How to break a habit

Three lessons from Charles Duhigg’s Power of Habit.

  1. Habits involve a cue, routine and reward. They let the brain run through a routine without effort – and that can be simple or complex; healthy or unhealthy. Brushing your teeth or pathological gambling.
  2. Once a habit is established the spike in brain activity happens before the reward. That’s a neurological craving that leads to depression or anger if not satisfied.
  3. For already-formed habits, the best way to change them is to replace the routine. Keep the cue and reward constant. Chances are you’ll need to spend some time identifying the real cue and reward, they’re not always obvious.

Want to know more?

This blog post is part of a series I am making called Reading For The Aspirational Self. Don’t think of this as book summaries – I’m not doing that. Instead, I’m drawing out specific lessons that I find particularly interesting. And which I think could act, together, to help people who share my aspirations. If you, too, want to be present, family-centric, intrinsically motivated and polymathic, I can help.

  • The most distilled version of what I’m offering is a free mailing list designed for learning, “Think On Thursday” – each e-mail will include a lesson designed around the content. Click here for some information on that.
  • The series is also on YouTube in the form of 7-12 minute videos. Here’s the channel link – the video and transcript are below.
  • I’m tweeting excerpts from the videos, as well as some of the story of this project, how we’re doing it, and where it is going, on Twitter. @DaveCBeck

If you want to know more about The Power of Now you can check out Duhigg’s full lecture here.

Starboard reflections,


This week’s video


Charles Duhiggs The Power Of Habit argues that routines shape how we live and that awareness of these routines can let us change them for the better, but by understanding habit formation, we can end our bad habits and form new healthy. 

First. I’ll talk about what a habit is and how it works neurologically, what changes in your brain as a habit loop is formed. Second, how your habits can be formed by corporations and by other people. And third I’ll chat through what he has to say about changing your habits. 

When you’re developing a new skill or falling into a new habit, there is an area of your brain that’s particularly active. It’s called the basal ganglia. And once the habits formed or the skill has become kind of automatic to you, that area, the brain isn’t so active anymore. 

So this is the area that neuroscientists kind of associate with the formation of new habits of new skills. And what happens as you develop the habit is that it gets chunked. So your brain says, start that routine and your brain just runs the routine. It becomes an automatic thing, and this can operate at all sorts of levels of complexity. 

So when you go to push your teeth and you pick up your toothbrush, you don’t consciously think, Oh, I need the toothpaste now. It’s an automatic reflex to reach for the toothpaste or maybe search for the toothpaste if you’re like me and the kids hide it. But adding toothpaste to a toothbrush before it goes in your mouth, the ordering of things, that’s automatic, it’s a completely kind of autonomous process without you needing to consciously control it. 

And for many of us the same will be said of driving or in my case sailing. I don’t really think about what I’m doing when I had just about angle to the wind. You don’t really think about what you’re doing when you’re changing lane, when you’re driving or when you’re backing out of a driveway, it just kind of happens. 

You set the intention and then your brain autonomously runs the routine. And that’s basically the same thing as forming a habit.  

Habits are best thought of as a three-step process. So there’s a cue something that encourages you to start the habit. There’s a routine, which is the routine you run through in doing the habits of brushing your teeth in the case of brushing your teeth. And there’s the reward you get at the end of it. 

And I’ll talk about the teeth one in a second, but the reward is a sense of accomplishment in some cases or it’s a direct neurological reward or some kind in other cases, it just depends on the habit, but there is always for a habit to be properly formed, according to the literature, is a cue, a routine and a reward.  

And once the cue happens, the automatic thing for you to do is to carry out the routine. You can intervene, this is all controllable consciously, but it’s tough depending on how built in the habit is to you. 

Wolfram Schultz established that there’s a kind of spike in activity of your brain as the habits taking place that would normally be associated with when, when you don’t have an integrated habit is the reward point. So you will see a clear spike in your logical activity when you’re being rewarded, because everybody likes to be rewarded, neurologically.  

