The Power of Habit

Charles Duhigg The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do and how to change. Heinemann 2012

This is intended as a popular book, and I mistook it as a guide to the work in this area. The main body is more of a motley collection of articles that might be relevant, but which never seem to come together, despite the appendix ‘A reader’s guide to using these ideas’ describing its goal as:

a framework for understanding how habits work and a guide to experimenting with how they might change,

which is:

  • Identify the routine
  • Experiment with rewards
  • Isolate the cue
  • Have a plan.

In this model one has a cycle, cue, routine, rewards back to cue.

This seems reasonable as far as it goes, although I suspect that most people would do better to think about their own lives than the unusual examples given. But the scope is clearly limited to the case where one has an established routine (a ‘vice’) that one is aware could do with improving. It has nothing to say about cases where we are unaware of the downsides of our routines, unaware of things that could otherwise be cues, or unaware of how outcomes are impacting on ourselves.

It seems to me that unfortunate habits often have desired short and poor long term impacts, so to avoid them we need to think about the long term impacts. For example, how will our life style impact on our long-term health? How will the way we dress at work impact on our prospects?

Further the cycle model masks some important factors. Sometimes the outcome of the habit is to stimulate the activity that results in cues, as when eating sugary foods can result in a sugar high and then low, and more craving. But at other times (as in the examples provided) the cue is something that happens uninfluenced by our own behaviour. The former seems more of an addiction, requiring a different approach. In the latter case instead of recognizing the cue and trying to replace the associated habitual routine, one can sometimes simply avoid the cue. For example, if one gets angry every time a particular news reporter is on, one can simply avoid that channel. Similarly, one could try to change the setting so that the routine yields unrewarding outcomes. For example, wear a tight belt when you go out for a meal, so that over-eating is painful.

To me the key feature of method advocated for changing habits is to commit to a different routine. But why not commit to avoiding the cue or altering the reward system?

Dave Marsay

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