It wasn’t the trip to Cairo that had caused the shift, scientists were convinced, or the divorce or desert trek. It was that Lisa had focused on changing just one habit—smoking—at first. Everyone in the study had gone through a similar process. By focusing on one pattern—what is known as a “keystone habit”—Lisa had taught herself how to reprogram the other routines in her life, as well.
One paper published by a Duke University researcher in 2006 found that more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits.prl.
It focuses on habits as they are technically defined: the choices that all of us deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about but continue doing, often every day.
This process—in which the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine—is known as “chunking,” and it’s at the root of how habits form. 1.18 There are dozens—if not hundreds—of behavioral chunks that we rely on every day. Some are simple: You automatically put toothpaste on your toothbrush before sticking it in your mouth. Some, such as getting dressed or making the kids’ lunch, are a little more complex.
Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often. This effort-saving instinct is a huge advantage. An efficient brain requires less room, which makes for a smaller head, which makes childbirth easier and therefore causes fewer infant and mother deaths. An efficient brain also allows us to stop thinking constantly about basic behaviors, such as walking and choosing what to eat, so we can devote mental energy to inventing spears, irrigation systems, and, eventually, airplanes and video games.
This process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future:
the reason the discovery of the habit loop is so important is that it reveals a basic truth: When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the pattern will unfold automatically. However, simply understanding how habits work—learning the structure of the habit loop—makes them easier to control. Once you break a habit into its components, you can fiddle with the gears.
cues can be almost anything, from a visual trigger such as a candy bar or a television commercial to a certain place, a time of day, an emotion, a sequence of thoughts, or the company of particular people.
First, find a simple and obvious cue. Second, clearly define the rewards. If you get those elements right, Hopkins promised, it was like magic. Look at Pepsodent: He had identified a cue—tooth film—and a reward—beautiful teeth—that had persuaded millions to start a daily ritual.
as we associate cues with certain rewards, a subconscious craving emerges in our brains that starts the habit loop spinning.
This is how new habits are created: by putting together a cue, a routine, and a reward, and then cultivating a craving that drives the loop.
But countless studies have shown that a cue and a reward, on their own, aren’t enough for a new habit to last. Only when your brain starts expecting the reward—craving the endorphins or sense of accomplishment—will it become automatic to lace up your jogging shoes each morning. The cue, in addition to triggering a routine, must also trigger a craving for the reward to come.
“Consumers need some kind of signal that a product is working,” Tracy Sinclair, who was a brand manager for Oral-B and Crest Kids Toothpaste, told me. “We can make toothpaste taste like anything—blueberries, green tea—and as long as it has a cool tingle, people feel like their mouth is clean. The tingling doesn’t make the toothpaste work any better. It just convinces people it’s doing the job.”
Want to exercise more? Choose a cue, such as going to the gym as soon as you wake up, and a reward, such as a smoothie after each workout. Then think about that smoothie, or about the endorphin rush you’ll feel. Allow yourself to anticipate the reward. Eventually, that craving will make it easier to push through the gym doors every day.
“Foaming is a huge reward,” said Sinclair, the brand manager. “Shampoo doesn’t have to foam, but we add foaming chemicals because people expect it each time they wash their hair. Same thing with laundry detergent. And toothpaste—now every company adds sodium laureth sulfate to make toothpaste foam more. There’s no cleaning benefit, but people feel better when there’s a bunch of suds around their mouth. Once the customer starts expecting that foam, the habit starts growing.”
If you use the same cue, and provide the same reward, you can shift the routine and change the habit. Almost any behavior can be transformed if the cue and reward stay the same.
It wasn’t God that mattered, the researchers figured out. It was belief itself that made a difference. Once people learned how to believe in something, that skill started spilling over to other parts of their lives, until they started believing they could change. Belief was the ingredient that made a reworked habit loop into a permanent behavior. “I wouldn’t have said this a year ago—that’s how fast our understanding is changing,” said Tonigan, the University of New Mexico researcher, “but belief seems critical. You don’t have to believe in God, but you do need the capacity to believe that things will get better. “Even if you give people better habits, it doesn’t repair why they started drinking in the first place. Eventually they’ll have a bad day, and no new routine is going to make everything seem okay. What can make a difference is believing that they can cope with that stress without alcohol.”
