Have you ever wanted to exercise more, or make more calls to clients, or just avoid junk food? And instead of supporting you, your mind and habits stop you from making these improvements?
You’re about to find out how to take control of your habits and have them lead you to the life that you want. Charles Duhigg is the author of The Power of Habit. It’s a book that will change your life and your startup’s chances to achieve your vision.
In this interview, I want to show you how habits are controlling you today and give you an understanding of how you can control your own habits.
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Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit
Charles Duhigg is the author of The Power of Habit, about the science of habit formation in our lives, companies and societies.
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Hey everyone, my name is Andrew Warner, I’m the founder of Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart. And, have you ever been shocked by how much internal resistance you have when you try to improve your life? Like, maybe you want to exercise more, or make more calls to clients, or just avoid junk food. And instead of supporting you, your mind and your habits stop you from making these improvements that you know are good for your life.
Well you’re about to find out how to take control of your habits and have them lead you to the life that you want. Charles Duhigg is the author of this book, “The Power of Habit.” Mmm, I love this book. I love a lot of books, but this book I loved so much more than I can even tell you in this interview. It’s terrific! The Power of Habit is a book that will change your life and your start-up’s chances to achieve your vision.
And, my outline for this interview is to break it up into to two parts. The first part, guys, I hope to blow your mind by showing you how habits are controlling you today. And, give you an understanding of how you can control your own habits. And in the second part, I want you to see how to use what you’ve learned to have real impact on your life. And we we’ll illustrate that by talking about Charles’ old habit of eating cookies and you’ll see how he stopped it and how you can control your habits in a similar way.
Charles that was a long intro, but thank you for doing this interview and thanks for explaining this all to us.
Charles: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.
Andrew: Alright, let’s show people what habits can do, good and bad. Starting with the story that you open up your book with about Lisa Allen. Can you tell us what us what were the challenges that she was facing? And then we’ll talk in a moment about what happened after.
Charles: So, Lisa Allen was someone who participated in one of the largest studies that is ongoing right now, trying to understand the neurological roots of habit formation. It is sponsored by a group of researchers who have received funding from the National Institutes of Health.
In Lisa’s case, she was kind of this interesting example. When she came into the project, she told the researchers her story which was that she was smoking and drinking since she was a teenager. She was obese. She was completely physically inactive. She had trouble holding down a job. And, one day her husband came home, while she was in thirties, and told her that he was divorcing her. He had fallen in love with another woman. This set off a chain of events that essentially, completely transformed Lisa’s life. But what was really interesting, is that her life completely changed because her habits shifted, almost without her really understanding what was going on.
Andrew: And when it changed, what was she like afterwards?
Charles: She’s an amazing woman! She’s run a number of marathons. She’s started her own company. If you would meet her, her legs are amazing. She looks like the specimen of health. She gave up drinking. She gave up smoking. She gave up overeating. She is also one of these people that when you meet her she is almost effervescent in her energy. She’ll tell you that her life transformed in this three year period because basically all the patterns of how she lived completely changed.
Andrew: And, we’ll talk about what happened in her mind and I’ve got some visualization, some images that I think will help people understand but I’m wondering if being in such a bad situation where she was smoking, she was drinking, and then her husband broke up with her. Does having that low help you change things? Does it make it easier to change?
Charles: Yes. One of the things that we know is that, yes, very often– within psychology there’s a group of people who are known as quantum changers, which basically comes to this question, why do some people transform, overhaul their lives entirely in a very short period of time? That’s what the NIH researchers were studying. What’s interesting is we’re attracted to the narratives of people who hit rock bottom, right? Everything is terrible and then all of a sudden it all becomes good, but what the researchers have discovered is that although those narratives have a greater social purchase, it’s actually not an accurate representation of how all people change. It turns out that people change whether they hit rock bottom or not at about the same rate and about the preponderance.
You don’t have to have everything be terrible to remake your life. It’s just that people who, everything is terrible and then they remake their lives, those stories are so much more dramatic. Most people, when they actually achieve change– and people change their habits all the time, we know now, oftentimes without really understanding what’s going on. Most of the people who actually change, they’re changing small portions of their lives. They’re happy with 90% of their lives and they’re just changing 10% of it, but it’s the stories of people who change 90% that we’re attracted to.
Andrew; That’s a good thing. That means that I don’t have to wait till I’m completely down and out before I can see some impact and the same thing goes for our great audience here. Let me put up a visual here. This is some of the technology that we use in the courses; I want to try and bring it into the interview. We’re taking a step back from humans and let’s look at a rat. Can you explain to us what’s going on in this image? For anyone who’s listening to this and not watching it, there’s a mouse, there’s a barrier, a ‘click’ and then chocolate at the end of this little tiny maze. Beyond what I’ve just described here that’s on the screen Charles, what are we understanding from this?
