Habits and destiny

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Treadmill

Another great piece in this weekend’s New York Times magazine, adapted from a forthcoming book, told the story of Andrew Pole, who analyzes retail behavior for the marketers at mega-retailer Target. The goal, of course, is to get shoppers to change their habits and buy more stuff at Target.

It’s fascinating stuff, however. Author Charles Duhigg describes the three-step process by which habits are formed:

First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop — cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward — becomes more and more automatic.

But habits aren’t destiny, pace the famous proverb that’s attributed to Gandhi, and the neuroscience that underpins Pole’s analysis can be used for more constructive purposes, too. Pole describes using it to break his mid-afternoon habit of going down to the cafeteria for a cookie. The secret was to determine that the reward he really sought was a bit of socialization: “When I walked to a colleague’s desk and chatted for a few minutes, it turned out, my cookie urge was gone.” He has since lost 21 pounds.

Are there habits that you’ve broken, or that you’re trying to break right now?

4 thoughts on “Habits and destiny

  1. I’m definitely a bad impulse buyer (well, it’s bad for me, great for stores like Target). But what about creating new habits rather than breaking old ones?

    As I’ve mentioned in the comments on this blog before, I started keeping a diary at the beginning of 2011. This was something I’d tried and failed to do for some years prior. I don’t know what was so different this time, perhaps it was having a pretty diary I enjoyed looking at and filling, perhaps it was the thrill of writing in a new color each day (or just writing at all), or perhaps it was the thought of keeping a written record of my year in one place. I think it helps that the space allotted for each day is fairly short, so I don’t feel pressured by a large blank page.

    But by writing in it every night, just before bedtime, I made a habit of it. Now I look forward to it. I bought a 2012 diary I enjoy using, I just rewarded myself with new pens, and I only skip my diary entry on days when I am too exhausted to do anything but sleep (then I make up the entry the next night).

    Coincidentally, I’ve been reading this article for the past week. I guess that’s another habit I should break — reading parts of (long) articles and forgetting to finish them!

  2. Not sure how much credibility I’d give this . . . stores like Target (and more annoyingly, bookstores) seem to think that randomly rearranging stuff in the store every few months somehow boosts sales. You want me to “buy more stuff at Target,” then LEAVE THE STUFF IN THE SAME PLACE!! Don’t make me have to go hunting every six months because some consultant or corporate vice-president thought housewares and groceries should trade locations.

  3. The fact that retail giants like Target has people like this has always disturbed me a little. I completely understand why they have them, but it just seems so unfair.

    Coincidentally, a BIG bad habit I am trying to break is of impulse buying. I don’t go for particularly large stuff, but the little stuff I buy adds up. I know I need to watch it more.

    This was an interesting read. Thanks for posting it.

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