When people join groups where change seems possible, the potential for that change to occur becomes more real. For most people who overhaul their lives, there are no seminal moments or life-altering disasters. There are simply communities—sometimes of just one other person—who make change believable.
Some habits, in other words, matter more than others in remaking businesses and lives. These are “keystone habits,” and they can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate. Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything. Keystone habits say that success doesn’t depend on getting every single thing right, but instead relies on identifying a few key priorities and fashioning them into powerful levers.
Some departments at NASA, for instance, were overhauling themselves by deliberately instituting organizational routines that encouraged engineers to take more risks. When unmanned rockets exploded on takeoff, department heads would applaud, so that everyone would know their division had tried and failed, but at least they had tried. Eventually, mission control filled with applause every time something expensive blew up. It became an organizational habit.
When people start habitually exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, they start changing other, unrelated patterns in their lives, often unknowingly. Typically, people who exercise start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. It’s not completely clear why. But for many people, exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change. “Exercise spills over,” said James Prochaska, a University of Rhode Island researcher. “There’s something about it that makes other good habits easier.”
Small wins are exactly what they sound like, and are part of how keystone habits create widespread changes. A huge body of research has shown that small wins have enormous power, an influence disproportionate to the accomplishments of the victories themselves. “Small wins are a steady application of a small advantage,” one Cornell professor wrote in 1984. “Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win.” 4.14 Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach.
“Small wins do not combine in a neat, linear, serial form, with each step being a demonstrable step closer to some predetermined goal,” wrote Karl Weick, a prominent organizational psychologist. “More common is the circumstance where small wins are scattered … like miniature experiments that test implicit theories about resistance and opportunity and uncover both resources and barriers that were invisible before the situation was stirred up.”
Some research, for instance, suggested that the biggest cause of infant deaths was premature births. And the reason babies were born too early was that mothers suffered from malnourishment during pregnancy. So to lower infant mortality, improve mothers’ diets. Simple, right? But to stop malnourishment, women had to improve their diets before they became pregnant. Which meant the government had to start educating women about nutrition before they became sexually active. Which meant officials had to create nutrition curriculums inside high schools. However, when O’Neill began asking about how to create those curriculums, he discovered that many high school teachers in rural areas didn’t know enough basic biology to teach nutrition. So the government had to remake how teachers were getting educated in college, and give them a stronger grounding in biology so they could eventually teach nutrition to teenage girls, so those teenagers would eat better before they started having sex, and, eventually, be sufficiently nourished when they had children. Poor teacher training, the officials working with O’Neill finally figured out, was a root cause of high infant mortality. If you asked doctors or public health officials for a plan to fight infant deaths, none of them would have suggested changing how teachers are trained. They wouldn’t have known there was a link. However, by teaching college students about biology, you made it possible for them to eventually pass on that knowledge to teenagers, who started eating healthier, and years later give birth to stronger babies. Today, the U.S. 4.22 infant mortality rate is 68 percent lower than when O’Neill started the job.
This is the final way that keystone habits encourage widespread change: by creating cultures where new values become ingrained. Keystone habits make tough choices—such as firing a top executive—easier, because when that person violates the culture, it’s clear they have to go.
“Self-discipline predicted academic performance more robustly than did IQ. Self-discipline also predicted which students would improve their grades over the course of the school year, whereas IQ did not.… Self-discipline has a bigger effect on academic performance than does intellectual talent.”
For Starbucks, willpower is more than an academic curiosity. When the company began plotting its massive growth strategy in the late 1990s, executives recognized that success required cultivating an environment that justified paying four dollars for a fancy cup of coffee. The company needed to train its employees to deliver a bit of joy alongside lattes and scones. So early on, Starbucks started researching how they could teach employees to regulate their emotions and marshal their self-discipline to deliver a burst of pep with every serving. Unless baristas are trained to put aside their personal problems, the emotions of some employees will inevitably spill into how they treat customers. However, if a worker knows how to remain focused and disciplined, even at the end of an eight-hour shift, they’ll deliver the higher class of fast food service that Starbucks customers expect. The company spent millions of dollars developing curriculums to train employees on self-discipline. Executives wrote workbooks that, in effect, serve as guides to how to make willpower a habit in workers’ lives.
Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like the muscles in your arms or legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there’s less power left over for other things.” Researchers have built on this finding to explain all sorts of phenomena. Some have suggested it helps clarify why otherwise successful people succumb to extramarital affairs (which are most likely to start late at night after a long day of using willpower at work) or why good physicians make dumb mistakes (which most often occur after a doctor has finished a long, complicated task that requires intense focus). 5.5 “If you want to do something that requires willpower—like going for a run after work—you have to conserve your willpower muscle during the day,” Muraven told me. “If you use it up too early on tedious tasks like writing emails or filling out complicated and boring expense forms, all the strength will be gone by the time you get home.”
“That’s why signing kids up for piano lessons or sports is so important. It has nothing to do with creating a good musician or a five-year-old soccer star,” said Heatherton. “When you learn to force yourself to practice for an hour or run fifteen laps, you start building self-regulatory strength. A five-year-old who can follow the ball for ten minutes becomes a sixth grader who can start his homework on time.”
Students who had been treated rudely, on the other hand, did terribly. They kept forgetting to hit the space bar. They said they were tired and couldn’t focus. Their willpower muscle, researchers determined, had been fatigued by the brusque instructions. When Muraven started exploring why students who had been treated kindly had more willpower he found that the key difference was the sense of control they had over their experience. “We’ve found this again and again,” Muraven told me. “When people are asked to do something that takes self-control, if they think they are doing it for personal reasons—if they feel like it’s a choice or something they enjoy because it helps someone else—it’s much less taxing. If they feel like they have no autonomy, if they’re just following orders, their willpower muscles get tired much faster. In both cases, people ignored the cookies. But when the students were treated like cogs, rather than people, it took a lot more willpower.”
Simply giving employees a sense of agency—a feeling that they are in control, that they have genuine decision-making authority—can radically increase how much energy and focus they bring to their jobs.
What makes the difference between success or failure are a designer’s routines—whether they have a system for getting Italian broadcloth before wholesalers’ stocks sell out, a process for finding the best zipper and button seamstresses, a routine for shipping a dress to a store in ten days, rather than three weeks. Fashion is such a complicated business that, without the right processes, a new company will get bogged down with logistics, and once that happens, creativity ceases to matter. And which new designers are most likely to have the right habits? The ones who have formed the right truces and found the right alliances. 6.26 Truces are so important that new fashion labels usually succeed only if they are headed by people who left other fashion companies on good terms.
Good leaders seize crises to remake organizational habits. NASA administrators, for instance, tried for years to improve the agency’s safety habits, but those efforts were unsuccessful until the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986. In the wake of that tragedy, the organization was able to overhaul how it enforced quality standards. 6.40 Airline pilots, too, spent years trying to convince plane manufacturers and air traffic controllers to redesign how cockpits were laid out and traffic controllers communicated. Then, a runway error on the Spanish island of Tenerife in 1977 killed 583 people and, within five years, cockpit design, runway procedures, and air traffic controller communication routines were overhauled.
Same will happen after a very, very bad cyber attack.
A company with dysfunctional habits can’t turn around simply because a leader orders it. Rather, wise executives seek out moments of crisis—or create the perception of crisis—and cultivate the sense that something must change, until everyone is finally ready to overhaul the patterns they live with each day.
“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” Rahm Emanuel told a conference of chief executives in the wake of the 2008 global financial meltdown, soon after he was appointed as President Obama’s chief of staff. “This crisis provides the opportunity for us to do things that you could not do before.” Soon afterward, the Obama administration convinced a once-reluctant Congress to pass the president’s $ 787 billion stimulus plan. Congress also passed Obama’s health care reform law, reworked consumer protection laws, and approved dozens of other statutes, from expanding children’s health insurance to giving women new opportunities to sue over wage discrimination. It was one of the biggest policy overhauls since the Great Society and the New Deal, and it happened because, in the aftermath of a financial catastrophe, lawmakers saw opportunity.
as marketers and psychologists figured out long ago, if we start our shopping sprees by loading up on healthy stuff, we’re much more likely to buy Doritos, Oreos, and frozen pizza when we encounter them later on.