Charles: This gets to our understanding of the neurology-habit formation. This was an experiment that was done about 15 years ago at M.I.T. A woman named Ann Graybiel’s laboratory and the reason why Graybiel is a seminal figure within habit studies. What she did is she perfected a technology where they could put hundreds of little electrodes inside a mouse’s brain to observe its neurological activity as it’s behaving. They did this operation on dozens of mice and then they would put each mouse in this T-shaped maze and the same thing would happen every single time. There would be a ‘click’, the partition would move so the mouse could run up and down the maze, and there was chocolate at the end of the maze. Each mouse would do the same thing – it was actually a rat- when they got into the maze for the first time. They would basically wander up and down the central aisle, almost lazily. They would scratch on the walls and sniff in the air. It would seem as if they weren’t looking that hard for the chocolate but from the sensors that were inside the animal’s brain, what Graybiel saw was that even though it seemed like the animal’s were acting without purpose, weren’t working very hard, their brains were working furiously hard the entire time. They were thinking as fast as they could. Whenever they scratched on the wall, the scratching centers would light up and the sniffing centers would light up. This was really interesting because what it told us is that when we’re faced with a new stimuli, our brains work incredibly hard to try and process what is going on.
Charles: Over time they drop they drop the same rats in the same maze over and over and over again. As the rats learn about the maze, they can run faster and faster and faster to the chocolate. After a while they stop sniffing, they stop scratching – they just go directly for the chocolate. What’s interesting is that inside the animal’s brain mental activity decreased significantly. It was almost as if as this pattern became a habit, to run to the chocolate, it was as if the rat’s brain stopped working, as if it went to sleep, for instance.
Andrew: I think I’ve got the visual of before and after. Let me see if I can bring it up here. This is what was going on before. We can see, let’s shrink it down so people can really see it. We can see a lot of activity in the beginning, just as that ‘click’ is going off and they can start taking that maze, and a lot of activity at the end where they get the chocolate – I guess that’s the excitement. Throughout we see constant activity even though we don’t notice it and we think, hey, it’s a T-shaped maze rat, you should be able to get to the end; they have this whole thing going on. Now, in time you’re saying this is what it becomes instead. A lot less activity and- guys we’re going to bring this back to you and away from mice and rats in a moment. But we have to understand what’s going on in our minds by seeing this experiment. This is what happened after the rat got used to the T shaped maze.
Charles: That’s exactly right. And there’s something important to recognize in this graph that you’re looking at right now. Which is that, the middle the activity decreases, but there’s still a spike of activity at the beginning of the behavior when it hears the click, and then at the end when it finds the chocolate. This is the neurological pattern, structure of a habit. 40 to 45% of your day we know from a study that was done at Duke University are habits. And every single time you’re in the grip of a habit this is what’s happening in your brain. There’s this spike of activity in the beginning, a que that essentially triggers an automatic behavior, that tells your brain, okay now it’s time to let the automatic urge take over. And then your brain kind of goes to sleep as you act out the behavior. And then at the end when you find the reward, then your brain suddenly shakes itself awake and sort of pays attention to what just happened.
Andrew: Here’s the part that was especially enlightening to me. I’m going to bring it up and take my face off the screen here for a moment. Right here at the beginning the rat is feeling almost as excited as he would feel when he got the chocolate. And so what I took away from that was when I have a good habit which is, for example, lacing up my sneakers in the morning and then going for a run and then getting that runners high maybe 40 minutes, an hour after I’ve started the run. If it’s a habit, as soon as I put my sneakers on and I lace up I feel excited about it, almost the same excitement that I have at the high. And the same thing happens, apparently, with my bad habits. Where if I take a step away from this desk because of e-mails stressing me out, I don’t know how to say no to somebody, as soon as I take a step away from this desk before I even make it into our kitchenette here in the office and grab a potato chip from the vending machine, that stepping away gives me the same enthusiasm, the same excitement as putting that first chip in my mouth. Am I understanding you right?
Charles: That’s exactly right. And this is why habits seem to have such power. It’s because the cue over time, so every habit has these three parts, what we refer to as the habit. A cue, a routine and a reward.
Andrew: Here, let me bring that up. And I promise the whole thing will not be visuals. But I do happen to have some to make sure the beginning part of this conversation people follow. A cue, a routine, a reward. The cue, pushing away from my desk. The routine, walking over to the kitchenette. The reward, putting that first beautiful chip in my mouth and enjoying it. That’s the habit loop.
