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Charles Duhigg: The Golden Rule of Habit Change

Why Transformation Occurs:

Tony Dungy – his coaching approach would help illuminate how to remake the habits in anyone’s life.

Tony Dungy had waited an eternity for the job as  head coach of the Buccaneers. For 17 years, he prowled the sidelines as an assistant coach, first at the University of Minnesota, then with the Pittsburgh Steelers, then the Kansas City Chiefs, and then back to Minnesota with  the Vikings. Four times in the past decade, he had been invited to interview for head coaching positions with NFL teams.

All four times, the interviews hadn’t gone well.

Part of the problem was Dungy’s coaching philosophy. In his job interviews, he would patiently explain his belief that the key to winning was changing players’ habits. He wanted to get players to stop making so many decisions during a game, he said. He wanted them to react automatically, habitually. If he could instill the  right habits, his team would win. Period.

“Champions don’t do extraordinary things,” Dungy would explain. “They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they’ve learned.”

How, the owners would ask, are you going to create those new habits?

Oh, no, he wasn’t going to create new habits. Dungy was going to change players’ old ones. And the secret to changing old habits was using what was already inside players’ heads. Habits are a three-step loop –– the cue, the routine, and the reward –– but Dungy only wanted to attack the middle step, the routine. He knew from experience that it was easier to convince someone to adopt a new behavior if there was something familiar at the beginning and end.

His coaching strategy embodied an axiom, a Golden Rule of habit change that study after study has shown is among the most powerful tools for creating change. Dungy recognized that you can never truly extinguish bad habits. Rather, to change a habit, you must keep the old cue and deliver the old reward, but insert a   new routine.

That’s the rule: If you use the same cue and provide the same reward, you can shift the routine and change the habit. Almost any behavior can be transformed if the cue and reward stay the same.

Four times Dungy explained his habit-based philoso- phy to team owners. Four times they listened politely, thanked him for his time and then hired someone else.

Then, in 1996, the woeful Buccaneers called. Dungy flew to Tampa Bay and, once again, laid out his plan for how they could win. The day after the final interview, they offered him the job.

Tony Dungy – the only coach in NFL history to reach the play-offs in 10 consecutive years, the first African American coach to win a Super Bowl.

Dungy’s system would eventually turn the Bucs into one of the league’s winningest teams. He would become the only coach in NFL history to reach the play-offs in 10 consecutive years, the first African American coach to win a Super Bowl, and one of the most respected figures in professional athletics. His coaching techniques would spread throughout the league and all of sports. His approach would help illuminate how to remake the habits in anyone’s life.

There is, unfortunately, no specific set of steps guaranteed to work for every person. We know that a habit cannot be eradicated –– it must, instead, be replaced. And we know that habits are most malleable when the Golden Rule of habit change is applied. If we keep the same cue and the same reward, a new routing can be inserted.

But that’s not enough. For a habit to stay changed, people must believe change is possible. And, most often, that belief only emerges with the help of a group.

If you want to quit smoking, figure out a different routine that will satisfy the cravings filled by cigarettes. Then, find a support group, a collection of other former smokers, or a community that will help you believe you can stay away from nicotine, and use that group when you feel you might stumble.

If you want to lose weight, study your habits to deter- mine why you really leave your desk for a snack each day and then find someone to take a walk with you, to gossip with at their desk rather than in the cafeteria, a group that tracks weight-loss goals together, or someone who also wants to keep a stock of apples, rather than chips, nearby.

The evidence is clear: If you want to change a habit, you must find an alternative routine, and your odds of success go up dramatically when you commit to changing as part of a group. Belief is essential, and it grows out of a communal experience, even if that community is only as large as two people. ●


Habit Reversal Therapy

Today, habit reversal therapy is used to treat ver- bal and physical tics, depression, smoking, gam- bling problems, anxiety, bedwetting, procrastination, obsessive-compulsive disorders and other behav- ioral problems. And its techniques lay bare one of the fundamental principles of habits: Often, we don’t really understand the cravings driving our behaviors until we look for them.

If you identify the cues and rewards, you can change the routine. At least, most of the time. For some habits, however, there’s one other ingredient that’s necessary: belief.
Understanding the cues and cravings driving your habits won’t make them suddenly disap- pear –– but it will give you a way to plan how to change the pattern.

The author: Charles Duhigg is an investigative reporter for The New York Times. He is a winner of the National Academies of Sciences, National Journalism, George Polk, Gerald Loeb and other awards, and was part of a team of finalists for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize.

He is a frequent contributor to This American Life, NPR, PBS Newshour and Frontline. He is a graduate of Harvard Business School and Yale University.

From the book: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg.

Alan Davidson

One Comment

  • Penny says:

    Interesting…I so appreciate the Psychology, Science, Technology, and Discovery. It’s all fascinating really..where our minds go and what they can achieve. Habits, I replaced drinking with smoking. I loved sitting on the back porch in the evenings, watching the stars and smoking. My family hated it, but I had no desire to quit. I started the master cleanse, (Lemonade diet) the first time I did it was 15 years ago with fantastic results, introducing food back into my system was when I really became aware of the subconscious mind at work, my body reacting to certain foods even as I was preparing them. This time I was smoking through it and had every intention to keep smoking. One evening as I sat there a combination of knowing, awareness, and a guiding voice made me realize that the mucus usually lining my lungs wasn’t there (the cleanse clears the mucus from your body) and I could make a choice. I did choose to butt out, then and there, and I never had another craving, I never missed it, and it had nothing to do with me, my will or desire to change. It was just a choice to surrender and I was fully met there.
    Thanks for the post Alan, because I had never consciously processed what it actually means to surrender, but I did and still do believe in miracles and magic…big time! Love P

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