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Non-Fiction Blog

New thinkers, mavericks and mavens

Q and A with Charles Duhigg

The Power of Habit is one of the breakout stories of 2012, generating huge buzz among book-lovers. While early media about Charles Duhigg’s book focused on the revelations of Target’s incredible – some would say invasive – customer analytics,  it is a much wider appreciation of how habits drive the decisions of individuals and businesses (check out our review). Duhigg, a reporter for The New York Times, has crafted a classic that will stand along side Malcolm Gladwell and the team of authors behind Freakonomics. He kindly took the time to answer questions for the Indigo Non-Fiction Blog.

Indigo Non-Fiction Blog (INFB): “Can’t teach an old dog new tricks”; “Creatures of habit” – habit plays such a big part of our lives that there is an entire idiom around it. So, are we just walking habits?

Charles Duhigg (CD): Habits don't guide everything - but they're pretty close. Habits make up forty percent of our daily behaviors, according to studies.  When you woke up this morning, for instance, what did you do first? Did you hop in the shower, check your email, or grab a doughnut from the kitchen counter? What did you say to your kids on the way out the door? Salad or hamburger for lunch? When you got home, did you put on your sneakers and go for a run, or pour yourself a drink and eat dinner in front of the television? Most of the choices we make each day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making, but they’re not. They’re habits. And though each habit means relatively little on its own, over time, the meals we order, what we say to our kids each night, and how often we exercise have enormous impacts on our health, productivity, financial security, and happiness.

INFB: Your description of the habit loop is pretty compelling and clearly explains the neurology of habits. How do we tap into this to change habits?

CD: There is a basic pattern at the core of every habit, a kind of neurological loop that has three parts: A cue, a routine and a reward.

To understand your habit, you need to identify the components of your loop. The easiest place to start is with the routine: what behavior do you want to change? (For instance, I once had a bad habit of eating a cookie from the cafeteria every afternoon.)

Then, you should start experimenting with different rewards. To figure out which cravings are driving particular habits, it’s useful to experiment with different rewards. For instance, on the first day of my experiment to figure out what was driving my cookie habit, when I felt the urge to go to the cafeteria and buy a cookie, I instead went outside, walked around the block, and then went back to my desk without eating anything. The next day, I went to the cafeteria and bought a donut, and ate it at my desk. The next day, I bought an apple and ate it while chatting with my friends. Eventually I figured out that what I was really craving wasn't cookies, but socialization: Whenever I went to the cafeteria, I saw my friends.

Finally, you need to isolate the cue. Experiments have shown that almost all habitual cues fit into one of five categories: Location; Time; Emotional State; Other People; Immediately preceding action. So, if you’re trying to figure out the cue for the ‘going to the cafeteria and buying a chocolate chip cookie’ habit, you write down five things the moment the urge hits. These are my actual notes from when I was trying to diagnose my habit:

Where are you? (sitting at my desk)

What time is it? (3:36 pm)

What’s your emotional state? (bored)

Who else is around? (no one)

What action preceded the urge? (answered an email)

After just a few days, it was pretty clear which cue was triggering my cookie habit — I felt an urge to get a snack at a certain time of day. The habit, I had figured out, was triggered between 3:00 and 4:00. Finally, you need to bring that all together with a plan. A habit is like a formula our brain automatically follows: “When I see CUE, I will do ROUTINE in order to get a REWARD.”

So, I wrote a plan of my own: At 3:30, every day, I will walk to a friend’s desk and talk for 10 minutes. It didn’t work immediately. But, eventually, it got be automatic. Now, at about 3:30 everyday, I absentmindedly stand up, look around for someone to talk to, spend 10 minutes gossiping, and then go back to my desk. It occurs almost without me thinking about it. It has become a habit.

INFB: The vignettes of companies’ and customers’ habits make this such a readable book and there are some big names in there – Target, Starbucks, Alcoa, AA. Can you share any other stories that didn’t make it into the book?

CD: Most of the stories that I reported made it into the book. The one that didn't, however, focused on how video game companies closely study our habits – and rewards – to make their games so compelling. In particular, video game designers study how to allocate rewards throughout a game. What they found was that there's a certain number of rewards that need to be predictable – if you shoot twelve aliens, you get a badge – and a certain number that occur unexpectedly – when you shoot a yellow alien, just this once, you get free armour. Within psychology, this is known as intermittent reward, and it's incredibly powerful.

INFB: Media about the book has focussed on Target and how it targets pregnant customers. Really though, businesses have always examined customers’ habits – bakers know how much bread to bake. What’s different about Target – or are we worried about what our habits say about us when they meet big data?

CD: What's different about Target is how specifically they can analyze individual shoppers. Bakers knew generally how much bread to bake each day. But they can't predict that Suzy will want two loaves on Tuesday, and Jimmy will want one loaf on Friday (unless, of course, their customers always order the same amount every week – and the one thing we know is that people's behaviours are variable). Target, on the other hand, is trying to figure out how to predict the individual behaviour of Suzy, and Jimmy and millions of other shoppers. And as they become more and more sophisticated, they learn so much that they can, in a sense, peer inside peoples' lives and figure out, for instance, if they are getting divorced, buying a house or having a baby.

INFB: “Brain books” are big at the moment – Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast & Slow, Susan Cain’s Quiet, and Dan Ariely is publishing The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty later this year. How did you end up in this area?

CD: I've always been fascinated by trying to understand our non-deliberate behaviours. Over the last thirty years, a huge amount of scholarship has focused on when and how we should make decisions. Particularly among business leaders, making the big, right choice has become the focus of management and strategy. And that's great, because big choices can change companies. But as everyone knows, the big choice is only part of the equation. There is as profound an influence related to small choices – what we eat each day, how we exercise, how we automatically communicate with others – and the more we understand about how these almost unconscious habits occur, the more control we have over our lives.

***The Indigo Non-Fiction Blog would like to thank Charles Duhigg and Cathy Paine at Random House for supporting this blog.

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