Charles: That’s exactly right. And what’s happening neurologically is that. You’re exactly right, that over time that cue will not only trigger the behavior, it will trigger the expectation of the reward. You will actually begin experiencing the reward as soon as you see the cue. And this is good and bad. Because in some respects it means that it’s easier to go running, right? Because you start experiencing that pleasure that you feel from the endorphins, and the endocanoboits, and neurotransmitters that exercise produces for you, the runners high. But on the other hand it also means that as soon as you think about that potato chip, as soon as you’re exposed to the cue, you begin craving those potato chips. And if you don’t actually get the reward, if you don’t satisfy that craving, then what actually happens in your brain is a neurological pattern that looks like depression. You experience a mini depression. If you begin expecting and experiencing a reward, and then the reward doesn’t materialize to satisfy the craving.
Andrew: Okay. So this is what’s going on in our heads every day, good and bad. This is what we’re fighting against. This stuff that’s going on, even on the outside that doesn’t look like anything’s happening. Like when we watch a mouse go through a t-shaped maze, nothing seems to be going on. Of course he’s walking, but there’s a whole lot going on in his head. Same thing’s happening with us. Let’s now break it down, step by step, and make sure that we understand it. Here’s one of the things that you saw we need to know, looking at my notes. Connect the habit to a cue. Right. The habit that we want, connect to a cue. And you gave an example in your book of Claude Hopkins who did something with a brand called Pepsodent. Can you tell people, what did he do with it?
Charles: So, Claude Hopkins a hundred years ago was the most famous adman in the United States. People don’t really know who he is today. But he was the guy who took all these brands, Schlitz Beer, Pork and Beans, he made them into household names. So a friend of his came to him and said, hey I found this new toothpaste that I think can be a big hit named Pepsodent. The problem was that at that time nobody brushed their teeth in America. It was something that only sort of the upper class did and they maybe did it once a week. So Hopkins knew that if he was going to sell toothpaste he had to get people brushing every single day. And the first step was he looked for an obvious cue. So he read all these medical textbooks. And he found one that talked about the film on people’s teeth. And he realized that for eons people have had film on their teeth and it’s never bothered them, but it’s something that comes about every single day after you fall asleep, if you’ve had a long day at work. If you tell people to run their tongue across their teeth, they’ll feel that film. As soon as I say it, you do it. It’s almost automatic.
Andrew: I did it throughout the book, too, when you said it.
Charles: That film will come back every single day. What Hopkins thought was, here is a daily cue; if I can convince people that that film is a bad thing, then every single day they’re going to have an urge to brush their teeth because they’ll be reminded by the cue.
Andrew: If we want to take control of our lives and not just allow marketers to take control of our lives, we have to think about that. We can’t just say I’m going to run more often in my life, I’m going to eat fewer cookies. We have to think of the cue that’s getting us to eat cookies or the cue that we’re going to connect and we’ll talk in a moment about how to do this, the cue that we’re going to connect to running more often, it’s not just going to happen because we want it to, because we’re dreaming it will because we read a book that told us it should.
Charles: That’s exactly right. Take running as a great example. A big experiment that was done in Germany about trying to instill exercise habits showed that people who develop these exercise habits are people who choose a cue, so they always put their running clothes next to their bed or they always go running at the same time every day, or they put on their running shoes before they have breakfast. You want to give your mind a whole bunch of different things that it can make into a cue. It’ll only latch on to one of them, but in general, all cues fall into one of five categories. It’s usually a time of day, a particular place, a certain emotion, the presence of certain people, or a preceding behavior that’s become ritualized. If you want to create a habit, try and do all five of those and your brain will latch on to one of them and will make it a cue.
Andrew: I underestimated it when someone told it to me. I wasn’t running enough and a friend of mine said, you know what you need to do is you need to put your running clothes by your bed and that way the first thing you do is put them on. It sounded gimmicky to me. I did it because I respect him and he’s a guy who’s gone far but I thought this is just a self-help thing that you say to feel good. No, now I understand what part of it and why it’s effective. That’s what I need to do with everything.
Charles: It’s amazing how easy it becomes to go running when you establish this consistent cue.
Andrew: And how bad other cues are connected. How powerful it is that the first thing I do when I sit down and turn on my computer is go to email. The last thing I do before going to sleep might be I’m going to watch a movie to relax myself. It’s these cues, going to sleep means watching TV, or whatever it is. There’s something else though that he did, you said. You said the cue is what he recognized. Let’s go back to this image guys. The cue, which is on the far left, he recognized. The routine, he knew what he wanted people to get, but the reward is also what we need to pay attention to. We need to give ourselves the reward, right?
