As January progresses, our New Year’s resolutions often come crashing against the bad habits of the past. You might decide to quit smoking, but instinctively reach for a cigarette when you feel stressed. You might resolve to spend more time on schoolwork, but mechanically login to Facebook when you sit down at a computer. These habits become etched into our brains through repetition. We go on autopilot.

But can we rewire our brains to override the instinctive, unconscious, and literally thoughtless bad habits we’ve developed?

Charles Duhigg, an investigative reporter for The New York Times, says that we can use these “autopilot” abilities to our advantage. Think of signalling before a turn or scribbling ideas in a notebook. These compulsive and automatic habits feed our productivity, because they eliminate time spent dwelling on distracting or unnecessary thoughts.

In his book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business, Duhigg argues that we can wrest control from the smell of cigarettes, seductive store windows, and our own minds and intentionally form productive, positive habits. “Once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom and responsibility to remake them,” Duhigg writes.

Duhigg was inspired by the rigid protocols of the U.S. military, which he refers to as “one of the biggest habit-formation experiments in history”. While working as a reporter in Iraq, Duhigg met an army major who escaped a life surrounded by meth addicts for the strict protocols of military culture.

“The major spent his entire career getting drilled in the psychology of habits,” Duhigg explains in a YouTube video. Years of boot camp and the robotic rituals of salutes and commands gave the major valuable insight into just how powerful his awareness of habitual thinking could be. When it came to keeping peace in a small Iraqi city called Kufa, the major discovered that he had the power to diffuse angry riots by recognizing and then manipulating the habits of the rioters.

Every day, a crowd would form in Kufa’s town square. Every day, angry rioters would begin to chant their slogans. As food vendors and spectators arrived, the crowd grew in size. Finally, someone would throw a bottle or push an officer and spark a violent riot. Every day, the pattern proved the same.

After analyzing videos of several riots with this pattern, the major decided to remove all the food vendors from the plaza. The next morning, rioters showed up and spectators arrived. But without the food vendors, the spectators soon left and the rioters lost their energy. “By 8 p.m., everyone was gone,” explains Duhigg, “Crisis averted.” Routine destroyed. Habit broken.

But how did the major know exactly what would break the violent pattern?

Duhigg explains that change must begin by understanding how habits form in the first place. We must understand the “habit loop”, which always consists of a “cue, routine, and reward”. The cue is whatever stimulus triggers your brain to enter autopilot mode. Your cue could be the smell of a cigarette or the impulse to act violently when you feel angry. Once you sense the cue, you engage in the routine. The routine will end with the reward. According to Duhigg, if this loop repeats itself enough times, your body begins to crave the reward whenever you sense the cue. The loop becomes engrained in your brain and these conscious actions become unconscious instincts.

You get into your car, you reach for your seatbelt. You wake up at six, you reach for your sneakers. You feel a spark of anger, you clench your fist. “All our life is but a mass of habits,” as William James, a 19th-century psychologist, wrote.

Duhigg explains that to break a bad habit, you can’t just remove the cue. In the case of the Kufa riots, the major couldn’t simply eliminate the people’s anger. In the case of a smoking habit, a person can’t simply eliminate their urge to smoke when they feel stressed, much less the freedom of the people around them to smoke. Instead, Duhigg argues that once we identify the cue, routine, and reward in our habits, we can consciously force ourselves to change the routine. Though difficult at first, this conscious effort will eventually prompt our bodies to rewire a bad habit into a productive one.

So when you feel the urge to reach for your wallet, maybe force yourself to clench your fist instead. Instead of typing “facebook” into your browser when you sit down to do work, force yourself to log into Blackboard instead. If willingly repeated enough times, these conscious changes will replace the unconscious habits. The habit loop can actually work to our advantage.

While Duhigg admits that there is no “magic key” to “unlock” all your habits, he argues that simply knowing what happens in our minds when we habitualize can give us the power to try to take control. “Once you understand that habits can be rebuilt,” he writes, “the power becomes easier to grasp, and the only option left is to get to work.”

  • Ebi

    What he says makes sense on every level and I believe his strategy for changing habits might work but his method is to form another habit.
    For example if i dont want to be logging into facebook first the next thing is to be logging into portal?
    i think its important to identify our habits and know whether or not they are beneficial to our lives.

    • Luke

      When I read this I realized that my default strategy is to replace my habits with ones I like more when I want something to change. Sometimes they’re harder to replace, sometimes the choice just naturally works itself out. I’m not sure if there’s a way that involves not having any habits… I’ve wondered about that, though. Some people don’t like routine at all.