[00:00:06.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success with your host, Matt Bodnar.
[0:00:12.5]MB: Welcome to welcome to the science of success, the number one evidence-based growth podcast on the internet with more than 1 million downloads and listeners in over a hundred countries. In this episode we discuss habit loops, how they form, what they are, and we look at why you can't stop picking up your phone. I know that’s definitely a challenge for me. We talk about the habits and routines that research shows are the most correlated with success, and we talk about how to bake mental models into your brain and much more, with Charles Duhigg.
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In our previous episode we discussed how you can fall into cycles of self-sabotage and constantly reset your happiness down to where you think it should be. We discussed lessons learned from coaching over 20,000 people. Talked about how to crush your upper limit problem and break through the beliefs that are holding you back. We look at the questions you need to discover and live in your zone of genius and much more, with Dr. Gay Hendricks. If you want to flush self-sabotage, listen to that episode.
You know how much we talk about the concept of mental models on the show and I think it's an incredibly important and super vital strategy to build a toolkit of mental models that can help you be successful and achieve your goals. That's why I'm once again excited to tell you about or sponsor for this week, brilliant.org.
Brilliant is a math and science enrichment learning tool that makes mastering the fundamentals of math and science easy and fun, and there's something special there for Science of Success listeners which you can get by going to brilliant.org/scienceofsuccess. Mastering the fundamentals of math and science is a super important component of building a powerful toolkit of mental models, and Brilliant is an incredible way to get started with that.
Now, for the episode.
[0:02:51.5] MB: Today we have another incredible guest on the show, Charles Duhigg. Charles is a Pulitzer prize-winning columnist and senior editor at the New York Times. He’s the author of The Power of Habit and Smarter, Faster, Better, both of which are New York Times bestsellers. Graduated from Yale and Harvard Business School and has been featured in This American Life, NPR, Frontline and much more.
Charles, welcome to the Science of Success.
[0:03:13.1] CD: Thanks for having me on.
[0:03:14.5] MB: We’re very excited to have you on here. To start out, I'd love to — I know both of your books cover such fascinating topics and I want to get as much out of this conversation as we can. To start out, tell me a little bit about — Let’s start with the power path. Tell me about habit loops. How are habits formed and how can we change our habits?
[0:03:33.6] CD: One of the big insights that’s happened in the last 15 years in neurology is really understanding what a habit is. I think we tend to think of a habit as sort of one thing, right? It’s that instinct that I have to eat cookies when I don’t need to, or to bite my nails. What researchers have discovered is that every habit has three components. The first part of a habit is the cue, the trigger, that sets off this urge, this instinct to almost do something automatically.
Then after that trigger, the cue, there comes that routine, which is the behavior itself. Then, finally, there’s a reward, and every habit has a reward, and that reward is why your brain latches on to this behavior and makes it automatic.
This happens all the time. In fact, there was a woman named Wendy Wood at Duke University who followed around hundreds of people for an entire year and what she found was that about 40% to 45% of what we do every single day is not a decision, it’s a habit, right? When you are backing your car out of the driveway and you’ve done it so many times you don’t really have to pay attention to it. That’s a habit. When you remember leaving home and you’re at your desk but you can’t exactly remember the drive along the freeway because you were thinking about something else. That’s because you were able to do that by habit.
We have mental habits that occur almost every minute. Habits are how we as species have survived and have thrived so well. In every single one of those habits, there’re thousands of little habits that come into play every single day, almost half of what we do, all of them have a cue, a routine, and a reward.
[0:05:15.0] MB: Tell me about each of those. What is the cue, what is the routine, what is the reward and how could we leverage that knowledge to change our negative habits or to build positive habits?
[0:05:27.0] CD: It’s different for every single habit, right? What habit do you have that you struggle with?
[0:05:32.3] MB: I’d say a good one might be maybe checking my phone too frequently or checking Reddit or something like that and wasting time on social media.
[0:05:39.3] CD: Okay. When you feel that urge to check your phone, what’s going on? Paint a picture of what’s happening. For instance, where does it usually happen?