But what happens with a habit is really interesting. So when you have a kind of cue routine reward loop going on in your brain, and your brain is used to, that becomes accustomed to that. That becomes normal for it. What actually happens is that the spike in brain activity that you’d expect with the reward comes before the reward, 

And what this leads to is a sense of neurological craving. So if you don’t get the reward that you’re bringing is at that point expecting, the tendency is to go into either a depressive or an anger loop. Once that routine is, is integrated into your life. The reward is an important thing.  

However, when you’re training people or you’re encouraging people to do things, you can vary the rewards and it still works because that sense of craving drives repeating the loop. Even if the reward is skipped a few times, you keep feeding people the cue, they run through the routine and then sometimes you give them the reward. Variable rewards work perfectly well because of this sense of craving.  

And that’s why it’s one of the reasons that habits can be so addictive because the rewards only need to happen a few times or on a variable basis in order for the habit to be integrated into your brain and to become not quite autonomous, but nearly autonomous once the cue happens. So you can see this in the case of gamblers who have early success and lots of people entering the stock market now are winning an awful lot of money over their first few bets because the markets are flying up at largely unprecedented rate. 

It’s important to distinguish habits from memory. So this isn’t a conscious memory of the routine you can go through. You can normally deconstruct simple habits, but think about something fairly complex, like trying to back a car out of a driveway and all of the little actions that you do as part of that, looking in mirrors, the order that you look in them is probably a routine in your brain. And that you struggle to recall consciously unless you’re actually doing it at the time. 

So. You don’t normally know that you’re in this habit, unless you kind of think quite hard about what you’re doing and you reflect on your actions and the cues and the rewards that are leading you into a process. The process itself is an autonomous blur, largely for most people 

(section – how other people can form your habits: marketing and training.)  

Marketers, of course know this very well, and they do their best to ensure that you integrate their products into your routines and maybe their products give you the reward. Maybe their products are just part of the routine, but marketing is largely about creating the neurological cravings so that you buy products that you wouldn’t, if you thought consciously about it, that’s how the less ethical side of marketing works as far as I’m concerned.  

One example of this is Claude Hopkins. The example in the book is about Pepsodent. There were lots of other stories about him, but the Pepsodent in the early 1900. And the story that he told about Pepsodent is that there’s a natural film on your teeth. 

And he convinced people that This film leads to decay and that with Pepsoden you could fix the film and lead to beauty. It’s not true at all, but it, but it kind of works because Pepsoden was one of the first toothpaste, if not the first to integrate a kind of minty tingle aftertaste, which people associate with cleanliness and they associate with a kind of a fresh feeling in your mouth. 

It feels fresh when you have something minty in your mouth. That’s why so many toothpaste manufacturers still use mint or something that gives that tingle after brushing, because it makes you feel clean even if you’re not clean. And Pepsoden was a huge success, it really worked. And it’s not. The story that he told that made it a success, probably, it’s the minty tingle, because the minty tingle became a reward in itself. 

So people would have the full cycle of brushing their teeth. And on the positive side, this integrated a really healthy habit into a lot of American lives.  I forget the exact figures, but it was nearly a 10 fold increase, over the course of a couple of decades, and the cue routine reward loop it is an important part of that. And it was used half consciously by Hopkins there.  

And it’s used more consciously today, often in positive ways. So one of the examples in the book, was Starbucks and how they use training to help their customer service agents through inflection points, through difficult moments. People who work at Starbucks have to put on their smiles all day and be friendly with people all day and that’s quite tough. And if at the end of the shift, you get a difficult customer. It’s difficult to manage your emotions in that situation, unless you fall into a routine. What Starbucks do is they train their staff to think about specific ways to respond to different situations and to have these written down in a manual and thought through in advance of those difficult situations occurring. 

