Don’t aim to give up a habit. Try to change it
Every single one of us tussles with habits that we want to change. Habits of diet, exercise, addiction and so on. We rarely succeed. It is natural for human beings to lack the willpower to change their habits. Almost all New Year resolutions are broken within a month. So, how did Lisa Allen pull it off? This book begins with her fascinating story.
Lisa was 34 years old, had started smoking and drinking when she was 16, and had struggled with obesity. By her mid-20s, she had run up so much debt that collection agencies were hounding her. She wouldn’t last in any job for more than a year.
A few years later, Lisa was sitting in front of a bunch of neurologists, psychologists, geneticists and a sociologist. She was lean, vibrant, with the toned legs of a runner. She looked a decade younger than her earlier photos. She had no debts, didn’t drink and was in her 39th month at a graphic design firm. She had not smoked for four years, had lost 60 pounds and run a marathon since then. She was also studying for a master’s degree and had bought a home.
How did Lisa do what millions of people cannot is the subject of this interesting book. Can habits be changed? Yes, says the author, once you understand the ‘Habit Loop’ which is nothing other than the brain getting a cue (seeing a pack of cigarettes or seeing someone smoke), following the routine of lighting up, driven by a craving (for nicotine), for the reward (smoking).
This ‘cue-routine-craving-reward’ is the Habit Loop. According to Charles Duhigg, the reason we cannot change our habits easily is that we move effortlessly and unconsciously from cue to reward each time. The secret of our ability to change our habits is to change the craving and the routine part.
What did Lisa do? She stumbled upon this secret accidentally on a trip to Cairo. A few months before the trip, her husband had walked out on her for another woman. After a few horrible months, she gathered herself and took off for Cairo. As she rode past the Sphinx and the pyramids, she thought she needed a goal. She decided she would come back and trek through the desert. To pull off that audacious act, she had to give up smoking. This touched off a series of changes that would radiate to other parts of her life.
Stories like these are all over the book. For instance, how ad man Claude Hopkins converted tooth-brushing from an obscure practice (just 7% of the US population) into a national obsession and, in the process, created the blockbuster success of Pepsodent. Or how Procter & Gamble’s supposedly sure-shot winner, Febreze, which could remove any smell, flopped disastrously, to begin with and then went on to become a billion-dollar business after P&G changed the craving (inserting scent when the original promise was removing odour!). Duhigg narrates how Alcoholics Anonymous reforms lives by attacking habits at the core of addiction, and how coach Tony Dungy reversed the fortunes of the worst team in the National Football League by programming his players to react automatically to on-field cues.
The book is divided into three parts. The first focuses on how habits form in individual lives. The second examines the habits of successful companies and organisations. Dhuigg narrates how Paul O’Neill remade Alcoa, a struggling aluminium company into becoming the top performer by focusing on one key habit—safety. It describes why even the most talented surgeons can make catastrophic mistakes when a hospital’s organisational habits go awry.
The third part looks at the habits of societies such as how Martin Lurther King, Jr, and the civil rights movement succeeded, in part, by changing the ingrained social habits of Montgomery, Alabama. Habits can be changed, if we understand how they work. According to Duhigg, it is all about changing one key part on the whole chain of Habit Loop first. A fascinating book.