[0:05:52.1] MB: I would say all over the place, right? To me, maybe I’m reading too much into it, but it feels like my brain is screaming out for some sort of novelty dopamine, give me something new. Give me something exciting, and I’ll kind of pick up my phone and then wake up 15 minutes later and be like, “What have I just been doing?”
[0:06:11.1] CD: All cues for the most part fall into one of that categories. It’s usually a particular place, a certain time of day, the presence of certain other people, a particular emotion or a preceding behavior that’s become ritualized somehow. It sounds like, for you, what the cue for checking your phone is, is it’s probably a particular emotion, which in this case would be kind of boredom, right? What psychologists would call novelty seeking, that you’re feeling like you need like a burst of something interesting. When you have this fair moment, when you feel a little bit bored, you feel this certain emotion, you pick up and you check your phone. We’ve got the cue diagnosed.
The activity is pretty much the same way every single time. You pick up the phone, you kind of turn it on. Do you find that you tend to go to the same apps on your phone?
[0:07:01.2] MB: Yeah, absolutely. Probably Reddit is one that is a huge time sync.
[0:07:05.9] CD: Okay. We’ve got the routine down. You’re grabbing your phone, you’re hitting the Reddit app or you’re opening up a browser and you’re checking Reddit. Then now the question becomes; what is the reward? Because we know that every single habit has a reward. Sometimes those rewards are hard to identify. Sometimes they’re very subtle, but the only reason your brain makes that behavior automatic is because it is delivering some kind of reward and without knowing what the reward is, you can’t begin to diagnose and therefore change the behavior.
What reward do you think it’s delivering when you check Reddit?
[0:07:44.3] MB: I think it’s, as you said, sort of novelty. It’s new information. It’s kind of some — I don’t know. It’s hard to describe. It’s like dopamine. I always want to know what’s the new thing, what’s going on? It’s kind of the same impulse of checking the news, right?
[0:07:57.7] CD: It’s definitely not dopamine, right? Because we know that neurotransmitters are very, very complicated, that what actually happens inside your brain can’t be reduced to just sort of one neurotransmitter.
Now, the other thing you said is you said it could be novelty, it could be — I think you said you wanted to learn something new. Those are actually two different rewards, and understanding exactly what’s going on is important at really trying to figure out how to fix this. Typically, if had more time, what I would say is, “Look, you should start experimenting.” The next time you feel the urge to check Reddit, you should, for instance, just check YouTube and look for something dumb on YouTube. Something that doesn’t have any informational value, whatsoever, but it’s just kind of visually entertaining. Figure out, does that satisfy that craving, because then you know that the reward that’s driving these habits, it’s novelty seeking.
Then I would say the next experiment is maybe instead of checking Reddit, go to like CNN and read some kind of dry article and see if that satisfies the craving, because if that does, then it means it’s not novelty seeking that’s driving this habit, it’s instead sort of this thirst for knowledge, for learning something new. Then you can even get smaller and smaller and smaller.
If it is novelty seeking, my guess is that it’s novelty seeking. My guess is that you would not be a satisfied going to, for instance, like the American Journal Pediatric Surgery as you would be going to Reddit, because Reddit sort of has things that are more fun and more interesting, and it’s not exactly news you need to know. It’s just news that’s kind of interesting.
My guess is that novelty is a huge part of it, then you can get even more specific and you can try and figure out, “Okay, is it just that you need like something completely different?” If you conducted an experiment and you went to YouTube instead of Reddit and you just watched flashing lights, which are very, very novel, or picture or videos of penguins, which is very novel. Would that satisfy the urge, or does it need to be something that’s kind of funny. Does it need to be something that’s kind of interesting?
The goal there is to figure out what exactly are you actually — What reward is this habit delivering for you? Get specific as possible in what kind of reward this is [inaudible 0:10:18.9]. Now, it might be that you’re totally wrong, that it has nothing to do with the content, with the value of the content. That it doesn’t matter if it’s funny or if it’s newsy. Actually, all that you need is you just need some way to like kind of catch of breath and stop thinking about whatever problem you’re trying to solve and you’ve fallen into the habit of looking at Reddit as kind of a mental reset, and you could look at anything for that matter.
