What is the largest, most successful habit-changing organization in the world?

1: The year was 1934.  One of the largest and most successful attempts at wide-scale habit change was about to begin.

Bill Wilson, a thirty-nine year old alcoholic, sat in a dreary basement on the Lower East Side of New York City.  He was drinking three bottles of booze a day.  His marriage was falling apart.  His career was at a dead end, Charles Duhigg writes in The Power of Habit.

He poured his old drinking buddy a glass of gin and pineapple juice.  His friend shook his head.  He explained he’d been sober for two months. Bill was astounded.  He had tried to quit, but had repeatedly failed.  “He’s been to detox and had taken pills.  He’d made promises to his wife and joined abstinence groups.  None of it worked,” Charles states. “I got religion,” the friend said. He talked about hell and temptation, sin and the devil. “Realize you are licked, admit it, and get willing to turn your life over to God.” Bill thought his friend had lost it.  “Last summer an alcoholic crackpot, now, I suspected, a little cracked about religion,” he later wrote.  After his friend left, Bill finished the bottle of gin and went to bed.

One month later, Bill checked into a Manhattan detox center.  A doctor gave him hourly injections of a hallucinogenic drug called belladonna, a popular treatment for alcoholism at the time. It didn’t go well.  Bill began writing in agony.  He hallucinated for days.  His withdrawal was so bad he felt insects were crawling across his skin.  He was nauseous and the pain was so intense he couldn’t stay still.

“If there is a God, let Him show Himself!” Bill yelled.  “I am ready to do anything. Anything!”

At that moment, “a white light filled his room, the pain ceased, and he felt as if he were on a mountaintop, ‘and that a wind not of air but of spirit’ was blowing.  And then it burst upon me that I was a free man,'” Bill later wrote.

Bill Wilson would never drink again.  For the rest of his life, he dedicated himself to founding and building Alcoholics Anonymous.  It would become “the largest, most well-known and successful habit-changing organization in the world,” writes Charles.  

As many as 10 million alcoholics have become sober through the group.  While AA doesn’t work for everyone, millions credit the program with saving their lives.  “The famous twelve steps have become cultural lodestones incorporated into treatment programs for overeating, gambling, debt, sex, drugs, hoarding, self-mutilation, smoking, video game addictions, and emotional dependency.”

What’s surprising is that AA doesn’t directly address the biochemical issues researchers believe are at the core of why people drink.  Moreover, there are no “professionals” who guide AA meetings. “What AA provides instead is a method for attacking the habits that surround alcohol use.  AA, in essence, is a giant machine for changing habit loops,” Charles observes.  The AA approach disrupts old routines by changing the “habit loop.” “Researchers say that AA works because the program forces people to identify the cues and rewards that encourage their alcoholic habits, and then helps them find new behaviors.” Step four demands we make “a searching and fearless inventory of ourselves.  In step five we admit “to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”

What’s going on here?  

“It’s not obvious from the way they’re written, but to complete those steps, someone has to create a list of all the triggers for their alcoholic urges,” Charles observes.  “When you make a self-inventory, you’re figuring out all the things that make you drink. And admitting to someone else all the bad things you’ve done is a pretty good way of figuring out the moments where everything spiraled out of control.” AA also asks us to search for the benefits we get from drinking.  “What cravings, the program asks, are driving your habit loop?” Interestingly, intoxication often doesn’t make the list.  “Alcoholics crave a drink because it offers escape, relaxation, companionship, the blunting of anxieties, and an opportunity for emotional release,” Charles writes.

These cravings for relief occur in a completely different part of the brain than the craving for physical pleasure. AA structures its program to provide alcoholics with the same rewards they receive from drinking.  “AA has built a system of meetings and companionship—the ‘sponsor’ each member works with—that strives to offer as much escape, distraction, and catharsis as a Friday night bender,” comments Charles. “You can relax and talk through your anxieties at the meetings. The triggers and payoffs stay the same, it’s just the behavior that changes,” says J. Scott Tonigan, a researcher at the University of New Mexico, who has studied AA for more than a decade. There is one other element that helps alcoholics in addition to habit replacement. “Over and over again, alcoholics said the same thing,” Charles writes.  “Identifying cues and choosing new routines is important, but without another ingredient, the new habits never fully took hold. The secret, the alcoholics said, was God.”