Charles: That’s exactly right. If you don’t have a reward, a habit will never form. A reward is why your neurology takes a certain pattern and makes it automatic. What’s actually happening is that cognition is moving from the prefrontal cortex, the area right behind our forehead, into our basal ganglia, which is about at the center of our skull- that’s where habits live. When the basal ganglia take over it feels like things happen automatically, but the basal ganglia only learn to develop a pattern if there’s a reward at the end.
Andrew: Does it have to be at the end of the pattern? We’ll talk about what his was for Pepsodent but I was wondering could the reward be that in twenty years from now, your teeth would still be there? Could it be five years from now you won’t have rot when you go the doctor and you won’t have a cavity, or does it need to be right-now a reward?
Charles: It basically needs to be a right-now. When you’re talking about your neurology, your neurology thinks in terms of milliseconds or at the most a couple of minutes. The answer to your question is a little bit complicated because sometimes when people say, oh, my teeth are still going to be in my mouth 20 years from now, they can feel a sense of pride from that, so that’s an immediate reward. But in general, the faster the reward is delivered after the behavior the more strongly your brain will encode the relationship between that particular behavior and a given reward and that’s what really makes the habit form.
Andrew: I didn’t realize how much of a Skype person you were but I should have. When I called you and Skype went to your phone. Can you go to “do not disturb”? Are you on a Mac?
Charles: Sure. Absolutely. I don’t even know how to do that.
Andrew: I’ll show you. I teach people how to do this everyday. If you go to the top of your screen near the clock, but over to the left, you’ll see a green bubble. Select that and then go to the red bubble, which is “do not disturb”.
Charles: Green, at the top of my screen…
Andrew: Near the clock there’s a green looking bubble on most people’s computers.
Andrew: Or cloudy looking thing? I guess not.
Charles: No. Is there a menu that I can do it?
Andrew: Let me see.
Charles: Hopefully you can cut this out.
Andrew: No. We keep it all in. Let the audience see exactly what goes into putting this together. Actually, I don’t know what it is, but we can live with the sound then. It’s fine. It’s not worth spending too much time on.
Charles: Change status, do not disturb.
Andrew: Oh good.
Charles: Here we go. Thank you. I don’t know who that was.
Andrew: For me, the benefit of running, the reward isn’t years from now I’ll be healthier, it may not even be 45 minutes from now you’re going to get a runner’s high. What it could be is as soon as I walk out the door, I listen to a podcast or something that’s interesting and that’s the reward that I’m connecting.
Charles: That’s exactly right. I think there’s probably a couple of rewards that are happening. There’s a reward that comes as soon as you walk out. There’s a habit that actually isn’t the running habit, it’s the leaving for running habit and you’re getting a reward by listening to a podcast. Then there’s the habit of actually running itself. Motivating you to actually start putting one foot in front of the other. Probably the reward you’re getting from that is this runner’s high. It’s an enormously powerful reward, we know. Usually when we look at habits in people’s lives, they become a series of habits. That doesn’t mean you have to diagnose every single habit to change it. Usually there’s one habit, keystone habit, that unlocks all the other behaviors, but it is interesting to think about rewards, that there’s usually a number of rewards, something like running everyday, that gets you through the different stages of that run.
Andrew: You mentioned the phrase “the keystone habit,” we’re going to explain that to the audience and how, if they can find that one keystone habit, so much else will change for them and that’s what happened to the woman whose story we told you at the top of the interview, Lisa Allen [SP]. For now, just to understand it step by step, the reward for Pepsodent was, it wasn’t teeth being clean years from now, what was it? What did he pick on?
Charles: This is what’s really interesting. Claude Hopkins made the same assumption you did. The reward is going to be a beautiful smile, but the problem is that’s a terrible reward because it takes months of brushing your teeth to make your teeth whiter. It turns out, and Hopkins didn’t even really realize this at the time, the guy had invented Pepsodent had added these chemicals to it to try and give it a minty flavor. It worked. It tasted like mint, but in addition, those same chemicals were irritants and when they got on people’s gums and tongue, they would make them tingle. Here’s what’s interesting. Within weeks of people starting to use Pepsodent, they came to equate that tingling with cleanliness. That was the reward. So when they would lay down to go to bed or they’d walk out the door in the morning, if they didn’t feel that tingling, they felt like their mouths were unclean. It’s the same thing that happens to us right now. The way that you know that you forgot to brush your teeth, is that you’re used to that tingling, that minty fresh feeling, that is not mint, it’s chemicals that have been added to produce that. In fact, that sense of tingling does nothing to clean your teeth, but it’s there because you need an immediate reward to create a habit and toothpaste manufacturers know this. That’s why they add it.