Once you understand what reward that habit is delivering, then you can reprogram the habit. Then you could say, “Okay. Look.” I’m just going to make this up, but let’s say what’s going on here is that when I feel a cue of boredom, I turn to Reddit, and the reason why I turn to Reddit is because Reddit delivers me some type of reward that makes me feel smart. It doesn’t feel like procrastination. It feels like I’m learning something.
Then the next question becomes, “Okay. What else can you do that would correspond to that old cue and deliver something similar to that old reward, but it actually more healthy.” Is it something that you feel like is quite as much a waste of time? What would that be?
[0:11:31.6] MB: Yeah. I think that’s a great analogy. I can answer that for myself, but I want to focus on delivering value to the listeners, and I know we have tight time constraints in this interview. I want to kind of advance beyond this. Tell me a little bit about, just briefly, what is a keystone habit and how are those important in terms of shaping and kind of impacting the behavior?
[0:11:55.2] CD: A keystone habit is a habit that seems to set off a chain reaction when it begins to change itself. For many people, exercise for instance, is a keystone habit. When people start exercising, they tend to start eating differently often times without even thinking about it. For most of us, I think that makes sense, because for whatever reason we feel like, “Oh, I went for a run this morning, and so it’s easier to eat a salad for lunch rather than a hamburger.”
What’s interesting is that according to studies, when people start exercising habitually, they also start doing things like using their credit cards less. They tend to do their dishes earlier in the day. They procrastinate less at work. Then there’s something about it for many people, not for everyone, but for many people, that exercise is a keystone habit that changes how they see themselves. As a result, it sets off a chain reaction that changes other patterns in their life.
For you, this habit of checking Reddit. If it’s something that you find sort of really bothers you, right? It’s something that seems to dominate your day. You find yourself doing it and, “Oh, God! Why am I doing this again? I wish that I could stop.” Then that might very well be a keystone habit for you. We tend to identify keystone habits. Again, a keystone habit is different for each person by the emotional content of it rather than merely by the role that it plays in our life.
[0:13:24.4] MB: One of the biggest things that I’m a huge fan of on the show are mental models. You’ve heard me talk a lot about mental models and how critically important it is if you want to be successful to build a toolkit of mental models that can help you better understand reality.
One of the topics and many of the topics actually that are critical to developing an amazing and rich toolkit of mental models is a deep understanding of mathematics, science, physics, chemistry, etc. The hard sciences are some of the backbones of the most useful and effective mental model toolkits, and that's why I'm super excited to announce that our sponsor for this episode is brilliant.org.
Brilliant.org is a math and science enrichment learning website where you can learn concepts by actually solving fascinating and challenging problems. I'm really, really excited about this, because I'm a huge fan of STEM learning; science, technology, engineering and math, and I think that it’s something that America in general needs to do a better job of and it's something that I really want you, the listeners, to be improving and getting these skills and getting better at things like science and math.
Too many people in our society have lost the ability to quantitatively understand reality, and the mental models from a hard sciences are some of the most powerful in describing what happens in the real world. I personally am super psyched about Brilliant. The courses on there are amazing, and I'm going to through and take a bunch of them to re-up my understanding of things like probability, games of chance, problem-solving and they even have some really cool stuff, things like machine learning.
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[0:15:40.6] MB: Let’s dig into some of the lessons from Smarter, Faster, Better. Tell me about — One of the core concepts of that book is the idea that it’s not that most successful work harder, it’s that they do things differently. Tell me about that idea.
[0:15:52.7] CD: It’s not that they do things differently. It’s that they tend to think differently, right?
[0:15:58.8] MB: Yeah. Exactly. Sorry. Maybe I’m mis-phrased that.
[0:16:02.0] CD: In general, the most productive people, they tend to be people who think more deeply than everyone else. They spend more time thinking about the choices that they’re making. They’re trying to figure out why they have certain priorities and how to focus on those priorities. How to motivate their teams and how to motivate themselves.
That’s what the book explains, is that there are these mental habits that prepare us to think more deeply about the choices we’re making, particularly when thinking is hard.
[0:16:30.1] MB: What are some of the thought patterns that people who think differently that are more productive follow and implement?
[0:16:38.1] CD: Do you feel like you’re a pretty productive guy?
[0:16:41.9] MB: I mean I’m decently productive.