Charles quotes John, a self-described former atheist: “Without a higher power in my life, without admitting my powerlessness, none of it was going to work,” he reflects.  “I knew that if something didn’t change, I was going to kill my kids.  So I started working at that, working at believing in something bigger than me.”

The final, essential factor?   

“Belief was the ingredient that made a reworked habit loop into a permanent behavior,” Charles writes.

More tomorrow.


Reflection: What sense or meaning do I make from the story above?

Action:  Journal about it or discuss with a friend.

What is “habit reversal training” and how can it change my life?

1: Mandy walked into the counselling center at Mississippi State University.  She was 24 years old.  For as long as she could remember, she had bitten her nails.  

“Lots of people bite their nails,” Charles Duhigg writes in The Power of Habit.  “For chronic nail biters, however, it’s a problem of a different scale.  Mandy would often bite until her nails pulled away from the skin underneath.  Her fingertips were covered with tiny scabs.  The end of her fingers had become blunted without nails to protect them and sometimes they tingled or itched, a sign of nerve injury.”

Her raw fingers made Mandy feel embarrassed.  She often kept her hands in her pockets.  When she went on dates, she would ball her hands into fists.

“She had tried to stop by painting her nails with foul-tasting polishes or promising herself, starting right now, that she would muster the willpower to quit,” Charles writes.  “But as soon as she began doing homework or watching television, her fingers ended up in her mouth.”

Mandy was desperate.  

“What do you feel right before you bring your hand up to your mouth to bite your nails?” asked the psychologist, who was studying a treatment known as “habit reversal training.”

At first, Mandy had trouble coming up with reasons.  As they talked though, an answer became clearer:  “There’s a little tension in my fingers,” Mandy said.  “It hurts a little bit here, at the edge of the nail.  Sometimes I’ll run my thumb along, looking for hangnails, and when I feel something catch, I’ll bring it to my mouth.  Then I’ll go finger by finger, biting off the rough edges.  Once I start, it feels like I have to do all of them.”

2: The key to habit reversal training is identifying the three steps of the habit loop: Cue, Routine, Reward.  

The physical tension Mandy felt in in her fingers was the “cue.”  Biting her nails was the “routine.”  And, the completeness Mandy felt after biting all of her nails was the “reward,” a physical feeling she had come to crave.

The therapist gave Mandy some homework.  She was to carry around an index card and make a check mark each time she felt the “cue” or tension in her fingers.

Mandy returned to the clinic a week later with 28 checks on her index card.  She was now “acutely aware of the sensations that preceded her habit,” writes Charles.  “She knew how many times it occurred during class or watching television.”

3: Next, the therapist explained: whenever Mandy felt the tension in her fingertips, she was to grip a pencil or put her hands under her legs or some other action that made it impossible to put her hands in her mouth.  Then she was to rub her arm or rap knuckles on the desk or do anything that would produce a physical response.

“The cues and the rewards stayed the same,” Charles observes.  “Only the routine changed.”

They practiced for a half hour in the office.  The therapist suggested Mandy continue to make marks on her index card, but now she was to add a hash mark when she was able to successfully “override” her nail-biting habit.

“A week later, Mandy had bitten her nails only three times and had used the competing response seven times,” Charles writes.  She continued tracking her progress with her index card: “After a month, the nail-biting habit was gone. The competing routines had become automatic.”

A new habit had replaced the old one.  

“It seems like it should be more complex.  The truth is the brain can be reprogrammed.  You just have to be deliberate about it,” says Nathan Azrin, one of the developers of habit reversal training.  “Once you recognize the cues and rewards, you’re halfway to changing it.”

Habit reversal therapy is now used to treat depression, smoking, gambling problems, anxiety, bedwetting, procrastination, and obsessive-compulsive disorders.

The fundamental principle of habit reversal training?

We don’t truly understand the cravings driving our behaviors until we take the time to identify them.

More tomorrow.


Reflection:  What is a habit I would like to stop?  Take some time to identify the cue, the routine, and the reward.  What is the underlying craving that makes the reward so pleasing?  What changes can I make to interrupt the current process?  

