Category Archives: The Power of Habit

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Why Do I Engage in Behavior that I Know is Self-Destructive?

Dear Emily,

I have a lot of habits I need to change, but the one that gets me in the most trouble is reverting back to my bad behaviors: yelling, smoking, drinking, and not performing at work. I do this when my partner and I disagree. I feel that by doing all of these behaviors I will somehow “show him!” But I only hurt myself, and yet I can’t stop. Help.

Sometimes Self-Destructive

Dear Sometimes,

I sympathize. There is a lot going on in your question, including some real insight. So, I’d like to start by pointing out a hidden gem in your question.

We often develop bad habits because they give us some sort of reward in the moment. For example, “I get to show him” is just another way of saying “I get to feel good and validated and justified in my bad behavior.” But in the end, those habits are leading to outcomes you don’t want. As you put it, “I only hurt myself.”

The insight, then, is this: there’s a difference between rewards and outcomes. We experience rewards from our behaviors immediately, whereas outcomes occur later—for better or worse.

This is why we have habits we can’t seem to change, even when they’re leading to long-term outcomes we don’t want. Often a reward is keeping us stuck.

To understand this better, we can look to the science of habit formation, and we can apply that science to reengineer our habits and gain control over them.

A habit is actually comprised of three distinct parts.

First, there’s a cue—the thing that triggers a specific routine. In your case, you know the cue: you and your partner disagree or have an argument.

Then there’s the routine, which is the behavior itself, or what we tend to think of as the habit. I yell, I smoke, I drink, I slack off at work. The cue launches us into a routine.

And finally, there’s a reward. This is what reinforces the routine, so that when the cue shows up again, we repeat the routine.

What’s the reward for your behavior? You’ve already identified at least part of it. You said, “I will somehow show him.” Uncovering the rewards behind the habits we wish we didn’t have often requires serious and honest introspection. Perhaps you believe that by “showing him” you’ll gain a sense of justice, or autonomy, or validation?

It sounds like up to this point you’ve been thinking about how to change your routine. But I think you’ll have better success of changing your behavior if you dig a little deeper into the reward you experience from that behavior.

Here’s why I say that. One thing we know about habits is this: you can’t break a bad habit; you can only replace it. We often call this The Golden Rule of habit change. People are ineffective at changing habits when they focus on what they want to stop doing. They become more effective when they focus on what they’ll start doing instead.

The cue probably isn’t going away. You’ll have another moment of disagreement and dissonance in that most important relationship of yours, and you’ll again want that soothing reward of feeling . . . validated, affirmed, justified? Currently, you’re trying to gain that reward by “showing him” and engaging in behaviors that only hurt you. But if you can find a replacement routine that delivers the reward you seek and leads to good long-term outcomes, you’ll be successful in changing that habit into one you feel good about.

So, here’s what I want you to do. Think hard about why your current behavior is so rewarding. Make a list of all the things it’s doing for you. Then look for an alternate behavior that will deliver some of those same rewards but lead to better outcomes.

The amazing thing about habits is if you can identify the cue and the reward, you can swap the routine in that loop and create a whole new habit.

You’re asking the right questions. You recognize how deeply and profoundly our daily habits can impact the most important things in our lives. You may be hurting yourself right now, but I know you can make this change.


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How to Turn a Resolution into a Habit

To help us celebrate the launch of our transformative new training course, The Power of Habit, please enjoy the following Q&A from bestselling author Charles Duhigg. To learn more about The Power of Habit Training, click here.

Dear Charles,

What does science say about resolutions? Do they work? Every New Year I see my friends, coworkers, and relatives make resolutions—and then often follow through for as much as two weeks! And then, as we all know, they often fall back into their old habits. I’ve done the same thing myself—and so I’ve stopped making resolutions altogether. But maybe we’re all just doing it wrong? What can a person do to turn a resolution into a habit?


Dear Irresolute,

I get it. It’s common to lose hope when we try to make a change—and then find ourselves, after the first rush of excitement, falling back into our old ways. And changing an entrenched habit is hard—particularly the kinds of habits we all tend to target when a new year rolls around. We start January with big dreams. We’re going to eat better! And exercise more! And get on top of our finances! And willpower often sustains these ambitions for a while—but then, the kids go back to school, and the idea of running again (I went two days ago!) seems unfair, and we’re sick of dieting. And so our willpower falters. And then falters again. And eventually we give up. We’ve all been there. It’s okay.

