Breaking Bad

Back in 2004, a U.S. marine in Iraq was given the unenviable task of figuring out what was igniting the recent spate of riots inside the city of Kufa, located 90 miles north of Baghdad. After closely studying videotapes of previous riots, he began to see a pattern. People would gather in the plaza to protest. Over the next few hours, their numbers would gradually swell. Then the food vendors would appear, followed by spectators eager to watch the drama unfold. Angry slogans were chanted until finally somebody would throw a rock at the police, and then all hell would break loose.

101When the American soldier met with the Mayor of Kufa to discuss peacekeeping solutions, he made one odd request. Would it be possible, he asked, to keep the food vendors out of the plaza? The mayor agreed. A few weeks later, another crowd gathered near the great mosque of Kufa. The police stood nervously by, awaiting trouble. By dusk, the crowd was growing hungry and restless. But when the kebab sellers failed to appear, the protesters became dispirited. One by one, they all drifted home to eat. By 8pm, the plaza was empty.

The brilliance of this solution was that it required no police intervention at all. Everyone (including angry protesters!) needs to eat. Just one small change in a well-worn routine was enough to alter the outcome. This is one of the many fascinating tales illuminating Charles Duhigg’s new book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Drawing upon research in medicine, neurology and applied psychology, the author shows how habit governs most of our behavior. His central argument is that habits – even the most deeply ingrained ones – can be changed, if we understand how they work.

As someone who advises on organizational change, this message struck a deep chord. According to Duhigg, about 40% of our actions are not even conscious, they’re simply habit. A habit begins when we are prompted by some cue, followed by a routine that brings about a reward. When this cycle of cue-routine-reward gets repeated often enough, it becomes ingrained as “habit.” And our brains are very good at creating them. Why? Because routine response requires less mental energy, and our brains are biologically programmed to conserve energy. This can work both for us, and against us.
Witness any top athlete in his “zone” and what you will often see are a series of well-rehearsed behaviors designed to enhance their overall performance. On the flip side, observe any unhappily married couple and what you will often see are negative “habit loops” at work. She talks too much during dinner and as a result he shuts down. She blames him for being “anti-social” causing him to resent her for talking down to him. And on it goes.
So how do we change bad habits?
First, we need to become aware of our triggers. Then we need to work consciously to interrupt the habit loop. Alcoholics Anonymous has done this successfully for years by providing a practical framework for attacking the cues that surround alcohol abuse. While AA uses “twelve steps” – there are, according to Duhigg, 3 major steps involved in breaking any bad habit.
  1. Recognize the cues that trigger certain behaviors. For a smoker, it might be recognizing the feelings of boredom or anxiety that trigger a desire for a cigarette. For an alcoholic, it might be recognizing feelings of loss or loneliness, and the desire to escape those feelings. The same holds true for comfort eating, gambling or any other destructive form of behavior. Understanding the cues is the first step to breaking bad habits.
  2. Interrupt the habit loop. According to Duhigg, you cannot simply eradicate a bad habit. Rather, you must substitute a new behavior for the old. For example, let’s say you find yourself automatically snacking at 11am every day to relieve boredom. Instead, you might substitute an apple and a vigorous ten-minute walk with a friend. When confronted with the urge to drink, an alcoholic might call his sponsor, or go to a meeting. A smoker might chew a stick of celery. Same cue, different response.
  3. Believe that change is possible. For any habit to stay changed, people must believe that change is actually possible. For a losing football team to win, they must first believe that they can win. A smoker must believe that it is possible for him to be an ex-smoker. This is one of the chief benefits of groups like AA, Weight Watchers and others. If the belief in yourself is weak, you can always tap into the collective belief of a group struggling with similar issues. You say to yourself, “if she can do it, I can do it.”
But it’s not just individual lives that can benefit when our habits shift. It’s also organizations. Even the most dysfunctional companies can transform themselves, if the desire for change is there. That’s not to say that change is easy or simple. It’s not. Real change – the lasting kind – requires genuine courage, lasting commitment, work and the support of others. What Duhigg reminds us however, is that our habits are not destiny. By consciously adjusting our habits to better serve us, we ultimately have the power to transform our lives, our families, our businesses and our communities. And that’s a habit worth remembering.

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