One particularly dramatic demonstration of how alcoholics' cues and rewards can be transferred to new routines occurred in 2007 when Mueller, the German neurologist, and his colleagues at the University of Magdeburg implanted small electrical devices inside the brains of five alcoholics who had repeatedly tried to give up booze. The alcoholics in the study had each spent at least six months in rehab without success. One of them had been through detox more than sixty times.
The devices implanted in the men's heads were positioned inside their basal ganglia - the same part of the brain where the MIT researchers found the habit loop - and emitted an electrical charge that interrupted the neurological reward that triggers habitual cravings. After the men recovered from the operations, they were exposed to cues that had once triggered alcoholic urges, such as photos of beer or trips to a bar. Normally, it would have been impossible for them to resist a drink. But the devices inside their brains “overrode” each man's neurological cravings. They didn’t touch a drop.
"One of them told me the craving disappeared as soon as we turned the electricity on," Mueller said. “Then we turned it off and the craving came back immediately."
Eradicating the alcoholics' neurological cravings, however, wasn’t enough to stop their drinking habits. Four of them relapsed soon after the surgery, usually after a stressful event. They picked up a bottle because that's how they automatically dealt with anxiety. However, once they learned alternate routines for dealing with stress, the drinking stopped for good. One patient, for instance, attended AA meetings. Others went to therapy. And once they incorporated those new routines for coping with stress and anxiety into their lives, the successes were dramatic. The man who had gone to detox sixty times never had another drink. Two other patients had started drinking at twelve, were alcoholics by eighteen, drank every day, and now have been sober for four years.
Notice how closely this study hews to the Golden Rule of habit change: Even when alcoholics' brains were changed through surgery, it wasn’t enough. The old cues and cravings for rewards were still there, waiting to pounce. The alcoholics only permanently changed once they learned new routines that drew on the old triggers and provided a familiar relief. "Some brains are so addicted to alcohol that only surgery can stop it," said Mueller. "But those people also need new ways for dealing with life."
AA provides a similar, though less invasive, system for inserting new routines into old habit loops. As scientists have begun understanding how AA works, they've started applying the program’s methods to other habits, such as two-year-olds' tantrums, sex addiction, and even minor behavioral tics. As AA's methods have spread, they’ve been refined into therapies that can be used to disrupt almost any pattern.
The difficult thing about studying the science of habits is that most people, when they hear about this field of research, want to know the secret formula for quickly changing any habit. If scientists have discovered how these patterns work, then it stands to reason that they must have also found a recipe for rapid change, right?
If only it were that easy.
It’s not that formulas don’t exist. The problem is that there isn’t one formula for changing habits. There are thousands.
Individuals and habits are all different, and so the specifics of diagnosing and changing the patterns in our lives differ from person to person and behavior to behavior. Giving up cigarettes is different than curbing overeating, which is different from changing how you communicate with your spouse, which is different from how you prioritize tasks at work. What’s more, each person’s habits are driven by different cravings.
As a result, there is no one prescription. Rather, we hope to deliver something else: a framework for understanding how habits work and a guide to experimenting with how they might change. Some habits yield easily to analysis and influence. Others are more complex and obstinate, and require prolonged study. And for others, change is a process that never fully concludes.
But that doesn’t mean it can’t occur. The framework described in this appendix is an attempt to distill, in a very basic way, the tactics that researchers have found for diagnosing and shaping habits within our own lives. This isn’t meant to be comprehensive. This is merely a practical guide, a place to start.
Change might not be fast and it isn’t always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped.
Identify the routine
Experiment with rewards
Isolate the cue
Have a plan
The MIT researchers discovered a simple neurological loop at the core of every habit, a loop that consists of three parts: A cue, a routine and a reward.
To understand your own habits, you need to identify the components of your loops. Once you have diagnosed the habit loop of a particular behavior, you can look for ways to supplant old vices with new routines.
As an example, let’s say you have a bad habit, like I did when I started researching this book, of going to the cafeteria and buying a chocolate chip cookie every afternoon. Let’s say this habit has caused you to gain a few pounds. In fact, let’s say this habit has caused you to gain exactly 8 pounds, and that your wife has made a few pointed comments. You’ve tried to force yourself to stop – you even went so far as to put a post-it on your computer that reads “NO MORE COOKIES”.