Andrew: That’s another thing that once you read the book, “The Power of Habit,” you guys are going to start to notice these little things like how your toothpaste feels in your mouth, the bubbles in it, the way that it tingles against your gums and tongue. Connect the habit to a cue, give a reward, now we want to change a habit, maybe sitting down at my computer is getting me to get into email instead of doing something that I’d like to do. Let’s say the first thing I want to do is blog or journal, or whatever it is. To change a habit, you suggest that we connect a routine to an existing cue and you tell a story, you’re such a good story teller. The way you unravel these stories is fantastic because you peak our curiosity and you make us want to know what’s going to happen. From the first sentence that you use to tell the story, and people can pick this up as we talk. They don’t even have to get “The Power of Habit” to believe that you’re a great story teller. You talk about to change of habit, connect a routine to an existing cue and you say Alcoholics Anonymous did that. How did they do it?
Charles: There’s this thing known as the Golden Rule of Habit Change, which is exactly what you just said. It’s very, very hard to essentially completely transform a habit and change the cue and the routine and the reward. It’s almost too much change for someone to accomplish at once. The most effective way to change a habit, is to keep an old cue, deliver an old reward and just change the routine, just change the behavior. AA is a great example of this. Alcoholics Anonymous is interesting because it’s one of the least scientific programs on earth. It was designed by people in the 1930s who didn’t have any background in psychology or medicine. The reason why, for instance, there’s 12 steps in a 12 step program is because the guy who wrote the 12 steps was sitting in bed and he wrote them in about 45 minutes and there was a Bible next to the bed. There’s 12 steps because there’s 12 apostles in the Bible. This is why AA works, and it’s worked for millions of people, is because it adheres to this Golden Rule of Habit Change. It says, ‘A lot of people who drink, drink because of dysfunctional habits.’ They come home from work and they’ve had a terrible day. There’s your cue. They decide, ‘I’m going to go to the bar, I’m going to have a drink, I’m going to see a couple of friends, I’m going to get my problems off my chest.’ There’s the routine. The reward is the sense of relief from tension, which is actually one of the most powerful rewards in psychology. What AA says is, ‘We’re going to change your habit. We’re going to keep the same cue and deliver the same reward and just change the routine.’ If you come home from work and you’ve had a terrible day at work, instead of going to a bar, go to a meeting. If you’ve ever been to an AA meeting, what they do is they design the meetings to be these intensely, emotional experience. Someone stands up in front of the room, they tell their life story, all these awful things that have happened to them. Then everyone in the audience is invited to stand up and tell their terrible life story. There’s an emotional catharsis that’s a relief from tension that occurs by going to the meeting and the reward is exactly the same. You basically walk away from the meeting feeling like you got this thing off your chest. The cue’s the same, the reward’s the same, all that’s changed is that instead of going to a bar, you go to a meeting. For millions of people, that’s been able to change their drinking habits so that they’re now sober.
Andrew: Or I get frustrated in the middle of the day because my technology goes out or maybe I’m not prepared for an interview and I don’t do my research, at the end of the interview I might feel really frustrated and then go across the street to the bar and get a beer. That might be what my cue is, that frustration and then I get drunk and that would be the reward. What you’re saying also is, that they also have a, what is it called where they have a mentor, someone who they could talk to?
Andrew: That also replaces it. The phone call to the person who’s your sponsor, they call up the sponsor and they get the same reward. Actually I have an image for that. This is the before and after. This is what we’re going for, for ourselves. We look at the routine that we currently have, what’s the cue? We keep the cue. What’s the routine? That’s what we’re going to change and the reward needs to stay the same. For them it was cue/frustration, drink/reward, get your mind off of it. We keep the cue, change it to having a conversation with our sponsor or in a meeting and the reward is that happiness that we have afterwards.
Charles: I think for people in your audience, particularly when you’re an entrepreneur, your day is filled with frustration. There are so many negative emotional cues that come from starting a business. Basically entrepreneurship is [??] is frustration after frustration followed eventually by riches. But it’s really hard to build the [??] around those frustrations. It’s really easy to get into a habit of going and having a beer or blowing up at your employees or feeling really badly about yourself, like you’re never going to be successful. Once you recognize those cues, you can start to change the routines and the key is to give yourself some reward to encode that behavior. Because if you’re blowing up at an employee, if you’re going having a beer, if you’re beating up on yourself, there is a reward inherent in that. Beating up on yourself has this reward of essentially making you feel like you’re going to work harder. It’s this huge motivational reward, but it’s not healthy. You can get that same motivational reward by doing something positive instead of something negative. Once you understand how to diagnose the habits, you can change the behaviors, change the routines by identifying and playing with the cues and rewards.
