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The power of habit: Becoming the person you want to be

By Amy Makechnie, KSL.com Contributor  |  Posted Apr 10th, 2012 @ 8:14pm


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"People are who they are, give or take 15 percent. That's how much people can change if they really want to."

Is that all? It can be a bit depressing if you're getting your philosophy from Mitchell of ABC's "Modern Family."

Luckily, Mitchell is just a character on a television show. Charles Duhigg, on the other hand, isn't make-believe, and he's got a message worth paying attention to.

Duhigg, an award-winning, New York Times reporter, recently soared to the #2 spot on the New York Times bestseller list with his new book, The Power of Habit. Using captivating narratives about billion-dollar companies, successful CEOs, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, Martin Luter King Jr., baseball, and even the success of Febreze, Duhigg presents cutting-edge neurological research that has the transformative potential to change businesses, communities, and individual lives.


The way that habits change are exactly the same regardless of who it is or what we're talking about.

–Charles Duhigg


And it all comes down to one word: Habits.

"A habit," Duhigg says in a CNN interview with Suzanne Malveaux, "is a decision you made at one point, stopped making, but continue acting on." He says our neurological understanding of habits has been completely transformed in the last decade. Lab studies and research have revealed much about making, changing, or extinguishing a deeply ingrained addiction.

Though every person and habit is different, "The way that habits change are exactly the same regardless of who it is or what we're talking about."

On his website, Duhigg says he first became interested in habits about a decade ago when he was a reporter in Iraq. He heard of an army major who had been studying videotapes of riots. The major noticed patterns of behavior that eventually led to violence. He requested that food vendors be banned from the plazas. What happened? People got hungry and they went home. The cues, or triggers, were taken away. There was no reward for sticking around. Since then, there have been zero riots under this particular major's jurisdiction.

Duhigg breaks a habit into three components:

1. Cue: The trigger point

2. Routine: The behavior itself

3. Reward: Why we keep on doing it

Most people focus only on the behavior. Instead, Duhigg says, we should be focusing on the cues and the rewards.

Have a bad chocolate-chip cookie habit? Change the cue, the trigger point. For instance, Duhigg says, if the trigger point is hunger or fatigue, eat something that will give you energy, like an apple or energy bar.

Maybe the cue or trigger point is the daily walk to the cafeteria to stretch your legs. Try going outside for a walk instead. It delivers the same reward, and nature isn't handing out cookies. Many times we just eat that chocolate-chip cookie because that's what we always do, not because it's what we really want to eat.

"Once you figure out the reward it's delivering and what's triggering it, you can change any behavior," says Duhigg.

He sites a study by a Duke University professor who figured that 45 percent of our behaviors aren't actually choices, they're habits. It gives one pause. Are we completely aware of our behavior, or sometimes just living on auto- pilot?

How do you change a habit?
OK, readers, we want to know: Have you ever had to add, change or erase a habit? What did you do? Did it work? Tell us on our comment boards.

During the same CNN interview, Suzanne Malveaux told Duhigg she loves to run, but sometimes she's a couch potato. What to do?

First, focus on the cue.

Duhigg says to have a ritual. Exercise at the same time everyday. Put on your running shoes before you eat breakfast. "You want your brain to latch onto some cue that makes that behavior automatic."

And don't forget the reward.

If you haven't run for a few weeks (or years), your brain has forgotten that you actually like to run. Reward yourself with a piece of chocolate. Isn't that counter-intuitive for a runner?

Maybe. But laboratory experiments tell us that with this type of reward, "you trick your neurology into forming a habit." Within two weeks, you won't even need that chocolate as a reward. The habit will be more automatic. Your brain will have learned, or relearned, that you like running for running's sake.

This type of laboratory study lends itself to Dr. Norman Doidge's 2007 breakout book, The Brain That Changes Itself. Researchers now know that the brain is plastic, meaning it's not fixed or unchangeable as previously thought. It can be changed. "Neurons (brain cells) that fire together, wire together," Doidge repeatedly states, meaning, the more we do something, the more the brain wants to do it again.

We actually have the power to rewire our brain.

It's not always quick or easy, but Duhigg rejects the idea that even the worst of habits, even alcohol and nicotine addictions (just habit dysfunctions, he says) cannot be changed. Age doesn't matter. A deeply ingrained habit doesn't matter, because "once you understand how to take a habit apart, you can then reconstruct it any way you want."

We shouldn't forget something else that surfaces in Duhigg's book, but can get lost among the exciting self-help. Just because we can change, doesn't mean we will. "Me" is not always the biggest motivator. But often, our deepest yearnings extend beyond ourselves, to something globally beneficial. Looking beyond oneself, afterall, can be the biggest trigger there is, the way a new mother suddenly turns her life over to her newborn child.

It's not hard to see why this book is a hot seller. It provides something human beings crave: Hope, a reminder that our futures are yet unwritten. We can do something about that.



Amy Makechnie is a writer from New Hampshire. She blogs at maisymak.blogspot.com.

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