Action:  Journal about it. Track my progress. Today.

The secret ingredient to creating new habits 

1: In the year 2002, researchers at New Mexico State University set out to figure out why people exercise consistently.  

They studied 266 people who worked out at least three times a week.  Most started running or lifting weights “almost on a whim, or because they had free time or wanted to deal with unexpected stress in their lives,” writes Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit.

So, why did their exercise become a habit?

Because they began to crave a specific reward.

“In one group, 92 percent of people said they habitually exercised because it made them ‘feel good’—they grew to expect and crave the endorphins and other neurochemicals a workout provided,” Charles writes. “In another group, 67 percent of people said that working out gave them a sense of ‘accomplishment’—they had come to crave a regular sense of triumph from tracking their performances, and that self-reward was enough to make the physical activity into a habit.”

In prior RiseWithDrews, we’ve explored the three step process to create a new habit: Cue, Routine, Reward.

The secret ingredient that drives our habits?  Turning our reward into something we crave.

2: A group of scientists led by Wolfram Schultz, a neuroscience professor at the University of Cambridge, have studied how this process works in the brains of monkeys.  First, Julio the monkey sees a shape on a computer screen.  The researchers teach Julio how to perform a simple routine which results in him receiving a drop of blackberry juice.  

As the experiment continues, and Julio becomes more practiced at the behavior, he begins anticipating the blackberry juice.  As the habit becomes stronger, the brain probes “started recording the ‘I got the reward’ pattern the instant Julio sees shapes on the screen, before the juice arrived,” Charles writes.

Which is why habits are so powerful: They create “neurological cravings.”

Yesterday, we looked at how the marketers at Proctor & Gamble created a billion dollar product with Febreze when “they created a sense of craving—the desire to make everything smell as nice as it looked.”

3: So, how can we put this learning to work in our lives?

Say we want to start running in the mornings.  We begin by selecting a simple cue or trigger, like leaving our running gear next to our bed.  Next, we create a reward, like a midday snack, or cultivating a sense of accomplishment from tracking our miles.  

“But countless studies have shown that a cue and a reward, on their own, aren’t enough for a new habit to last,” writes Charles. “Only when [our] brain starts expecting the reward—craving the endorphins or sense of accomplishment—will it become automatic to lace up [our] jogging shoes each morning.”

To make a habit stick, we prime ourselves to anticipate the reward: thinking about that smoothie, or about the endorphin rush we will feel.  When temptations arise, we focus on our craving for the reward. 

We are wise to cultivate “the craving into a mild obsession.”  Because “this is how new habits are created,” writes Charles, “by putting together a cue, a routine, and a reward, and then cultivating a craving that drives the loop.”  

More tomorrow.


Reflection:  What is a habit I want to begin?  Think about a meaningful reward.

Action:  Purposefully turn that reward into a craving.

How a woman with nine cats helped launch a billion dollar product.  It’s not what you think.

1: Proctor & Gamble, one of the largest consumer goods firms in the world, was convinced their promising new product Febreze was going to be a big hit.

P&G should know.  They are the company behind Pringles, Oil of Olay, Bounty, CoverGirl, Dawn, Downy, Duracell, and dozens of other successful brands.

For Febreze, “they spent millions perfecting the formula, finally producing a colorless, odorless liquid that could wipe out almost any foul odor,” Charles Duhigg writes in The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.  

Drake Stimson, a thirty-one-year-old superstar with a background in math and psychology, was chosen to head up the marketing team.  Drake and his team positioned Febreze as something that would allow people to rid themselves of embarrassing smells.  They created a television commercial featuring woman and her dog Sophie: “Sophie will always smell like Sophie,” said the woman, but with Febreze, “now my furniture doesn’t have to.”

Commercials aired in several test cities.  The marketing team gave sway samples, put advertisements in mailboxes, and paid grocery stores to position Febreze near cash registers.

“Then, they sat back, anticipating how they would spend their bonuses,” Charles writes.


Febreze was DOA: Dead on Arrival.

2: An emergency meeting was called.  Perhaps P&G should cut their losses on Febreze “before board members started asking questions,” Charles writes.  