Andrew: I’m so glad that you brought it back to the people in the audience. You’re right. One of the cues that we could have is that we get turned down by someone. It could be a client who we called, it could be someone online who cancels their membership and then we go into our routine which is, ‘Life stinks. I shouldn’t be doing any of this. I’m not right for an entrepreneur. The world is out to get me. They only want to support these handful of entrepreneurs who get big bencher [SP], funding.’ Then you go through that routine, you get the reward of disconnecting from the problem, feeling like it’s not you. You saying it could be the opposite, we can take that same cue and have a different routine. Maybe the routine is, ‘When this frustration happens, I’m going to code. I’m going to spend an hour of coding, or I’m going to spend an hour emailing people or I’m going to spend an hour writing some blog post that I’ve been meaning to.’ Whatever that is, that could be the new routine and the reward is still the feeling of stress relief because now you’ve let it go.
Charles: Exactly. Not only that but you’ve let it go in a more positive way. That’s an even more powerful reward. It’s the same basic reward, but you’re delivering it even more powerfully to yourself because instead of just saying, ‘Screw the world,’ you’re saying, ‘I’m changing. I’m closer to victory.
Andrew: Then there’s a problem. And you use the story of a football coach to explain it, but I want to save that for people who are actually going to get the book to read. Let’s keep with Bib’s story of Alcoholics Anonymous to explain it. The problem is this, that some people everything works out for them through Alcoholics Anonymous. They go through the same thing that we showed, the same cue routine rewards system that we talked about, and life is good. For others something happens, they fall off the wagon. And you looked at both of them and you said, what happens to these people who stick with it, even in the toughest times, and how are they different from the people who eventually fall off the wagon? Do you know what I’m talking about?
Charles: Yeah, absolutely. So this is a really interesting question which is, what we know from scientific research is that a whole bunch of people managed to change their habits. And then exactly what you pointed out, some people will revert, they’ll relapse, and other people won’t. And it seems like when relapses occur they particularly occur at stressful moments. So alcoholics is a great example, right? Someone will give up drinking and their mom will get cancer, or they’ll be going through a divorce, or they’ll get fired from their job. And all of a sudden they fall off the wagon and they revert to their old habits. And so researchers wanted to understand, why do some people manage to make it through those thought moments with their new habits intact, and other people fall apart. This is what they found out, is that there seem to be two factors that make it more likely for change to become permanent. The first of which is changing within a group. That there’s something about a social dynamic where when you’re surrounded by other people who are also trying to change, there’s a positive reinforcement there. So even though intellectually you might know that you can give up drinking, emotionally you might have a moment where you basically don’t believe it. And at those moments you need to be surrounded by other people who tell you, look you can do this.
Andrew: And if I can look at it and see, they did do it and if they can do it then, ahhh, then I accept it. It is possible.
Charles: That’s exactly right, that’s right. Because part of it is positive reinforcement, right? I like these people, I think I’m like these people. If they can do it I can do it. Part of it is also basically peer pressure which is, that I look across the room and I say, you know Joe? Joe has been sober for 12 years and Joe’s kind of a moron. I actually think I’m smarter than Joe. And if Joe can do it I definitely can do it. But the other thing that happens is that there seems to be something important about learning how to believe. And this is what we’ve learned is that belief is kind of like a muscle. You can exercise it and it can get stronger. So one of the thing’s that AA does is it tells you that you should believe in a higher power. Now this is kind of controversial. They don’t have to find what a higher power is right? For some people it’s God, for some people it’s, whatever they . . .
Andrew: I heard them say it could be anything from God to a stone, it doesn’t matter.
Charles: But they insist you believe in something bigger then yourself. And researchers wanted to know why, why was this belief so important? What they figured out is that when people go to AA and they practice believing in something they strengthen their belief muscle until eventually they’re able to believe in themselves. So even when they hit that crisis moment. Even when it seems like the world is awful, they’ve worked up the ability to believe that their change is permanent. And that seems to make it permanent.
Andrew: And in those moments where it feels like they can’t do it, they believe that there’s something bigger. Or they see that Joe is a schmuck and he did it, and that’s what helps them.
Charles: Exactly. And so the real takeaway here is if you want to change, if you want to be an entrepreneur, if you want to do anything that’s hard, find a group of other people who are going through the same thing. And genuinely share with them and practice believing in each other. You will build up that muscle and you will benefit from it, but you have to practice it and you have to find other people to practice with.
