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Every now and then, I invite cool people who have written good books to share their knowledge directly with my readers. I think you’ll find Charles Duhigg’s research into habit formation very useful, regardless of what you do for a living. Here are a few notes on the key ideas in (#book-detail-link)The Power of Habit.
Charles Duhigg is an award-winning reporter for The New York Times and the author of (#book-detail-link)The Power of Habit, a book about the science of habit formation in our lives, companies and societies. He also holds an MBA from Harvard Business School, but we won’t hold that against him.
How do you make willpower into a habit?
When I was reporting my book, (#book-detail-link)The Power of Habit, this question was always at the back of my mind. High levels of willpower, studies have shown, is the single greatest predictor of success among businesspeople. More than intelligence, access to wealth or advanced educational degrees, willpower seems to determine whether people thrive or fail. My initial reporting on the science of habits had focused on understanding the neurological structure of habits - what is known as the habit loop.
But simply understanding the habit loop isn’t enough. Once people know how to create or change habits, they have to decide where to start. And making willpower into a habit, I learned, is among the most important decisions someone can make.
To understand how willpower can become a habit, consider a study conducted in 1992 by a psychologist working inside two of Scotland’s busiest orthopedic hospitals. The experiment was designed to study how to boost the willpower of people exceptionally resistant to change. The patients, on average, were sixty-eight years old. Most of them earned less than $10,000 a year and didn’t have more than a high school degree. All of them had recently undergone hip or knee replacement surgeries, but because they were relatively poor and uneducated, many had waited years for their operations.
Recovering from a hip or knee surgery is incredibly arduous. The operation involves severing joint muscles and sawing through bones. While recovering, the smallest movements— shifting in bed or flexing a joint— can be excruciating.
However, it is essential that patients begin exercising almost as soon as they wake from surgery. They must begin moving their legs and hips before the muscles and skin have healed, or scar tissue will clog the joint, destroying its flexibility. But the agony is so extreme that it’s not unusual for people to skip out on rehab sessions.
The Scottish study’s participants were the types of people most likely to fail at rehabilitation. The scientist conducting the experiment wanted to see if it was possible to help them harness their willpower.
She began by giving each patient a booklet after their surgeries that detailed their rehab schedule, and in the back were thirteen additional pages — one for each week — with blank spaces and instructions: “My goals for this week are ? Write down exactly what you are going to do. For example, if you are going to go for a walk this week, write down where and when you are going to walk."
She asked all of the patients to fill in each of those pages with specific plans. Then she compared the recoveries of those who wrote out goals with those of another set of patients who had received the same booklets, but didn’t write anything.
It seems absurd to think that giving people a few pieces of blank paper might make a difference in how quickly they recover from surgery. But when the researcher visited the patients three months later, she found a striking difference between the two groups.
The patients who had written plans in their booklets had started walking almost twice as fast as the ones who had not. They had started getting in and out of their chairs, unassisted, almost three times as fast. They were putting on their shoes, doing the laundry, and making themselves meals quicker than the patients who hadn’t scribbled out goals ahead of time.
The psychologist wanted to understand why this group had managed to focus their willpower so much more easily.
She examined the quick recovering-patients’ booklets and discovered that most of the blank pages had been filled in with specific, detailed plans about the most mundane aspects of recovery.
One patient, for example, had written, “I will walk to the bus stop tomorrow to meet my wife from work," and then noted what time he would leave, the route he would walk, what he would wear, which coat he would bring if it was raining, and what pills he would take if the pain became too much.
Another patient, in a similar study, wrote a series of very specific schedules regarding the exercises he would do each time he went to the bathroom. A third wrote a minute-by-minute itinerary for walking around the block. As the psychologist scrutinized the booklets, she saw that many of the plans had something in common: They focused on how patients would handle a specific moment of anticipated pain.
The man who exercised on the way to the bathroom, for instance, knew that each time he stood up from the couch, the ache was excruciating. So he wrote out a plan for dealing with it: Automatically take the first step, right away, so he wouldn’t be tempted to sit down again. The patient who met his wife at the bus stop dreaded the afternoons, because that stroll was the longest and most painful each day. So he detailed every obstacle he might confront, and came up with a solution ahead of time.
Put another way, the patients’ plans were built around inflection points when they knew their pain — and thus the temptation to quit — would be strongest. The patients were telling themselves how they were going to make it over the hump.
Each patient also did something else: they defined the reward they would receive when they made it over that hump. The man who met his wife at the bus stop, for instance, identified an easy reward — he got to see his wife. For the man aching on the way to the bathroom, the reward was a little more calculated: he put a bowl of M&Ms next to the bathroom door, and allowed himself to eat one on the way in and the way out.
Rewards are essential in creating habits because they are at the core of how our neurology functions. Our brains are wired to take patterns with clear rewards, and make them into automatic reactions. But many people don’t reward themselves when they achieve a small goal. Rather, they just push onto the next task. But without that reward, the behavior - such as exerting willpower - will never become a habit.
For the patients in the Scottish study, these three principles had amazing impacts. They made the hard work of rehabilitation into something automatic. They made willpower into a habit. There’s no reason why other patients — the ones who didn’t write out recovery plans — couldn’t have behaved the same way.
Everyone had been exposed to the same admonitions and warnings at the hospital. They all knew exercise was essential for their recovery. They all spent weeks in rehab. But the patients who didn’t write out any plans were at a significant disadvantage, because they never thought ahead about how to deal with painful inflection points. They never deliberately designed willpower habits. They never consciously gave themselves rewards for making it through the pain.
To understand more about the science of habit formation, the habit loop and how habits work (and can be changed) within lives, companies and society, read The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg.