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Fighting the force of habits

Charles Duhigg, an investigative reporter for The New York Times. Charles Duhigg, an investigative reporter for The New York Times. (ELIZABETH ALTER)
By Karen Weintraub
Globe Correspondent / April 30, 2012
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WHO

Charles Duhigg

WHAT

Duhigg, an investigative reporter for The New York Times, has just published a book, “The Power of Habit,” about recent neurological insights into how we form — and can break — habits. He spoke at last week’s Cambridge Science Festival.

Q. What are the basic steps for changing a habit?

A. Every habit has three components: A cue, which is a trigger for the behavior; a routine, which is the behavior itself; and then a reward, which is how your brain decides whether to store that pattern for further use. By focusing on the cue or the reward, that's really how you can gain leverage to change the habit.

Q. But our brains never really lose the old habit, which is why it's so easy to relapse?

A. You can't make an old habit disappear — once it's in your neurology, it's essentially there forever. But you can override it. You can come up with a new behavior associated with those old cues and old rewards and in doing so, lessen the power of the old habit.

Q. You write in the book about the sophistication of companies in exploiting what they know about our habits. If we learn how to better control our habits, won't companies just get better at manipulating us?

A. A habit is incredibly strong, but incredibly delicate. When consumers start paying attention to their own habits, they gain an authority over their own behavior that no company can casually undermine.

Q. How can someone figure out their own cues?

A. You want to experiment. Cues fall into one of five categories: a time of day, a particular place, the presence of certain people, a particular emotion, or a behavior that's become ritualized. I had a cookie habit. When the cookie urge would strike, I would write down those five things: Where am I, who's standing around me, what time of day is it. You only have to do that three to four times before you can figure out what the cue is, because it's going to be pretty consistent from time to time.

Q. And rewards?

A. [Am I eating a cookie because] I'm hungry in the afternoon? In which case, eating an apple would work just as well. Or is it that I need a break from work? In which case taking a walk around the block should do the trick. You can come up with a half-dozen potential rewards that the cookie represents. Experiment. One day eat an apple. The next day take a walk around the building. Pretty quickly, you'll be able to tell what the actual reward is, because one of those will make the craving for the cookie disappear.

Q. Is it important for parents to teach this kind of thing to their children?

A. Even more than kids who have high IQ's or come from resource-rich backgrounds, kids who have high self-control or willpower are kids who end up being successful.

Q. Some habits, like willpower, are more important than others — what you call keystone habits. What's a keystone habit for an adult?

A. Exercise is a great example. People who develop an exercise habit, they start eating better. [They] also stop using their credit cards quite so much. They start doing their dishes earlier in the evening, they stop procrastinating so much at work. There's something about exercise that seems to echo through people's lives.

Q. Has learning about the neurology of habits helped you personally?

A. I've lost like 35 pounds. I'm training for the New York City Marathon. Once you understand the framework around this, it's like someone has given you a pair of glasses and all of a sudden you can see how your life works.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Karen Weintraub can be reached at

Karen@KarenWeintraub.com

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