To change people’s diets, the exotic must be made familiar. And to do that, you must camouflage it in everyday garb. 7.22 To convince Americans to eat livers and kidneys, housewives had to know how to make the foods look, taste, and smell as similar as possible to what their families expected to see on the dinner table, the scientists concluded.
“With the pregnancy products, though, we learned that some women react badly. Then we started mixing in all these ads for things we knew pregnant women would never buy, so the baby ads looked random. We’d put an ad for a lawnmower next to diapers. We’d put a coupon for wineglasses next to infant clothes. That way, it looked like all the products were chosen by chance. “And we found out that as long as a pregnant woman thinks she hasn’t been spied on, she’ll use the coupons. She just assumes that everyone else on her block got the same mailer for diapers and cribs. As long as we don’t spook her, it works.”
When a young Martin Luther King, Jr., arrived in Montgomery in 1954, for instance, a year before Parks’s arrest, he found a majority of the city’s blacks accepted segregation “without apparent protest. Not only did they seem resigned to segregation per se; they also accepted the abuses and indignities which came with it.”
In general, sociologists say, most of us have friends who are like us. We might have a few close acquaintances who are richer, a few who are poorer, and a few of different races—but, on the whole, our deepest relationships tend to be with people who look like us, earn about the same amount of money, and come from similar backgrounds. Parks’s friends, in contrast, spanned Montgomery’s social and economic hierarchies. She had what sociologists call “strong ties”—firsthand relationships—with dozens of groups throughout Montgomery that didn’t usually come into contact with one another. “This was absolutely key,” Branch said. “Rosa Parks transcended the social stratifications of the black community and Montgomery as a whole. She was friends with field hands and college professors.” And the power of those friendships became apparent as soon as Parks landed in jail.
Studies show that people have no problem ignoring strangers’ injuries, but when a friend is insulted, our sense of outrage is enough to overcome the inertia that usually makes protests hard to organize. When Parks’s friends learned about her arrest and the boycott, the social habits of friendship—the natural inclination to help someone we respect—kicked in.
“The congregation and the small groups are like a one-two punch. You have this big crowd to remind you why you’re doing this in the first place, and a small group of close friends to help you focus on how to be faithful. Together, they’re like glue. We have over five thousand small groups now. It’s the only thing that makes a church this size manageable. Otherwise, I’d work myself to death, and 95 percent of the congregation would never receive the attention they came here looking for.”
Most of the time, as our bodies move in and out of different phases of rest, our most primitive neurological structure—the brain stem—paralyzes our limbs and nervous system, allowing our brains to experience dreams without our bodies moving. Usually, people can make the transition in and out of paralysis multiple times each night without any problems. Within neurology, it’s known as the “switch.”
To pathological gamblers, near misses looked like wins. Their brains reacted almost the same way. But to a nonpathological gambler, a near miss was like a loss. People without a gambling problem were better at recognizing that a near miss means you still lose.” Two groups saw the exact same event, but from a neurological perspective, they viewed it differently. People with gambling problems got a mental high from the near misses—which, Habib hypothesizes, is probably why they gamble for so much longer than everyone else: because the near miss triggers those habits that prompt them to put down another bet. The nonproblem gamblers, when they saw a near miss, got a dose of apprehension that triggered a different habit, the one that says I should quit before it gets worse.
Gamblers who keep betting after near wins are what make casinos, racetracks, and state lotteries so profitable. “Adding a near miss to a lottery is like pouring jet fuel on a fire,” said a state lottery consultant who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity. “You want to know why sales have exploded? Every other scratch-off ticket is designed to make you feel like you almost won.”
Water, he said, is the most apt analogy for how a habit works. Water “hollows out for itself a channel, which grows broader and deeper; and, after having ceased to flow, it resumes, when it flows again, the path traced by itself before.”