Drake and his team pleaded for more time.  A decision was made to assign a team of PhDs to figure out what was going wrong.  The newly-assigned researchers began conducting interviews.

“The first inkling of why Febreze was failing came when they visited a woman’s house outside of Phoenix,” Charles writes.  “They could smell her nine cats before they went inside.  The house’s interior, however, was clean and organized.  She was somewhat of a neat freak, she explained.  She vacuumed every day and didn’t like to open her windows, since the wind blew in dust.”

When Drake and the scientists entered her living room where the cats lived, “the scent was so overpowering that one of them gagged,” writes Charles.

“What do you do about the cat smell?” a scientist asked the woman. 

“It’s usually not a problem,” she said. 

“How often do you notice a smell?” 

“Oh, about once a month,” the woman replied. 

The researchers were perplexed.  “Do you smell it now?” a scientist asked. 

“No,” she said.

This sequence occurred again and again in other smelly homes which the team visited.  People didn’t notice most of the icky smells in their homes.  “Bad smells simply weren’t noticed frequently enough to trigger a regular habit.  As a result, Febreze ended up in the back of the closet,” Charles observes.

The situation appeared grim.  “If he couldn’t sell Febreze to a woman with nine cats,” wondered Drake, “who could he sell it to?” 

3: Then, something interesting happened.

The scientists spoke with a woman in a suburb near Scottsdale.  She had four kids.  Her house was clean, but not compulsively so.  She had no pets.  There were no smokers.  It wasn’t the type of house with “smelly problems.” 

“I use it every day,” she said of Febreze.

“How?  What smells are you trying to get rid of?”

“I don’t really use if for specific smells,” the woman said.  “I use it for normal cleaning-a couple of sprays when I’m done in the room.  It’s a nice way to make everything smell good as a final touch.”

When Drake and his team returned to headquarters, the researchers asked the team to join for them for a meeting.  They had spent the prior night watching videos P&G had collected over the years of people cleaning their homes. The scientists “cued up the tape of one woman—a twenty-six-year-old with three children—making a bed.  She smoothed the sheets and adjusted a pillow. Then, she smiled and left the room,” Charles writes.

“Did you see that?” the researcher asked excitedly. 

“He put on another clip.  A younger, brunette woman spread out a colorful bedspread, straightened a pillow, and then smiled at her handiwork,” Charles shares. 

“There it is again!” the researcher said. 

The next clip showed a woman in workout clothes tidying her kitchen and wiping the counter before easing into a relaxing stretch. The researcher looked at his colleagues. “Do you see it?” he asked.

“Each of them is doing something relaxing or happy when they finish cleaning,” he said.  “We can build off that!  What if Febreze was something that happened at the end of the cleaning routine, rather than the beginning?  What if it was the fun part of making something cleaner?”

More perfume was added to Febreze so it now had its own distinct, fresh scent. New commercials were created.  This time they were “designed to appeal to a specific, daily cue: Cleaning a room. Making a bed. Vacuuming a rug,” writes Charles.  “In each one, Febreze was positioned as the reward: the nice smell that occurs at the end of a cleaning routine.”

P&G relaunched Febreze in 1998.  Revenue in the first year was more than $230 million.  Today, Febreze and all of its spin-off products account for more than $1 billion a year.

Drake was promoted.  His team received their bonuses after all.

“We were looking at it all wrong. No one craves scentlessness.  On the other hand, lots of people crave a nice smell after they’ve spent thirty minutes cleaning.”

Understanding this “craving” is key to understanding how new habits are formed.  

More tomorrow.  


Reflection: Think about a habit I do regularly.  Can I identify the reward I get when I do or complete the habit? 

Action: Journal my answers to the question above.

Why we must understand the habit loop

1: We think the choices we make each day are the result of well-considered decisions.  

The science tells us otherwise.  “A Duke University researcher found that more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits,” writes Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit.

“At one point, we all consciously decided how much to eat and what to focus on when we got to the office, how often to have a drink or when to go for a jog,” Charles writes.  “Then we stopped making a choice, and the behavior became automatic.  It’s a natural consequence of our neurology.”  

