The Power of Habits and How to Reprogram and Optimize Ours

As a young man, Benjamin Franklin set out to improve himself by devising a chart-based log for tracking his progress against the virtues he identified as essential to good personhood. Each week, he would pick a virtue to cultivate, then put a black pencil mark in his calendar chart on any day he failed to uphold the virtue. This visual feedback on his progress encouraged him, and allowed him to move to a different virtue the following week, hoping that each week would leave him with a "habitude" for that particular virtue.

We try to reverse-engineer willpower and flowchart our way to happiness, but in the end, it is habit that is at the heart of our successes and our failures. So argues New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, proposing that the root of adhering to our highest ideals -- exercising regularly, becoming more productive, sleeping better, reading more, cultivating the discipline necessary for building successful ventures -- is in understanding the science and psychology of how habits work.

Duhigg, whose chief premise echoes many of Timothy Wilson's insights in Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, takes a deep dive into the bleeding edge of neuroscience and behavioral psychology to explore not only why habits exist in the first place, but also how they can be reprogrammed and optimized.

Duhigg first became fascinated by the power of habit eight years ago while in Baghdad as a newspaper reporter. There, he met an army major who was conducting a curious experiment in the small town of Kufa: After analyzing taped footage of riots in the area, the major identified a common sequence -- first a crowd of Iraqis would gather in the plaza, drawing in spectators and food vendors, then eventually someone would throw a rock and all hell would break loose.

So the major summoned Kufa's mayor and made a strange request: Get the food vendors out of the plaza. The next time the sequence began to unfold and a crowd started to gather, something different transpired -- the crowd snowballed and people started chanting angry slogans, but by dusk, people had gotten hungry and restless. The looked for the familiar kebobs, but they weren't there. Eventually, the spectators left and the chanters lost steam. By 8 p.m., everyone was gone.

Upon asking the major how he figured out the clever strategy, Duhigg got the following response: "Understanding habits is the most important thing I've learned in the army."

The Power of Habit goes on to explore the same underlying mechanisms in contexts as diverse as behavioral marketing (see the excellent recent New York Times story on how Target used shopper habit data to find out a girl was pregnant before the father did) to sugar cravings, exposing the "habit loop" and eventually showing you how to re-engineer it to better serve your goals.

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This post also appears on Brain Pickings, an Atlantic partner site.

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Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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