[0:16:43.8] CD: Why do you think you’re productive? What do you do to help yourself become productive?
[0:16:48.5] MB: I think it’s a lot of the things you talked about in the book, right? I spend a lot of time — I carve out and cultivate space in my life for thinking about what I’m doing for setting my goals, for creative time that is outside of kind of the constant churn of responding to emails and doing busy work. I constantly trying to cultivate that sort of quadrant of important, but not urgent work and spending time on that, spending time journaling and thinking. I hope that even though those activities seem like they’re sort of not getting things done, in many ways they refocus on what you do in such a way that it’s actually much more high-leveraged than just seeming like you’re busy all the time.
[0:17:28.2] CD: Yeah. I think that’s exactly right. Do you set aside time for that? Do you have a block of hour, an hour to set aside on Sunday? Do you do it when you’re feeling like it? How do you structure creating that time?
[0:17:40.1] MB: Yeah. I try to cultivate that time every morning. I set aside time in the mornings before I have meetings, then I can sort of think, journal, think about big picture things and try to figure out what can I do to be more effective.
[0:17:54.1] CD: Yeah. I think that this is the big insight that we’ve learned from research into productivity about why some people in some companies, but people in particular, why some people get so much more done than other people do. Why they seem to succeed faster?
The conventional wisdom has always been, “Oh, those people must work much harder. They chain themselves to their desks,” or maybe that they’re much smarter or that they went to the right schools and so they have more advantages.
What the research shows is that doesn’t tend to be true. Certainly, working hard is great and going to the right schools doesn’t hurt, but that doesn’t seem to correlate with success. That what actually seems to correlate with success is that the people who are most productive and most successful, they tend to have what researchers refer to as contemplative routines, as habits in their life that push them to think more deeply.
You mentioned journaling. Journaling is a great example of this, because the act of journaling often times forces us to sit down and to try and make sense of how we spent our time recently. What our goals actually ought to be as supposed to what we happen to just get obsessed with or fixated on right now, and how we should arrange our life so that those priorities, so that our energy and our activity is actually focused on our priorities rather than instantly responding to life’s many sort of busy work request.
The basic insight here is that, particularly now, being busy and being productive are not synonymous. You can spend an entire day being busy. You can spend an entire day replying to emails and not getting anything important done. That’s kind of a new thing, right? As late as the 1960s and 1970s, busy and productive were kind of similar, but that’s changed in this economic revolution that we’re living through. They’ve now become disjointed.
The people who are most successful are the ones who recognize that and who say, “Look! I need these routines in my life.” I need these habits in my life that push me to think about what my goals should be. Whether I need to change my priorities today. Whether I’m actually spending time on my priorities, or instead I’m just doing stuff because it’s the easiest thing to do, because it makes me feel productive instead of actually be productive.
One of the things that the core of Smarter, Faster, Better is that Smarter, Faster, Better walks through these eight parts of life that seem to be most deeply correlated with productivity and success and sort of unpacks, okay. What is the habit that you need to build that allows you to think more deeply about things like, for instance, generating motivation when you most need it? What do we know about the neurology of motivation? What do we know about remaining focused at work? What is that habit that people employ so that they don’t get distracted by minutia, that they don’t get distracted by things that don’t matter, so that they set priorities actively and push themselves to think about those priorities rather than getting complaisant and just looking at your to-do-list and doing whatever comes next even if that’s not the most important thing.
What do we know about why some teams succeed more than others, and therefore how do we empower leaders of those teams to create the right team habits that makes success more likely? At the core of each of these is this basic principle, it’s hard to think, right? It takes time and energy and work and it’s easy to forget to think.
Throughout history, thinking has always been the killer productivity app. The key is to build these routines, these habits into your life that push you to think a little bit more deeply about the things that matter, like goals and teams and innovation and to think in certain ways so that you’ll end up being more successful.
[0:21:55.4] MB: Tell me the story of Qantas Flight 32.
[0:21:58.7] CD: Qantas Flight 32 is a flight that took off from Singapore Airport, headed towards Sydney, Australia. They had a midair catastrophic mechanical injury and the pilot ended up prevailing because he was able to shift his mental model. He was able to shift the story he was telling himself inside his head that helped him think about how he ought to harness his attention in the right way.