Our goal for today’s post?

To better understand how this process works so we can create good habits and eliminate bad habits.  

2: Habits form as a result of a three-step loop inside our brain, Charles writes. 

It begins with a trigger or cue which tells our brain to shift into “automatic mode.”  Next, is the routine or the habit itself, which can be physical or mental or emotional.  Lastly, there is the reward, which tells our brain if this particular loop is worth remembering in the future. 

“Over time, this loop—cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward—becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges,” Charles writes.

Yesterday, we explored why when habits emerge, our brain stops fully participating in decision-making.  “It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks,” Charles observes.  “So unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the pattern will unfold automatically.”

Our brain’s dependence on automatic routines can work to our advantage (good habits) or be dangerous (bad habits).  Our brains don’t differentiate between good and bad habits.

“Researchers have learned that 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,” Charles writes.  “Routines can be incredibly complex or fantastically simple (some habits, such as those related to emotions, are measured in milliseconds). 

“Rewards can range from food or drugs that cause physical sensations, to emotional payoffs, such as the feelings of pride that accompany praise or self-congratulation,” Charles observes.

The key point?

Habits “shape our lives far more than we realize—they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense,” Charles notes.

3: A real-life example of how habits play out in our lives?  Fast food.  The research shows families don’t plan on eating fast food on a consistent basis. 

But then life kicks in. “When the kids are starving and you’re driving home after a long day—to stop, just this once, at McDonald’s or Burger King,” Charles writes. “The meals are inexpensive. It tastes so good. After all, one dose of processed meat, salty fries, and sugary soda poses a relatively small health risk, right?  It’s not like you do it all the time…”

In time, this routine becomes our new habit.

“Once we develop a routine of sitting on the couch, rather than running, or snacking whenever we pass a doughnut box, those patterns always remain inside our heads,” notes Charles.  

The key point?  “Habits emerge without our permission,” Charles observes.  “But since we often don’t recognize these habit loops as they grow, we are blind to our ability to control them.”

We can alter this automatic patterns by becoming aware of the habit loop and its triggers, routines, and rewards.  We can make a decision, a conscious choice to change our habits.  “And once someone creates a new pattern, studies have demonstrated, going for a jog or ignoring the doughnuts becomes as automatic as any other habit,” Charles writes.

The really good news?

“Habits aren’t destiny.  We can create new habits.  Old habits can be changed or replaced,” Charles writes.  “We just need to understand the habit loop and how it works.”

More tomorrow.


Reflection:  Consider my most important goal for the year.  How can I create or change my habits to achieve my goal?

Action:  Take action.  Start today.

Why our brains love habits

1: It was the early 1990s.  Scientists surgically positioned what looked like “a small joystick and dozens of wires” into the skulls of a group of rats, writes Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit.

Their goal? To be able to observe in minute detail what was happening inside the brains of rodents.

Each animal was then placed in a T-shaped maze behind a partition with chocolate at one end.  A loud click sounded.  The partition disappeared.  Each rat would usually wander up and down the center aisle and then around the maze.  It could smell the chocolate.  Eventually, most of the animals would discover the reward.  “But there was no discernible pattern in their meanderings. It seemed as if each rat was taking a leisurely, unthinking stroll,” Charles writes.

The brainwaves told a different story.

As each animal appeared to be sauntering around the maze, its brain was working furiously.  “Each time a rat sniffed the air or scratched a wall, its brain exploded with activity, as if analyzing each new scent, sight, and sound.”

The researchers continued the experiment, again and again.  “In time, the rats stopped sniffing corners and making wrong turns.  Instead, they zipped through the maze faster and faster,” Charles notes.

What happened next inside each rat’s brain surprised the scientists?

“As each rat learned how to navigate the maze, its mental activity decreased.  As the route became more and more automatic, each rat started thinking less and less,” Charles writes.  “The rat had internalized how to sprint through the maze to such a degree that it hardly needed to think at all.”

Something else was occurring inside the rat’s brain: The basil ganglia was taking control.  

“This tiny, ancient neurological structure seemed to take over as the rat ran faster and faster and its brain worked less and less,” Charles writes.  “The basal ganglia was central to recalling patterns and acting on them. The basal ganglia, in other words, stored habits even while the rest of the brain went to sleep.”