A major misconception around habits is that willpower is the source of sustained change. It is easy to see others who have healthy, effective, rock-solid habits and assume they have unnatural reserves of self-discipline. But research has shown that willpower is like a muscle; it gets tired when exerted for extended periods of time. So, building new habits is less about grit and more about strategy. You’ll increase your chances of success by understanding how to break a habit into pieces—and then making a plan. Let me explain.

The Science Behind Habits

A habit is comprised of three parts: a cue, a routine, and a reward. The cue is the prompt, something that triggers you to do a routine. The routine is the behavior we commonly think of as the habit. And the reward is the payoff, the satisfaction we get from meeting some craving or need. These three components, when put together, are called The Habit Loop. And every habit follows it: cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward.

Become the Scientist and the Subject

It’s not hard to spot our habitual routines, but we’re generally unconscious of the cues and rewards that trigger and reinforce them.

For example, while writing The Power of Habit, I had a habit of eating a chocolate chip cookie every day. And this habit of eating a cookie was starting to affect my health. In fact, I had gained eight pounds, and my wife had begun to make pointed comments. I had tried to change this habit. But even the sticky note on my computer—“Don’t eat cookies!”—didn’t seem to deter me.

So, to change my cookie-eating habit, I first had to identify the cues and rewards. I got a journal and began recording what happened immediately before and after I ate the cookie—my thoughts, my feelings, things happening in my environment. I wasn’t yet trying to change my habit, rather, I just wanted to identify what was happening. After a few days, I discovered that my cue was the time of day. Every day, at about 3pm, I would get the urge to walk to the office cafeteria, buy a cookie, then eat it while chatting with coworkers.

Identifying the reward was more challenging, though. Was it the sugar rush from eating a delicious cookie? A break from work? So, I ran some experiments. One day, I ate an apple to see if that tamed the craving. The next, I took a break by walking around the block. Pretty soon, I figured out that the best part of getting a cookie was chatting with coworkers. That social interaction was the reward.

As you set out to change a bad habit or build a new one, think of yourself as both scientist and subject. Study your habit first. Get clear on the possible cues and rewards that are reinforcing your habit loop. Then go to work on changing your behavior.

Engineer Your Environment

Once you know what your cues and rewards are, you can swap routines. In my case with the cookies, I kept the cue of 3pm, but instead of my usual routine of buying a cookie, instead I walked to a colleague’s desk and chatted for a few minutes. And the reward stayed constant: social connection and a break from work. The cookie urge disappeared.

Isolating cues and rewards aren’t just useful for changing a bad habit. You can use it to build new habits, too. The writer Maya Angelou developed the habit of writing every day by paying for a hotel room. In the room she kept a dictionary, the Bible, and Roget’s Thesaurus. She forbade housekeeping from the room, and asked that all decorations be removed. Every morning at 6:30, she drove to her hotel room and wrote until mid-afternoon. She would then return home and enjoy a proper dinner in the evenings. Then she’d repeat.

In effect, Maya Angelou had engineered her environment—implementing helpful cues while removing herself from the distracting ones—to prompt the routine of writing. And for years, she kept a bottle of sherry in the room, and she’d give herself a reward after she’d finished a particularly tough bit of writing.

You can do the same thing. If you’re trying to build the habit of doing yoga every morning at 5am, for example, you might keep your yoga mat at the foot of your bed. Lock your smartphone in a kitchen drawer instead of on your nightstand so you’re not tempted by it.

And reserve your cup of coffee or tea—or a nice rewarding smoothie!—until after your Downward Dog and Triangle Pose. That’s your reward. And over time, you’ll find it easier and easier—more habitual—to stretch every morning.