And from the employees side, what this gives them actually is an impression that they’re incredibly resilient because they face that difficult situation and they can deal with it because they have a habit to fall into. They have a routine to fall into, and the brain autonomously guides them through, dealing with it in a way that reflects well on Starbucks and that saves them, the emotional problems of dealing with difficult people. So it kind of works for everybody really. And there are lots of other healthy habits you can form your you’ll have seen plenty of this lately. If you’ve looked at anything self-help wise. That’s kind of the normal way of improving people’s health at the moment is to give them healthy habits. 

(section – how do you change an unhealthy habit?)  

How do you change an unhealthy habit? That’s something that’s both fairly simple in the abstract and very difficult for people to do in kind of the real world that they live in. And the basic process is to identify the cues and the rewards. So look at what happens either side of the habit that you’re looking to change and then change what’s happening in the middle. 

Change the routines, keep the cues the same, keep the rewards the same, but change the routines in the middle. Duhigg talks about this in a lot of different contexts. So he talks about this in terms of sports and the way that sportsman can focus on specific cues and automate their behavior in a way that means they would, can react faster than the opposition. 

He gives an example from American football, but there were plenty of others where you look for specific cues from your opposition. It works particularly well when there are people involved. And you start to act automatically before you have to consciously think about it. And that’s why the best players, the ones who’ve practiced the most, in many cases in whatever you’d like, probably look like they have more time than everybody else.  

You hear that talked about in football, you hear that talk about in soccer, you hear it talked about in cricket and all sorts of other sports and the best players have more time because they do an awful lot of things before they think. They have a routine that uses cues and the reward is success at the game. 

And the routine is something that they’ve changed and iterated over time so that they can do better at it. And you can do the same thing with unhealthy habits. So alcoholics anonymous is a really good example of this and they encourage people to talk through at length. The situations that lead them to drinking and the feelings that they get from drinking and because of that lengthy introspection that people do and in, in a group environment as well, which brings its own benefits. 

The alcoholics anonymous is more successful than social scientists would understand it to be. It doesn’t make sense from their point of view because it’s not based on any modern, scientific training or anything like that, but it works because of this introspective element, this, this encouragement to identify cues and rewards and to replace the routine with something that doesn’t involve alcohol, obviously the other benefit of alcoholics anonymous, and this is worth kind of pulling out. 

When you’re trying to change a habit to is belief. You have to know that you can change the habit. So ideally seeing other people doing it. If nobody has the specific habit that you have in your circle, you need to find another way to form that belief that you can, all habits can be changed. It’s just that some of them difficult to get rid of than others. 

A habit that’s difficult to change is pathological gambling. So for some people, neurological studies have shown that when they nearly win, a near miss. In their brain, it looks like they’ve won. They get that neurological reward. They get that spike in brain activity that dopamine hit or whatever you want to call it. 

And they get that even when they’re losing financially, they get it from a part of their brain that they find very difficult to control or that you can’t control without unlearning the habit. And it’s kind of a part of the brain, the primitive brain that that’s fed by what you do and the actions you take and the way that your brain responds and the habits, but can’t be consciously into being done directly. 

There are stories in Duhigg’s book about a pathological gambler who goes bankrupt a couple of times and kind of let her family down immensely. And the question of, whether she’s responsible for her actions, but the point that I’d like to draw out of it is actually, this applies to all sorts of other habits where you can get into the situation where the habit is, what drives you in the reward of the routine is what drives you.  

And it’s very difficult to change them once they get to that point. So of course there are plenty of pathological gamblers who manage never to gamble again. But when they’re faced with difficult circumstances, things have to help them. Something has to help them to not gamble again. They have to be away from the cues that would normally lead them into a gambling routine, or they have to have a lengthy period of pulling that cue into a new routine. 

They have to rewire the habit effectively. It’s difficult is what I’m saying when a habit is fully formed to change it.  

So Habits that you’ve been doing for a decade or for your whole life are basically a part of you they’re written on your brain and you can overwrite them slightly with new routines, but they’re still there, they’re still easy to fall back into. And they restrict your action in a lot of ways because that cue becomes something that has to lead to a routine or a lots of stress.