2: What does all this have to do with how habits form?  


This process—in which the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine—is known as “chunking,” Charles notes.  “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.”

Others are even more complicated.  Consider backing our car out of the driveway.  At first, this act required tremendous concentration and effort.  Now?  “Our basal ganglia kicks in, identifying the habit we’ve stored in our brains related to backing an automobile into the street.  Once that habit starts unfolding, our gray matter is free to quiet itself or chase other thoughts, which is why we have enough mental capacity to realize that Jimmy forgot his lunchbox inside,” Charles observes.

Habits occur because our brains are constantly looking for ways to save effort.  

Which is a huge advantage for us as human beings.  “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,” comments Charles.

3: The only problem?

Our brains can’t tell the difference between bad and good habits.

Habits are “the choices that all of us deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about but continue doing, often every day.

“And though each habit means relatively little on its own, over time, the meals we order, what we say to our kids each night, whether we save or spend, how often we exercise, and the way we organize our thoughts and work routines have enormous impacts on our health, productivity, financial security, and happiness,” Charles writes.

The good news?  

“We now know why habits emerge, how they change, and the science behind their mechanics,” notes Charles.  “Transforming a habit isn’t necessarily easy or quick.  It isn’t always simple.  But it is possible.  And now we understand how.”

More tomorrow.


Reflection: Reflect on the habits that are working for me and those that aren’t working for me.

Action:  Journal about it.  Select a habit I want to change and how I can use the information above to help change it.

How a U.S. Army major prevented a riot

1: The year was 2004, the early days of the Iraqi War.  Riots were occurring in Kufa, a small city 90 miles south of Baghdad.   

While meeting with Kufa’s mayor, a U.S. Army major made an odd request: “Could they keep the food vendors out of the plazas?” Charles Duhigg writes in The Power of Habit.

The mayor agreed to the request.  A couple of weeks later, a crowd began gathering in front of Masjid al-Kufa, or the Great Mosque of Kufa.  As the afternoon went on, more people joined.  The crowd began chanting angry slogans.  Sensing trouble, the Iraqi police radioed the U.S. base requesting for U.S. troops to standby.

“At dusk, the crowd started getting restless and hungry.  People started looking for the kabob sellers normally filling the plaza, but there were none to be found,” Charles notes.  “The spectators left.  The chanters became dispirited.  By 8 p.m., everyone was gone.”

2:  What happened here?

“Understanding habits is the most important thing I’ve learned in the army,” the major told Charles.  “It’s changed everything about how I see the world.”

Soon after arriving in Kufa, the major had studied videos of recent riots.  He noticed a pattern.  “Violence was usually preceded by a crowd of Iraqis gathering in a plaza or other open space, and over the course of several hours, growing in size.  Food vendors would show up, as well as spectators.  Then someone would throw a rock or bottle, and all hell would break loose,” Charles writes.

We don’t necessarily think about a crowd’s dynamics in terms of habits, the major observed.  He had, however, spent his entire military career “getting drilled in the psychology of habit formation.

“At boot camp, he had absorbed habits for loading his weapon, falling asleep in a war zone, maintaining focus amid the chaos of battle, and making decisions while exhausted and overwhelmed.  He had attended classes that taught him habits for saving money, exercising every day, and communicating with bunkmates.

“As he moved up the ranks, he learned the importance of organizational habits in ensuring that subordinates could make decisions without constantly asking permission, and how the right routines made it easier to work alongside people he normally couldn’t stand.

“And now, as an impromptu nation builder, he was seeing how crowds and cultures abided by many of the same rules.  In some sense, he said, a community was a giant collection of habits occurring among thousands of people that, depending on how they’re influenced, could result in violence or peace.

“In addition to removing the food vendors, he had launched dozens of different experiments in Kufa to influence residents’ habits.  There hadn’t been a riot since he arrived,” Charles writes.

3:  Are our lives just “a giant collection of habits”?

The U.S. Army major from Kufa lays out the evidence:  “You want to fall asleep fast and wake up feeling good?  Pay attention to your nighttime patterns and what you automatically do when you get up,” the major suggests.  

