The importance of habits

Dear colleagues,

Habits are the basis of your success - or maybe your downfall. Yet despite the importance of habits, few people know much about how they work.

Habits are often thought of negatively, such as a drug habit or a gambling habit. But there can be good habits, such as exercising regularly, making thoughtful comments, meditating, thinking hard about research topics and starting projects long before deadlines.

A habit is something we do regularly without consciously thinking much about it. It is an automatic mental and behavioural activity. Habits make it possible for us to do things without spending exorbitant mental effort. They make everyday life possible - for good or bad.

Many people try desperately to break bad habits. Dieting is the most well known example: it is an attempt to break the habit of eating too much or eating the wrong sorts of food. Many smokers and alcoholics would like to break their habits, and there are plenty of supporters who would like to help them.

Then there are habits that hinder academic productivity, such as postponing working on important projects and instead spending times on emails, web surfing or trivial admin tasks. Mental habits are important too. For example, paying attention to disturbing thoughts is a habit that can lead to persistent anxiety.

In recent decades, researchers have become more aware of the importance of habits, and there is now a growing body of findings, much of it oriented to marketing: companies would like to reinforce or change your buying habits. Charles Duhigg, a journalist with the New York Times, used his investigative skills to find out what researchers are discovering about habits. He interviewed hundreds of people, including cutting-edge researchers and key practitioners, and obtained much information that is not available publicly.

Duhigg has put his findings together into a book: The power of habit: why we do what we do in life and business (Random House, 2012). It is an amazingly valuable resource for anyone concerned about improvement by individuals and groups. Furthermore, it is highly engaging to read. What more could you ask?

Because habits are so incredibly important and Duhigg's treatment so helpful, my commentary here is longer than usual. First I'm going to comment about some of the implications of habits for academic work, and then discuss some of the insights from The power of habit for individuals and groups.

Habits in academia

In classes that we teach, we seldom discuss habits. The focus in most classes is content and skills, and perhaps attitudes. But what if habits are more important? Consider what is required to become an outstanding violinist. Research on expert performance shows the key is "deliberate practice." This is a sort of practice involving intense concentration on the task while continually striving to improve, under the guidance of a skilled teacher. In the long term, habits of practising the violin will make more difference than the particular things learned in any lesson. Thousands of hours of practice are needed to become a world-class performer. Developing a habit of daily deliberate practice is the most important thing to be learned for the goal of expert performance.

It's debateable exactly which habits are most worthwhile for typical arts students. Perhaps it is writing, speaking, critical thinking or developing an inquiring mind. Pick whatever goal you like - because most classes do very little to foster an ongoing habit. Most students study only what they have to: they do not develop a learning habit. Most students work on assignments only as assessment deadlines approach: they do not develop good study habits. Most students do only what is necessary to achieve their desired marks: they do not learn to push themselves to the limit.

These forms of learning would not do a violinist much good. They would mean practising only on assigned pieces, practising only just before a performance, and not seeking to tackle the most challenging pieces. The usual learning and study habits of most arts students are not the basis for becoming a top performer. Acquiring skills in learning and ongoing deliberate practice are, in the long run, far more important than learning content, writing essays or passing exams.

The same applies to those of us involved as teachers and researchers. We spend far more time teaching and researching according to habits we picked up years or decades ago than we do refining or changing dysfunctional ways of operating. This is like a typist who persists in a long-established but inefficient two-fingered technique rather than learning a new one.

The high-output writing programme that I coordinate is built around changing the common habit of binge writing. This habit involves delaying writing until there is a big block of time or an impending deadline and then spending long agonising hours on a task until it is completed. The idea is to replace the bingeing habit with a different one, brief daily writing. Research shows that regular brief writing sessions are far more productive - and that it can be incredibly difficult to change to the new habit.

Universities as organisations are built on patterns of group behaviour and formal procedures that can be examined as habits. It is possible to change organisational habits - though this is far from easy. The potential rewards are enormous.

A skill that would be exceedingly valuable to individuals and groups is being able to examine habits, decide on desirable new ones, and proceed to change to the new ones. What better place to start than Duhigg's book?

Understanding the habits of individuals

Eugene Pauly nearly died from viral encephalitis. The infection caused so much brain damage that he was unable to retain new memories. He didn't recognise most of his family members and couldn't remember anywhere he had been. But, his wife discovered, he learned how to find his way home. Eugene Pauly, as a subject for research, upset standard ideas about how the brain works. He could develop a habit with no conscious awareness or memory that he was learning it.

