How To Break a Bad Habit

Bad habits are strong, but also fragile—here's how to attack them at their weakest point.

Earnings and Yearnings: Get Out of the Groove

Confucius said, "Men's natures are alike; it is their habits that separate them." The best technique for dropping detrimental routines and instilling commendable ones has long been a holy grail of sorts for philosophers and psychologists. In his new book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg, a New York Times writer and M.B.A., distills all we know of habits into a simple model that can help you defeat the person who might just be your worst enemy on the job—you.

Your primary insight into habits is that they are strong, but also fragile—if attacked at their weakest points. Are we finally ready to declare victory over bad habits?

In the last decade, there's been this enormous transformation in our understanding of why our brain seeks out habitual behaviors and, more important, how delicate those neurological structures are.

A habit is a cue, a routine, and a reward. Most people focus on the routine, that's what we obsess about. But if you target the cue that sparks the behavior and the reward it provides, the behavior can be dislodged much more easily.

Where does willpower fit into this habit-loop model?

Starbucks provides an interesting case study on willpower. At one point they were hiring 7,000 people per day. A lot of them were recent high school graduates who didn't have much self-discipline. They would be great employees 90 percent of the time, but then a customer would start yelling at them and they would feel overwhelmed and would start crying or snap.

Starbucks management decided to use the habit-loop model. They called it the LATTE method. If a customer comes up and yells at you, you're supposed to listen, acknowledge, take action, thank them, and explain what you've done. This works! It calms down any customer. Management said to these workers, "We know there is this cue—an angry customer—but we're going to give you a routine you can follow without having to think about it." They took willpower out of the equation.

What is a keystone habit and how can people identify one?

A keystone habit unlocks all these other patterns in your life. Studies show that people who start exercising also start eating better and are more productive at school or in the office, for example.

A keystone habit must create what's called the science of small wins. It has to be something that yields immediate victories, such as: "I want to work for five minutes without checking my email." That's super-doable. And once you have some small wins, you start to see all of these unintended consequences. After the five minutes are up, you see that you were able to concentrate better.

We get a sense of identity from what we do, and when a keystone habit bolsters a positive sense of identity, it's powerful. You'll think: "I'm not the type of person who has to check email every two minutes; I can concentrate on a task."

For a keystone habit to stick, you must establish a cue and a reward. Maybe the cue is that at the top of each hour, you'll work for a certain amount of time without checking email. And then you have to give yourself a reward, even if it's searching the Internet for one minute. Our brains are programmed to create habits around behaviors that deliver a reward.

Over time the reward becomes less important. You begin deriving pleasure from the behavior itself. In fact, your brain is already experiencing the reward sensation, even before the reward arrives.

How do you squelch the bad habit of emotional negativity—complaining too much to coworkers or getting defensive with bosses?

Sit down and try to diagnose the trigger that is setting off this behavior. Then find a different routine that plays off the same cue and gives you the same reward.

For example, the reason I get defensive when someone is criticizing me is because I feel that I'm under attack. The reward I need is a sense of comfort. I can re-engineer my habit: The cue is someone criticizing me; the reward I'm seeking is comfort. So rather than becoming defensive, what I'm going to do is ask the person to explain what I've done well and what I've done poorly, so I get comfort and yet also get to hear their criticism. The studies on this are overwhelming: If you choose a routine ahead of time, before your emotions take over, behavior control becomes much easier.

You argue that companies suffer from bad habits just like employees. What are some common organizational vices?

Companies often have decision-making processes that aren't helpful. For example, research and development departments frequently follow cumbersome protocols that were put in place years ago, that no one questions.

The easiest time to change corporate routines is when an organization is in crisis. The King's Cross Fire of 1987, in the London Underground, is a great example. Thirty-one people died, and Parliament called for a big investigation. The guy who did the investigation came up with many recommendations, and the Underground blew him off because its procedures were so entrenched. So he created the perception of an ongoing crisis. A year after the fire, he held two weeks of public hearings and did interviews where he made it sound as if anyone who dared to ride the subway had a good chance of dying. By inflaming the sense of crisis, he created flexibility within the organization, and within six months, everything about the London Underground had changed.

How To Break a Bad Habit