“You want to make running easy?  Create triggers to make it a routine.  I drill my kids on this stuff.  My wife and I write out habit plans for our marriage,” he states.

It’s the same with our professional lives.

“No one person in Kufa would have told me that we could influence crowds by taking away the kabob stands, but once you see everything as a bunch of habits, it’s like someone gave you a flashlight and a crowbar and you can get to work.”

His final bit of advice?

“I’m telling you, if a hick like me can learn this stuff, anyone can.  I tell my soldiers all the time, there’s nothing you can’t do if you get the habits right.”

More tomorrow.


Reflection:  What is an existing habit I want to stop?  Are there any lessons I can learn and apply from the story above about the riots in Kufa?   

Action:  Journal about it.  Today.

How to remake your life.  Fast.

1: Lisa Allen was thirty-four years old.  She had struggled with obesity since she was a child.  Lisa started smoking and drinking at sixteen.  She had moved from one dead-end job to another, never working for the same employer for more than a year.  She was $10,000 in debt and collection agencies were chasing her, writes Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit.

After her husband fell in love with another woman and left the marriage, Lisa obsessively spied on him and followed his new girlfriend around town, often calling her after midnight and hanging up.  One night she showed up drunk at the girlfriend’s house and pounded on the door, screaming she was going to burn the condo down.

“She had spent four months crying, binge eating, unable to sleep, and feeling ashamed, helpless, depressed, all at once,” Charles writes.  Then, Lisa made a rash decision to take a vacation to Egypt:  “I had always wanted to see the pyramids, and my credit cards weren’t maxed out yet,” she remembers.

Her first morning in Cairo, she woke at dawn in a pitch black hotel room to the sound of the call to prayer at a nearby mosque.  Confused, she got out of bed and knocked over a water jug which shattered on the floor.

Lisa reached for a cigarette.  “She was so disoriented that she didn’t realize–until she smelled burning plastic–that she was trying to light a pen, not a Marlboro.”  

Lisa had hit rock bottom.  “It was like this wave of sadness,” she recalls. “I felt like everything I had ever wanted had crumbled.  I couldn’t even smoke right.”

2: Lisa found her way downstairs and into a taxi to go to the pyramids at Giza.  In the middle of a vast, endless desert, on a dirt road leading to the Sphinx, she decided she needed a goal in her life.  Something she could work toward.  “I felt desperate, like I had to change something, at least one thing I could control,” Lisa remembers.

The goal she decided upon?  To return to Egypt one year later and trek through the desert.

The idea seemed implausible.  Unlikely.  Improbable.  “She was out of shape, overweight, with no money in the bank.  She didn’t know the name of the desert she was looking at or if such a trip was possible.  None of that mattered, though.  She needed something to focus on,” writes Charles.  “And to survive such an expedition, she was certain she would have to make sacrifices.

“In particular, she would need to quit smoking.”

Which she did.  

“That one small shift in Lisa’s perception that day in Cairo—the conviction that she had to give up smoking to accomplish her goal—touched off a series of changes that would ultimately radiate out to every part of her life,” Charles writes.

“Over the next six months, she would replace smoking with jogging, and that, in turn, changed how she ate, worked, slept, saved money, scheduled her workdays, planned for the future, and so on,” he observes.

3: Four years later, Lisa had not only completed her trek in the desert, she had lost sixty pounds, run a marathon, bought a home, and started a master’s degree.

So, what happened here?  What accounts for this dramatic change in lifestyle? 

Fortunately, we know the answer.  

Because Lisa was part of a study funded by the National Institutes of Health where scientists “poked and prodded Lisa and more than two dozen other former smokers, chronic over-eaters, problem drinkers, obsessive shoppers, and people with other destructive habits.

“All the participants had one thing in common: They had remade their lives in relatively short periods of time,” Charles notes.

This week we will begin an exploration of “the power of habit.”  Most of the choices we make each day feel like the result of well-considered decision making.  They are not.  They are habits.

The big takeaway?

Habits can be changed, if we understand how they work.    

More tomorrow.


Reflection:  Do any parts of Lisa’s story resonate with me?

Action: Journal about it.