) and providing similar type of relief through the AA group.

However, this alone isn’t enough to turn an alcoholic into a non-alcoholic person. Nor is it enough for you to start changing your habits. The most crucial element, however, is simply having belief in that what you are doing works (not really backed by scientific data, but we know it’s true. Think And Grow Rich lays it out really well for you.) You need to believe and want the change for you to be successful in your attempt to change your habits.

Change Your Habits

That will be it for today. The book goes on to tell you about habits of companies, but I only wanted to talk about what an individual can do about their habits.

If you combine this book’s information with that of Think And Grow Rich, I think you will make fast progress in your life.

Buy the books here: The Power of Habit &Think and Grow Rich

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