Finally, keep experimenting until the routine sticks. Changing habits is tough. Failing the first or even the second time doesn’t mean you’re incapable of change. Rather, it means you are making progress, and you are learning something from your experiment. Look again at your cues and rewards. If you forget to do your new routine, chances are the cues aren’t noticeable enough. If you remember to do your new routine but aren’t motivated, ask if you need a better reward. Even better, delay gratification of the guilty pleasures you already have. Binge on Netflix after your evening bike ride and games with the kids.

Good luck, and to great 2020 habits,

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How to Adapt to New Technologies at Work

Dear Emily,

My organization has just rolled out a new collaborative software tool and my manager let us know we are expected to use it. I’m excited about the new tool, as several people on my team have used it at previous organizations and swear by it. Yet, I still don’t use it. When I need to connect with someone, I send a quick email or—and this will make me seem old—I pick up the phone and call them. This has worked for me for years. I want to adapt to this new way of working, and I know I need to if I am going to stay relevant in today’s workplace. The problem is not my willingness to change; the problem is I keep defaulting to old habits. What should I do?

Old Dog Wanting to Learn New Tricks

Dear Seasoned, Mature, and Experienced Dog,

I hear you. I know what it’s like to get stuck in that space between wanting to change and actually changing. Everyone has been there at one point or another. We are wired to build habits. Our brains efficiently automate routine behaviors. And our habits serve us well . . . until they don’t.

It sounds like collaborating through email and phone over the last several years has served you well. But now you are faced with a change in your environment. Your old habits are holding on in the face of that change. You are in what we refer to as “the lag”—the delay between wanting to change and actually making a change. Living in the lag results in regret, frustration, anxiety, and unhappiness on a personal level, and diminished performance, engagement, and efficiency on an organizational level. The key to reducing that lag is to understand how habits work so you can change them.

Most of us think of a habit as a behavior. But that is just one part of the habit. A habit is actually a three-step process that begins with a cue (the trigger), that triggers a routine (the behavior, or what we tend to refer to as the habit), that results in a reward (the reason your brain remembers and repeats the routine). Without the cue and the reward, you don’t have a habit.

Right now, you have a habit that probably looks like this:

  • Cue—you need some information from someone
  • Routine—you email the person
  • Reward—you feel a sense of satisfaction for completing a task on your to-do list

This habit has worked well and now you want to change it. And change is the right word. Because as much as we might want to, you can never break a habit, you can only replace it. This is the Golden Rule of Habit Change.

So, you already have your new routine—communicate with coworkers using the new collaborative software. Assuming you know how to use the software, the routine is not the problem. You are likely getting tripped up by either the cue or the reward. Ask yourself, “Am I forgetting the new routine?” If so, this indicates a cue problem. Or, “Do I remember to do the new routine and choose not to?” This would indicate a reward problem.

If you tend to open your email and send a message before you even think about using the new software, reconfigure your cues to make the new routine more likely and the old less likely. You might try the following:

  • Keep the collaborative software open on your primary desktop and minimize or close your email program.
  • Put a sticky note or other reminder on your monitor to prompt you to use the new software.
  • Set an alarm on your phone that prompts you to connect with someone using the new software.
  • Allow all notifications from the collaborative software but silence all notifications from email.

If, on the other hand, you remember to use the new software but decide that it’s easier or better to use email, you may have a reward problem. You are remembering to do the new routine but choosing not to because you aren’t sufficiently motivated. So, add some rewards:

  • Track the number of messages you send each day with the new software and make it a game—give yourself a target to hit each day and reward yourself when you do.
  • Eat an M&M each time you send a message in the new software.
  • Take a 10-minute break after sending your tenth message of the day with the new software.

The reward can be anything that will motivate you, but make sure it’s immediate and obvious. This is where most people fall short. They consider the cue and the routine, but they fail to implement a reward. They assume that the outcome (my manager and coworkers will be happy I am using the new tool, and I’ll be more relevant and effective) will be sufficiently motivating. But while the promise of positive outcomes can spark a desire to change, it rarely sustains us—outcomes are only realized as long-term consequences. When building a new habit or replacing an existing one, you will need to implement an immediate and obvious reward.

So, implement cues and rewards to reinforce the routine. If you falter, experiment with different cues and rewards until it’s clear you remember and want to do the routine. This should get you out of the lag and onto using the new software.

Good luck!