New Times journalist and best-selling author, Charles Duhigg appeared on Anderson Cooper’s talk show Anderson to discuss what is behind his theory on habits that is all the buzz in his book of “The Power of Habit.” Anderson said he has read the book and it has really opened his eyes on not only how to change habits, but the effects habits in your life. For instance, if you can get your child to make his or her bed, your child will actually do better in school. Or if you start an exercise like running every day, you’ll be more likely to have less credit card debt. Charles Duhigg explains that habits have that much power in our life.
Charles says that in the last decade the neurology of habit formation has been completely transformed. What we have learned is how a habit forms in our brain. This is important because once we know how a habit is formed, then we know how to change habits and how to form new habits that will change our lives.
He explained that while working on this book he had a habit of every afternoon walking up to the New York Times cafeteria, eating a couple of chocolate chip cookie and he started gaining weight. Doing researching for this book he would call psychologists and neurologists and ask them all these important questions.
But at the end of it he would say “by the way, how can I change my chocolate chip cookie habit?”
They explained to him the neurology of habit formation. What they now know about habits is that each of them have three components that is sort of like a loop.
There is a cue which is like a trigger for a routine or the behavior that we are talking about and then there is a reward afterwards. And this reward is how your brain learns to remember this pattern for the future.
So for his chocolate chip cookie habit, the cue the time of day, which was about 3;30 in the afternoon when got the urge to have a cookie. The routine was that he would walk to the cafeteria, get a couple of cookies and chat with some colleagues. The reward he thought was the cookie. But what the psychologist made him understand was that when he went to get the cookie he talked to his colleagues and it was the socialization that he was craving. Once Charles realized that, he reconstructed the habit. So now when 3:30 comes around, he stands up and looks for somebody to go gossip with, goes over to their desk, gossips for 10 minutes and goes back to his desk. The cookie urge is totally gone. Over time this has become a loop in his brain, the neurology has strengthened to the point where now he has a new habit.
The Importance of Keystone Habits
Anderson said he was blown away by another point made in the book. That if you are somebody who exercises every day, you are more likely to have less credit card debt. How does exercise correlate to lower credit card debt?
Charles explains habits like exercise are called Keystone habits. These are habits that matter more than others. Once these habits start it actually has ripple effects and sets off a chain reaction. Exercise is a great one. For some reason when you start exercising regularly, you stop using your credit card so much. He thinks the reason why is because it changes your self image. So when you go buy something, subconsciously you are saying to yourself , “I’m somebody that can exercise every morning. I don’t need to buy something I don’t need!” You feel like a person that has more control over your life.
Another Keystone habit is having dinner as a family. We know that when families eat together, their kids get their homework done earlier. The reason why is you start thinking of yourself as the type of person, as the type of family, whose parents care about them enough that you want to live up to their expectations.
Two viewer’s asked Charles how to go about breaking their bad habits. One had a 34 year, 6 to 10 cans of Pepsi a day habit. And one bites her nails.
Charles’s Four Steps to Change a Habit
- Identify the routine itself, like drinking too much soda or biting your nails
- Identify the reward. Try to figure out what the routine is really giving you. What you really want.
- Isolate the cue. Figure out what is triggering that behavior.
- Have a plan. So that you can say to yourself, “The next time I see this cue, I am going to do ‘X’ and my reward is going to be ‘Y’.”
It is not easy at first, but with practice, it gets easier everyday. Some people carry around note cards and every time they get a cue they make a checkmark and if they override it, they make a hashmark.
What we know from laboratory experiments is that any habit can be changed. It’s just a matter of figuring out the parts of it.
He thought that for the woman with the Pepsi habit, that perhaps her cue was the frustration of her daily chores and activities and she was using the routine of pacing each can of Pepsi to the next activity through out the day. The drinking of the Pepsi was the reward for doing that activity. He suggested that she find another reward to take the place of the Pepsi.
Another audience member named loves sweets. And enjoys them several times a day. So how do you stop the habit of reaching for that sweet.
Charles says you need to create a way of interrupting the cue. Create a disincentive. Put something out there to help you remember the downside of sweets. Some people put a picture of their kids next to whatever it is they are having trouble with to remind them that they want to be around for their loved ones. Or having a favorite outfit or wedding dress they want to fit into.
Another point in Charles’s book is about how stores invest in studying our shopping habits so they can manipulate our spending to their profit advantage.
Here are just a few…
- Most shoppers walk into the grocery store and turn right. So that is where stores put the things that they want you to buy.
- Many grocery stores will also put the fruit and produce to the right. They know that if you buy your produce first, by the time you get near the desserts which are nearer to the checkout counter, you will be more inclined to reward yourself.
- Many supermarkets will use special spotlights over items that they want you to buy. The lighting is designed to draw you in.
- The most popular cereals are put 15° below eye level because you will most likely noticed it and picked them up.
What should we do to avoid the traps? Charles suggests…
The number one thing is to be aware. Author Michael Pollan of “Food Rules” advises that you start at the checkout counter and go through the grocery store backward. That way you walk past the cookies first and you get your produce last and you undermine the little tricks that they try to play to trigger your habits.
Number Two is write a shopping list. And stick to it. An experiment 10 years ago showed that 50% of the food in the shopping cart was not on the list. But if you stick to the list you are deciding ahead of time before the temptation is there. In fact that’s one of the most effective tools for fighting obesity, shopping lists and writing down what you eat.
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