Duhigg begins The power of habit with this story. Like many popularisers, Duhigg uses stories to make his narrative vivid. Beginning a chapter with fascinating details of a story, he turns to research findings in the area, drawing on his interviews with leading scientists. But the story isn't finished. To find out what happened to Eugene Pauly, you need to read to the end of the chapter.

This is a formula that works well, because it is exactly what Duhigg is writing about: the creation of a habit. He establishes that there are three key elements in a habit loop: a cue or trigger to initiate a behaviour, a routine behaviour, and a reward. Duhigg's cue for the reader is a fascinating story, the routine behaviour is reading the chapter, and the reward is finding out the conclusion to the story.

Having established this seemingly basic formula, Duhigg then adds a bit of complexity, with the story of the man who instituted the habit, across the US, of regularly brushing your teeth. Claude Hopkins, who made a fortune out of the toothpaste Pepsodent, thought his success was due to the sales pitch about getting the film off your teeth. Duhigg points out that others had used the same pitch, unsuccessfully, for their toothpastes. Pepsodent became a habit because of something else: the cool tingle in the mouth from chemicals in the toothpaste, a tingle that makes people feel that their teeth are clean. You can clean your teeth just as well using a toothbrush and water, without toothpaste, but there's no signifier of cleanliness - no tingle.

The missing element in Claude Hopkins' habit formula is craving. When there's a craving, a cue will trigger anticipation of reward, and initiate the routine. Think of smoking or alcohol - or email. Duhigg: "When a computer chimes or a smartphone vibrates with a new message, the brain starts anticipating the momentary distraction that opening an email provides. That expectation, if unsatisfied, can build until a meeting is filled with antsy executives checking their buzzing BlackBerrys under the table, even if they know it's probably only their latest fantasy football results. (On the other hand, if someone disables the buzzing - and, thus, removes the cue - people can work for hours without thinking to check their in-boxes.)" (p. 50).

Knowing that some habits are damaging, researchers have searched for the key to changing habits. What they've discovered is that the mental circuits underlying habits never disappear. If you've smoked, the urge to smoke can never be entirely eradicated. What can happen, though, is a change to the routine or behaviour. When the familiar cue occurs, you do something different, such as chew some gum.

Alcoholics Anonymous provides an alternative routine. Alcoholics, rather than go to a pub, go to an AA meeting. This provides a replacement routine and replacement reward, thereby satisfying the craving. But AA adds yet another key element into the process: belief. To change habits, people need to believe it is possible. Critics of AA are sceptical of the spiritual invocations involved in the 12 steps but, as Duhigg shows, belief is invaluable to AA's success. Furthermore, being in a group of believers makes belief easier.

Duhigg also illustrates the power of belief with the story of a US gridiron team whose coach was amazingly persistent in changing the habits of players. The team became remarkably successful, but would crash in playoff games. When the stakes became high, the players reverted to their previous habits, because they didn't believe strongly enough in their coach's approach.

I can see the role of belief in the high-output writing programme. Developing a new habit based on short periods of daily writing, and doing the writing before you're ready and when you're not inspired, goes against deep-seated beliefs about how to be a successful researcher. Research shows the programme works, but knowledge of the research may not be enough to overcome entrenched habits. Some of the keys to using the programme are trusting that it will work - and therefore not trying to second-guess the process - and attending the group meetings to reinforce belief. Duhigg: "For a habit to stay changed, people must believe change is possible. And most often, that belief only emerges with the help of a group." (p. 92)

This is equivalent to a young violinist or a young swimmer entering a training programme. You need to believe that the regular exercises and training are going to work, and to trust the teacher or coach. Later on, when habits are well established, a skilled performer can fine-tune the training.

Organisational habits

After treating the habits of individuals, Duhigg turns to organisations. He provides a fascinating account of how the chain store Target gathers information about shoppers to anticipate what they are likely to want to buy, and then advertise accordingly direct to each individual. If their data predict that a customer is expecting her first child, Target can send ads appropriate to each stage of the pregnancy. But some mothers-to-be are offended by a company knowing apparently private facts about their lives, so Target cleverly embeds the person-relevant ads among other seemingly random ones, so the pitch seems to be individualised. Yet each household on a street might be receiving different ads.