Andrew: All right, three other big things that I want to cover here and I know we only have about ten minutes. One of them is going to be keystone habits because we promised that to the audience, and that’s huge. Second is going to be why writing down the moments that matter is critical. And I think that’s going to help us with Mixergy make all the things that people are learning in the interviews and the courses we do much more impactful. And we’ll talk about that and how people can integrate into their businesses and lives the way that we plan to here at Mixergy. And the final thing is that cookie. That’s one of the first things I saw you. I saw you tell the story about the cookie on Amazon and I got it, I got with this idea was.
So let’s start with keystone habits. We talked about it earlier. What is a keystone habit and do you have an example of it in action?
Charles: Yeah, a keystone habit is, what researchers have found is that some habits seem to matter more than others. That for some reason when some habits change it sets off a chain reaction that makes other habits more malleable. So for a lot of individuals exercise is a keystone habit. When people start habitually exercising they begin eating better. Their dieting habits change. And that makes sense right? Because you feel healthy. But what’s interesting is that when people start exercising habitually they also start using their credit cards less. They tend to do their dishes earlier in the day. They procrastinate less at work. All these other habits start changing when you begin exercising, and the reason why, researchers say, is because exercise is a keystone habit that unlocks other patterns. Great example is that within companies, we know that there’s a lot of keystone habits that influence the culture of an organization. Take a company that’s built around innovation, for instance, Apple that I write about. Apple has a number of habits around innovation. They build a culture around innovation. They reward innovation, they brainstorm in a very specific way. When you’re developing a new product, they go through all of these habits of how you talk about it and how you share information. That’s because innovation, and habits are an innovation for Apple, is a keystone habit that influences everything else in the company. So they pay a lot of attention to that.
Andrew: How do we find what our keystone habits are going to be?
Charles: It’s different from company to company and person to person. In general, the way that I identify the keystone habit is to try to figure out what pattern you think most influences either the culture of your life or the culture of your organization. That’s why exercise is such a big deal is because so many people take self worth from exercising every single day, or in a company that we write about named Alcoa, which was the largest aluminum company in the world and was run by Paul O’Neill, ended up becoming Treasury Secretary. At Alcoa, the keystone habit was worker safety because manufacturing aluminum is really dangerous and Paul O’Neill needed to communicate to the company that he cares about, and values every single worker. If you’re trying to figure out the keystone habit in your life or your organization, sit down and say, ‘What pattern, if I changed it, would change my culture?’ That’s going to tell you what your keystone habit is.
Andrew: Here’s the next one that I wanted to talk to you about, the idea of writing the moments that matter. You talk about a Scottish experiment with rehab patients. I want to learn from that. What can you tell us about that and that’s the part that I’m hoping to bring here to Mixergy somehow. I haven’t figured out yet how.
Charles: This is a really fascinating experiment. This involved two Scottish hospitals and they were looking at patients who had gotten hip or knee replacement. The thing about hip or knee replacement, particularly if you’re elderly, it’s so painful to recover from. What you need to do is start walking immediately, but it’s excruciating to walk. They took two groups of people and with half of them they said, ‘Write down those moments when you think the pain is going to be most acute and come up with a plan of what you’re going to do.’ Essentially, try to write out a habit. The cue’s going to be this moment, this inflection point of intense pain, write out the automatic routine you want.
Andrew: And nothing else? Just say, ‘When this pain happens, I’m going to get up and go to the mirror,’ whatever it is.
Charles: Exactly. For instance, one of the guys wrote down, “I know it’s going to be painful when I go up to go to the bathroom, so my routine is that as soon as I stand up, I’m going to force myself to take three steps. No matter how painful it is.” The other people, that other group, they didn’t ask them to write out this plan, but they taught them how to do rehab. The exact same lessons, otherwise. The group that had written out the inflection points and had written a plan for those inflection points, recovered twice as fast. They were walking twice as fast as the people who didn’t write anything out. They were putting on their own clothes and driving cars, going up stairs twice as fast. Within rehabilitation, that’s an incredible statistic. That almost never happens. The only difference was that they had tried to anticipate these inflection points of pain and had, ahead of time, written out a plan for dealing with them. An automatic behavior to unfold.
Andrew: In my personal life, if I’m having trouble getting out of bed I might want to write a plan for what happens when I’m exhausted and hit the snooze button. Or in a business, you talk about Starbucks, they have their employees make a plan for what they’re going to do when a customer yells or gets angry, or when a crisis happens. What are you going to do? Take a pencil and paper and write it down and that’s all they’re telling us to do, and it has that kind of impact.
