by Charles Duhigg

I read THE POWER OF HABIT (Okay, I listened to it on audio book).  I enjoyed it so much that I’ve “read” it twice.  The book is written to speak directly to individuals and is a tool that I reference in leadership training.  After reading this snapshot of the book, I challenge you to ask yourself the following three questions:

a)  What are your “keystone habits”? Keystone habits those personal rituals that you preserve by making all other commitments wrap around them. For example, some people live their entire lives around their early morning workout, including making sure they’re in bed by 9pm.

b)  Where do you consistently struggle in terms of habits that you’d like to stop? What sets you down the path of doom?

c)  What do you do treat yourself when you do you something that you dislike or find difficult?

Here’s what stood out to me: 
1) The brain latches onto “habits” or routines without distinguishing between good and bad ones (The more I learn about the brain, the more I feel like my brain has an agenda that has nothing to do with me).

2) Will power is a muscle that you have to strengthen.

Habits are formulated when the brain gets accustomed to a particular trigger telling it that it is time to do something. Then, when the brain and body do that thing, it gets some sort of reward. This is called the The “Trigger-Habit-Reward Loop”. For most people, the most challenging aspect of this loop is identifying the trigger.  The trigger can be anything that start the cycle.  For instance, simply waking up can be a trigger.  Over time, your brain knows that when you get up, you go straight to the gym (more clearly, the trigger is that you do the same thing every day at the same time). When you return, your reward is a tall cup of coffee with real, high-fat cream and sugar (assuming this type of thing is something that you regard as rewarding).

Researchers tested this theory with a man named Eugene Polly who sustained brain damage from viral encephalitis; the virus destroyed the part of his brain that stored and controlled his memories. Interestingly, after his brain injury, Polly had nearly all of his pre-brain injury habits. What’s more is that he was unable to to explain why he continued those behaviors. For example, one of his pre-injury habits was that he ate breakfast as soon as he awoke. After the brain injury, he would eat breakfast several times a day as something in his brain was triggering his “it’s time for breakfast” que. When questioned why he kept eating breakfast, he said he didn’t know why. As a matter of fact, when his wife and doctors tried to stop him from engaging in certain habits, he would become argumentative and combative. He said he could not help himself and that it was as if his body and brain had started something that he had to finish (the trigger-habit-reward loop).

In another instance, he and his daughter would argue every time the daughter visited the family home. In particular, the arguments would begin just as the daughter began to leave. Eugene thought the daughter was rude because she did not speak to him when she entered the house. It turned out that Eugene would forget that she had spoken to him and would fly off the handle. He said when he got into the rage, despite efforts to calm him down, he felt like he had to go through his entire fit (again, the trigger-habit-reward loop).  Thus, his daughter and wife decided that the daughter would talk to him when she entered the home and right before she left to avoid his trigger: the arguments stopped.

The researchers also tested this idea of triggers and rewards with lab mice. The scientists created an experiment whereby mice were given chocolate every time they heard a particular noise while inside a maze. Eventually, the scientists put poison in the food and electric pulses in the floor to see if the mice would continue to seek the chocolate. Without fail, the mice would endure the poison and electrocution to get the chocolate, aka, the reward. During the time the scientists were testing this theory, they also put electrodes in the mice’ brains. They learned that the mice initially had more brain activity when they heard the sound, the trigger.  However, at some point, the brain actually went into a type of autopilot when it came to the trigger/reward for the chocolate. The mice didn’t even think about it anymore (diminished brain activity). They kept seeking the chocolate all while being shocked and poisoned.

The conclusion is that while the full trigger-habit-reward-loop is important, the reward aspect of a habit is the most necessary element and compelling. Why do you think you remember that you forgot the coffee or missed your cigarette break? The brain notifies you that you have not gotten your reward and tries to get you do to do what you need to do to get its reward. Essentially, the brain wants to maintain its routine because it gets an actual reward which also releases a dose of pleasurable hormones. The next time you wonder why you keep indulging behaviors that are self-destructive or counter productive, ask yourself what you’re getting out of it.

Overall, in order for a person to begin changing habits, one must notice when s/he feels triggered to act. For example, an individual who goes to the vending machine everyday at 2pm needs to evaluate whether she is eating because she is hungry or if she’s really craving interaction or the alleviation of boredom. If it’s interaction, seek that. If it really is food, the person needs to find an alternative to junk food. The author contends that triggers and rewards never really go away, but that we can respond differently when we recognize what’s actually taking place.