Did you read the story?
[0:22:29.6] MB: I listened to a recent speech of yours when you talked about it. I thought it was riveting and it was a fascinating story, that’s why I wanted to dig in to some of the lessons from what happened.
[0:22:40.9] CD: Why parts of it stood out to you?
[0:22:43.2] MB: I think one that sort of a narrative structure of being in the midst of this plane malfunction and how they were able to recover from it. Specifically, the concept of situational awareness and how they sort of practiced these routines and even before the accident, even the car right over there kind of rehearsing and talking about what are we going to do when and if something goes wrong. You mentioned that the flight recording of the cockpit, it almost sounds like a rehearsed scripted play even in the midst of what seemingly is a crisis.
[0:23:21.2] CD: Yeah. One of the big important things that we know about how people marshal their attention and don’t get distracted, why some people are able to maintain focus, whether you’re in an emergency in an airplane cockpit or whether it’s just a busy day at work and you’re sitting at your desk and there’s emails coming in and there’s phone calls and there’s people asking you to come to some meeting unexpectedly.
The people who are able to maintain their focus the best are the ones who kind of have some story in their head, some story that they’re almost telling themselves about what’s going on as it occurs. We know these about firemen for instance, the best firefighters. There’s always firefighters that almost seem like they have ESP. They could almost detect what’s going to happen in a burning building before it occurs.
As researchers have gone and talked to those folks and they’ve asked them how they do that, what they tend to say is the same thing over and over again. They say, “When I walk into a burning building, I start telling myself a story about what I expect to see. I walk into a room and I expect to see flames in one corner, because corners always burn faster than everything else. I know there’s a staircase off to the left and I expect to see a lot of flames on top of that staircase, there’s usually an air gap under staircases and so they burn fast. Then when I walk into a room and the story in front of my eyes, it’s different from the story inside my head. For instance, there’s less flames than I expect to see on that staircase. It causes me to suddenly take a second and say, “Wait, something is wrong. Pay attention to that staircase. Don’t go over there. There’s something off about that.”
The reason why they know where to focus and what they can ignore is because they have this story inside their head, right? Psychologists call this the act of building mental models, and mental models are how our brain almost unconsciously decides what to focus on and what to ignore. All of us do this. This is like second nature for one degree to another. Most of us, when we think about our day, we think like, “Oh, I have a meeting at 10 o’clock and then I’ve got to meet Jim for lunch at 11:30, so I need to leave by 11,” and we build these mental models or we play out a conversation that we’re going to have, a tough conversation in our head.
We have a natural instinct to create mental models, but the people who are most successful, they tend to build mental models that are just half a degree more specific than everyone else. Instead of saying, “I have a meeting at 10 o’clock, I need to leave by 11.” They say, “Oh, I’ve got a meeting at 10 o’clock and it’s probably going to begin with Jim saying that dumb idea that he brings up at every meeting. Then Mary, Mary is probably going to disagree with him, because Mary hates Jim, so she always want to disagree. You know what I should do? Then I should jump in with my idea, because, I’ll be you, everyone will be relieved to hear me bring up something sensible at that point. I’ll kind of win the meeting.”
That’s what the most productive people do. They build these mental models, these kind of visualizations of what they expect to have unfold that are just a little bit more detailed than everyone else. It doesn’t take much time. It takes 30 seconds, maybe two minutes to envision your entire day that way.
What it does is it builds a mental model that allows your brain to anticipate what’s going to happen. More importantly, focus on what really matters and not get quite as distracted as small little details from everything else.
[0:26:49.2] MB: Charles, thank you so much. I know you’re tight on time today, but we really appreciate you coming on the show and sharing all of your wisdom.
[0:26:56.3] CD: Thanks for having me on.
[0:26:59.0] MB: Thank you so much for listening to the Science of Success. We created the show to help you, our listeners, master evidence-based personal growth. I love hearing from listeners. If you want to reach out, share your story or just say hi, shoot me an email. My email, which I give out at the end of every episode, is email@example.com. That's firstname.lastname@example.org. I read and respond to every single listener email.
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