Interestingly, Target's top management was not happy about revealing the company's techniques. Duhigg obtained his information from employees, and includes, in his notes, the company's formal response.

In terms of marketing, universities are beginners compared to Target and other companies using similar techniques. Imagine a university promotion delivered through several social media that is subtly tailored for each potential student's demographic characteristics and personal circumstances. That, to my mind, is not a desirable goal. More in keeping with the traditional goals of universities would be teaching, supervision and peer support adaptable for individual students. Some progressive US colleges do this, with each student negotiating a learning contract with an academic adviser. Australian universities are far too bureaucratised for anything like this to be feasible.

Keystone habits

When Paul O'Neill became CEO of the aluminium company Alcoa, he frightened some of the top shareholders. The company was in serious difficulties but instead of talking about profits, O'Neill harped on about worker safety, making this the number 1 priority.

When management and workers realised O'Neill was serious - he fired managers who didn't report accidents - the whole culture of the organisation started shifting. In order to prevent accidents, workers and managers had to start communicating, horizontally and vertically. Procedures were changed in response to accidents, and that meant more workers started taking responsibility. Safety dramatically improved - and so did performance overall. Alcoa went from being a basket-case to a star performer.

O'Neill had the genius to realise that he needed to change dysfunctional habits across the company, and used his influence from the top to target a single factor - workplace safety - that, by changing, influenced everything else. For Alcoa, routine behaviours around safety were "keystone habits": changing them changed the whole company, for the better.

For the high-output writing programme, daily writing is the keystone habit. Writing every day stimulates creativity, focuses ideas about what needs to be read, fosters research planning, and much else. However, there's no CEO of research who has yet understood the value of implementing policy to stimulate daily writing.

Habits and social change

The one weakness of the examples used by Duhigg - Alcoa, Starbucks (another amazing story), Target and others - is that organisational change seems to need to come from the top. He provides no examples of worker-led change in organisations habits. However, in the final part of the book, this deficiency is addressed with an example of social change. One of Duhigg's examples is the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, a key event in the US civil rights movement. Habits are important in maintaining oppression: people become used to dominating or acquiescing.

On 1 December 1955 in Montgomery, seamstress Rosa Parks refused to vacate her bus seat for a white passenger, and was arrested. This is rightly seen as a transformative event in the civil rights struggle. But other black bus passengers had made similar refusals earlier, without triggering mass action. Duhigg traces the factors that made Parks' action an effective stimulus for collective action, including her stature and networks within both the black and white communities. Habits of obedience can be broken, but to do this on a wide scale requires a combination of factors.

There is a vast amount of scholarship about the civil rights movement, with scholars even today undertaking new assessments of the Montgomery bus boycott. Duhigg, by analysing the events through the lens of research on habit, has provided a genuinely new perspective. My guess is that it would be exceedingly difficult to publish this sort of analysis in an academic journal, even if dressed up in scholarly jargon, because it is too unconventional. Mixing research on habits among Starbucks and Alcoa employees with social movement theory may only be possible in book format - and it has taken a journalist to put together this original synthesis. There is a lesson here about the limitations of conventional academic research.

Practical applications

Many readers will be asking, "So how do I change my bad habits? How do I stop overeating and start exercising? How do I stop procrastinating and start working on my important long-term projects?" Duhigg considerately supplies an appendix spelling out the practical implications of habit research. The trouble is, there's no magic solution. Of course not - otherwise we would all know about it already.

Duhigg says you need to do some practical investigation to find out what the cues are for your habits and what actions you can use to replace your routine behaviour. Let's say you look at your email first thing in the morning, and check news stories around the world, all of which ends up taking a couple of hours and sidetracking you from working on your book. In fact, you've postponed working on the book for the past year. You need to experiment to discover the cue for your email habit, and experiment with replacement activities.

It's not as easy as it might seem. Changing habits can be done, but it's very difficult, as dieters and smokers will tell you. The Power of Habit is an impressive and important work worth reading by anyone who wants to understand habits and how to change them. It has far-reaching implications for teaching, research and organisational behaviour.

4 February 2013, revised 9 March 2013


Thanks to Narelle Campbell, Kieren Diment, Don Eldridge, Kathy Flynn, Xiaoping Gao, Anneleis Humphries and Nicola Marks for valuable feedback on drafts.

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