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Understanding our habits

 Posted: 2:00 AM September 07, 2012

Every night before I go to bed, I make a cup of chamomile tea, an unshakable habit I've had since I was a kid. When my son gets dressed in the morning, he always puts on a shirt first, then socks, then the rest. My husband compulsively scans the top news headlines on his phone just before putting it on the charger for the night. According to author Charles Duhigg, habits like these don't just lend a familiar rhythm to our day, they actually change the way our brains are wired.

In his book, "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business," Duhigg explains that habits start off as deliberate choices. New neural pathways are blazed by choice, and then paved and widened by repetition. At some point, the pathways are so strong that we continue almost mindlessly. Once a habit is established, it takes a concerted effort to change it, and the old neural connections are never completely erased.

Duhigg, a New York Times reporter, says that without habits we would spend a lot of brain time taking care of mundane tasks such as feeding ourselves and getting dressed. As these tasks become more practiced, the mental requirement decreases and our brains can use that energy for something more important. Unfortunately, our brains can't tell the difference between a good habit and a bad one.

"The Power of Habit" is a serious look at the science behind the daily patterns we create in our lives. I picked it up from the new releases shelf at the Ashland library, secretly hoping for some wildly simple cure for my stress-related potato chip eating and pathological email checking. While not intended as a self-help resource, the book does explain why bad habits are hard to break, and provides practical advice on how it can be done. Changing habits is not easy, but according to the author it isn't as hard as we have been led to believe, and the payoff can be profound.

This book is full of fascinating anecdotes about how people and organizations have been able to effect really big changes by shifting just one small pattern. Duhigg writes how Michael Phelps' swim coach helped him foster simple habits that would eventually make him an Olympic gold medalist. Such stories reflect what Duhigg calls "the habit loop," where an outside cue automatically leads to a behavioral routine that results in a reward. Eventually, the routine becomes habitual and the person begins to anticipate the reward, creating a craving. A cue, such as stress, may cause a smoker to crave a cigarette, or an athlete to crave a workout. A negative habit, such as smoking, can be changed, says Duhigg, by learning replacement routines and practicing continually. The key is not to try to change the cues. Rather, change the routine that follows from the cue, and the rest will shift as the brain finds alternative routes to something pleasurable.

Most interesting are the case-studies of corporations that, through scientific inquiry, figure out how to manipulate our habits to sell their products. Duhigg tells of the early 20th century ad executive who turned Pepsodent into the nation's top-selling toothpaste by inventing the daily habit of brushing with toothpaste, and how Procter & Gamble created a subtle habit that would lead to record sales of Febreze, the top-selling product that was almost a complete flop. I couldn't help but be awed, and a bit creeped out, by Duhigg's description of retailer Target's marketing practices. Target collects a stunning amount of data on shoppers, and uses it to predict changes in future buying habits, such as when a customer is having a baby or getting married, often with startling accuracy.

"The Power of Habit" is a fun read. Near the end, it is a bit repetitive, but it is also rich with information, offering readers tools and inspiration to change their habits for the better.

Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at

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