Charles: It’s almost magical. The reason why, this is true for entrepreneurs too, because if you think about all the setbacks you’re going to have in starting a company, people tend to shy away from those negative thoughts. They don’t want to anticipate setbacks, they don’t want to anticipate problems. What happens is we don’t plan for them, we don’t have any automatic response and when they occur, not only do we have to think about what to do but we’re overwhelmed by this awful thing that just happened, this painful feeling or the disappointment of not closing a sale. If you anticipate those inflection points ahead of time and write out a response, you are much more likely to make that response into a habit so that you can pre-program how you deal with disappointment in a much more positive way.
Andrew: When a potential customer yells at me and says I would never buy from you,’ I will call one other person right away, without even getting up to go get water or coffee.’
Charles: Exactly. The reward there is that you’re going to feel great. Normally you’d feel terrible because this customer turned you down but if you know that automatically you’re going to go sell more, you have that sense of fulfillment and accomplishment and pride that’s deserved.
Andrew: All right. Finally, I know we only have about 3 minutes and I have so many notes on this so I’m going to let you just tell it your way.
You showed how we can take this whole understanding that we just covered in the beginning of this interview and in throughout your book ‘The Power of Habit’, you talked about how we can actively use it and how you did it with this habit of eating cookies.
Charles: So, I had this terrible habit when I started writing the book that every afternoon. I’m a reporter at The New York Times. We have a cafeteria on the 14th floor. Every afternoon I would get up and I would go eat a cookie. And I was putting on weight and it was frustrating.
I put a note on my computer monitor that said ‘No more cookies’ and every day I managed to ignore that and go eat a cookie in the cafeteria so when I was talking to a psychologist I was like ask them, how do I change this habit? and what they said is you need to diagnose the cue and diagnose the reward.
So I started with the cue. I mentioned the 5 categories that [??] before and everyday, when I felt that cookie urge, I would write down what time it was and where I was sitting and where I was. Who was nearby. What emotion I felt. What I was doing. And I found after about 3 or 4 days that the thing that was consistent from day to day was the cookie urge always struck between about 3:15 and 3:45. My cue was the time of day.
So you have to figure out, is the reward that you’re hungry and the cookie satisfies hunger, in which case, you should eat an apple. So one day I went up and instead of getting a cookie, I got an apple. Or is it that you enjoy the burst of energy that the sugar gives you, so the next day I went up and got a cup of coffee instead of a coookie. Or is it that you just want that taste sensation, so one day I went up and took a whole bunch of Splenda and put it on my tongue to see if that satisfied the taste need.
Andrew: And by the way, with that point done, is something that you mentioned in the book, don’t freak out, don’t try to solve it at this point. What you’re doing is just walking in like a researcher, trying to figure out what exactly is it that’s pulling you to this. You’re just trying to learn and that’s why you do things like put Splenda on your tongue.
Sorry, I shouldn’t interrupt.
Charles: That’s exactly right. You need to take all of the pressure off yourself and just say I’m collecting data. My job is a data writer.
So this is what I figured out. It’s that everyday, when I went to the cafeteria to get a cookie, that’s when I saw my colleagues from work and I could gossip with them and it was my one break of the day to talk to other people.
It was the socialization that I was craving. The cookie was a convenient excuse to go see other people. And so I re-programmed the habit. I knew what the cue was, I knew what the reward was so now everyday at about 3: 30, I stand up, I look around the newsroom for someone to go talk to, I walk over to their desk, I talk to them for 10 or 15 minutes, we gossip about other people and then I walk back to my own desk and the urge for cookie is totally gone. And I’ve lost like 12 pounds.
The point is that the cue stayed the same and the reward stayed the same and once I understood what they were, I could come up with a new routine, a new behavior and change the habit.
Andrew: All right. The book is ‘The Power of Habit’ and guys, let me just take a moment here and just say this is essentially what you saw on this interview is what we stand for here at Mixergy. I could have done like a blow it away, 30 second video that would have maybe excite people and gone viral. That’s not what it’s about.
It’s about showing you that ideas are like super-powers. That if you have an understanding of yourself, it is like having a superpower over yourself or over your organization and that’s the goal here at Mixergy. To give you these ideas and give you these superpowers so that you can go out there and have some real impact and do some real good in the world.
Today’s burst of superpowers came from Charles and I urge you to get ‘The Power of Habit’. You’re not even selling this book anymore. I asked you to come here as a favor to me because I know you promoted this a long time ago. I’m promoting it like nuts, you’re done promoting it. I just wanted you to come here and teach it to the audience. So I’m so grateful to you for saying yes.
Charles: I appreciate you for having me on. This is great.
Andrew: I thank you and thank you all for watching and being a part of Mixergy. Bye, guys.
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