But every afternoon you manage to ignore that note, get up, wander towards the cafeteria, buy a cookie and, while chatting with colleagues around the cash register, eat it. It feels good, and then it feels bad. Tomorrow, you promise yourself, you’ll muster the willpower to resist. Tomorrowwill be different.
But tomorrow, the habit takes hold again.
How do you start diagnosing and then changing this behavior? By figuring out the habit loop. And the first step is to identify the routine. In this cookie scenario – as with most habits – the routine is the most obvious aspect: it’s the behavior you want to change. Your routine is that you get up from your desk in the afternoon, walk to the cafeteria, buy a chocolate chip cookie and eat it while chatting with friends. So that’s what you put into the loop:
Next, some less obvious questions: What’s the cue for this routine? Is it hunger? Boredom? Low blood sugar? That you need a break before plunging into another task?
And what’s the reward? The cookie itself? The change of scenery? The temporary distraction? Socializing with colleagues? Or the burst of energy that comes from that blast of sugar?
To figure this out, you’ll need to do a little experimentation.
STEP TWO: EXPERIMENT WITH REWARDS
Rewards are powerful because they satisfying cravings. But we’re often not conscious of the cravings that drive our behaviors. Most cravings are obvious in retrospect, but incredibly hard to see when we are under their sway.
To figure out which cravings are driving particular habits, it’s useful to experiment with different rewards. This might take a few days, or a week, or longer. During that period, you shouldn’t feel any pressure to make a real change – think of yourself as a scientist in the data collection stage.
On the first day of your experiment, when you feel the urge to go to the cafeteria and buy a cookie, adjust your routine so it delivers a different reward. For instance, instead of walking to the cafeteria, go outside, walk around the block, and then go back to your desk without eating anything. The next day, go to the cafeteria and buy a donut, or a candy bar, and eat it at your desk. The next day, go to the cafeteria, buy an apple, and eat it while chatting with your friends. Then, try a cup of coffee. Then, instead of going to the cafeteria, walk over to your friend’s office and gossip for a few minutes and go back to your desk.
You get the idea. What you choose to do instead of buying a cookie isn’t important. The point is to test different hypotheses to determine which craving is driving your routine. Are you craving the cookie itself, or a break from work? If it’s the cookie, is it because you’re hungry? (In which case the apple should work just as well.) Or is it because you want the burst of energy the cookie provides? (And so the coffee should suffice.) Or, are you wandering up to the cafeteria as an excuse to socialize, and the cookie is just a convenient excuse? (If so, walking to someone’s desk and gossiping for a few minutes should satisfy the urge.)
As you test four or five different rewards, you can use an old trick to look for patterns: After each activity, jot down on a piece of paper the first three things that come to mind when you get back to your desk. They can be emotions, random thoughts, reflections on how you’re feeling, or just the first three words that pop into your head.
Then, set an alarm on your watch or computer for 15 minutes. When it goes off, ask yourself: do you still feel the urge for that cookie?
The reason why it’s important to write down three things – even if they are meaningless words – is twofold. First, it forces a momentary awareness of what you are thinking or feeling. Just as Mandy, the nail biter in Chapter 3, carried around a note card filled with hash marks to force her into awareness of her habitual urges, so writing three words forces a moment of attention. What’s more, studies show that writing down a few words helps in later recalling what you were thinking at that moment. At the end of the experiment, when you review your notes, it will be much easier to remember what you were thinking and feeling at that precise instant, because your scribbled words will trigger a wave of recollection.
And why the 15-minute alarm? Because the point of these tests is to determine the reward you’re craving. If, fifteen minutes after eating a donuts, you still feel an urge to get up and go to the cafeteria, then your habit isn’t motivated by a sugar craving. If, after gossiping at a colleague’s desk, you still want a cookie, then the need for human contact isn’t what’s driving your behavior.
On the other hand, if fifteen minutes after chatting with a friend, you find it easy to get back to work, then you’ve identified the reward – temporary distraction and socialization – that your habit sought to satisfy.
By experimenting with different rewards, you can isolate what you areactually craving, which is essential in redesigning the habit.
Once you’ve figured out the routine and the reward, what remains is identifying the cue.