Eating cookies or socializing: Changing the habit loop

Coworkers in cafeteria
Before Charles Duhigg could lose weight, he needed to understand the cue that took him to the cafeteria every day to buy a cookie.

Why did he eat a cookie as a mid-afternoon break?

Every day at about 3:30 Charles Duhigg would go to the cafeteria, buy a cookie and chat with his co-workers. This habit had led to a weight gain of eight pounds. If he wanted to lose weight, the experts said, he first had to figure out his habit loop.

How do our brains create habits?

Brain researchers found that after rats learned to navigate a maze, they essentially turned off the decision-making parts of their brains. We do much the same with many of our daily activities. We operate on auto-pilot with things like brushing our teeth and backing out of the driveway.

It’s a three-step process

  1. A cue, or trigger, tells your brain to turn on automatic and which habit to use.
  2. A routine takes over. This can be physical or mental or emotional.
  3. A reward helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.

Over time, this loop — cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward — becomes more and more automatic. Most cues and rewards are very subtle, and we might not notice them. But our neural system does, and it uses them to build automatic behaviors.

These patterns will continue unless we make conscious decisions to change the pattern, or someone else steps in to change the pattern.

The cookie-eating trigger

“What was the cue?” Duhigg asked himself. “Hunger? Boredom? Low blood sugar? And what was the reward? The taste of the cookie itself? The temporary distraction from my work? The chance to socialize with colleagues?”

He tried various things to see which one provided the right reward. He took a walk outside; he bought coffee or an apple instead of a cookie.

It turned out that he wanted to socialize. When he walked to a colleague’s desk and chatted for a few minutes, his cookie urge was gone.

For a few days Duhigg kept track of where he was, what he was doing and what time it was when the cookie urge appeared. He found that every day around 3:30 he needed a break.

His new habit is to get up from his desk at around 3:30, stretch, wander over to a colleague’s desk and chat for a few minutes. The cookie urge has gone away, and he has lost 21 pounds (12 of them by stopping the cookie habit).

We are all creatures of habit

Our daily habits influence our decisions. One study found that our habits affect 45 percent of the choices we make every day.

Marketers, coaches and politicians are using the science of habit formation to make changes in shoppers, players and voters. You can use it too—to change your own habits, or to change the habits of others.

Can you make recycling or composting a habit in your audiences? Can you get people to turn out the lights or walk instead of drive? Studying habit formation will give you some clues.

The information in this post is from a New York Times article. The article is an excerpt from Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit.

Ed. note: In honor of my 10th anniversary in business, I am updating and reposting some of the posts from my (now-defunct) Sage Enviro blog to make it easier for people to find them.