Chris McCann's Personal Blog

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The Science of Habit

with 8 comments

In addition to the principals of distribution one thing that falls under this broad discipline of psychology/marketing is the science of habit.

The absolute best book on this subject is The Power of Habit written by Charles Duhigg. This science applies to both personal habits (smoking, exercise, etc) and habits within products (engagement, usage, retention, etc).

Habits are a series of actions that are converted into an automatic routine. A good simple example of this is brushing your teeth. You automatically put toothpaste on your toothbrush before brushing your teeth. You don’t think individually about what you’re doing throughout the process but chunk the whole process of brushing your teeth into one automatic action.

Habits are made up of three components: cue, routine, and reward.

The cue is the trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. The routine is the mental or emotional actions you do automatically. Finally there is the reward which helps you remember the habit and encode it automatically to your brain.

cue-routine-reward-habit

The biggest secret to changing any habit is you can’t directly change a habit but you can replace it with a new habit.

To change any habit you first have to identify the routine you want to change and components that make up to habit. For example I had the terrible habit of waking up to my morning alarm, then going back to bed, hitting the snooze button on my phone, and completely over sleeping. This was the habit I wanted to change.

The second thing to do is experiment with rewards. My old reward I was the reward of getting back into bed the first time I turned off the alarm. The cue in my example is pretty easy to identify as the alarm. In a general sense a cue can be a location, a time, an emotional state, other person, or a preceding action.

The habit/reward combo I decide to use to replace my old bad habit involved doing two things.

The first was I put my phone far enough away from my bed that I was forced to stand up when the alarm came on. The second was I replaced my habit of going back to my bed with checking my email, facebook, twitter notifications on my phone. I forced myself to stand up when my alarm went off and gave myself a new reward, checking my notifications, while standing up. Because I didn’t go back to bed when my alarm went off and forced myself to stay standing with the reward of checking email, facebook, and twitter my body naturally stayed awake afterwards.

I think it would also be helpful to see one more example but around creating, not changing, a habit in the business context. Here is the story of how Claude Hopkins popularized toothbrushing with his product Pepsodent.

Instead of doing what other toothpastes companies were doing at the time, advertising the long term downsides of not brushing your teeth, he instead created a habit of toothbrushing. Hopkins discovered a thin film that naturally coats your teeth each day and advertised Pepsodent as a promise to remove the tooth film and give you beautiful white teeth if you brushed everyday. On top of that Pepsodent contained in its ingredients citric acid which created a cool tingling sensation after you brushed your teeth. This tingling sensation became the reward people craved and the reason they used Peopsodent every time they brushed their teeth.

When looking at your own habits and your companies habits, look at them in terms of cues, routines, and rewards. I promise it will be an eye opening exercise :)
 

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Written by Chris McCann

August 6, 2012 at 4:36 am

8 Responses

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  1. Chris is right on here. This is a terrific book. We are truly creatures of habit by design. I found the habit substitution model when I quit smoking. Every time I wanted a cigarette, I quickly popped in a piece of gum of a certain flavor/brand. It was hard but after a few weeks my craving skipped over the cigarette and went straight for the gum. Not as easy as all that but the habit substitution (a new routine/reward) was a way out. Still smoke free though it took a number of tries for sure. Addiction and habit overlap, but are not the same thing really.

    The best thing about the book I almost missed and that was the short but terrific Appendix. This gave a great method of analyzing a habit and figuring your intelligent experimentation that would eventually do what Chris, in the case of his notifications rather than going back to sleep.

    Terrific Book that I think would help just about any one who put it in practice.

    www.desktopanywhere.com

    August 6, 2012 at 4:19 pm

    • That’s a pretty smart way to stop smoking. Nicotine gums work in the same way but I would guess most of the effect is in chewing the gum as a substitute as opposed to needing the nicotine. You just took the shortcut approach!

      Chris McCann

      August 6, 2012 at 5:31 pm

  2. Solid post Chris!

    This is an area I’ve tried to struggle with for a while (waking up to alarm clocks). I’ve been working on this area half-assed for as long as I can remember (years). While I’ve tackled other habits (like working out, journalling, etc), I’ve never consciously thought about the rewards I was giving myself to cement the habit of going to bed early/waking up on the cue of my alarm.

    I’ve though a lot about the area of behaviour modification/habit change, coupled with gamification and the quantified self movement. I am endlessly fascinated by the intersection of these areas.

    Cool to know that you’re tackling habit change in a methodical manner!

    will_lam

    August 6, 2012 at 4:51 pm

    • Another reward I experimented with today in waking up on time is as soon as I was standing up and awake I treated myself to a cup of Philz coffee because a) coffee is awesome b) and now I’ll want to wake up on time in order to get the coffee. If I don’t wake up on time I won’t reward myself with a coffee.

      Try it out though. I’ve always had the problem of not waking up too but this is actually working.

      Chris McCann

      August 6, 2012 at 5:34 pm

  3. It seems like the longer one has a habit and the early in life you develop the harder it is to break. Repeating the same habit just makes it stronger so if you want to change it its best to do so immediately. Replacing it with something new is a good idea. Here is an interesting article on the science behind it:
    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=power-of-habit-excerpt

    David Urmann

    August 6, 2012 at 6:45 pm

  4. [...] Tweet (function() { var po = document.createElement('script'); po.type = 'text/javascript'; po.async = true; po.src = 'https://apis.google.com/js/plusone.js'; var s = document.getElementsByTagName('script')[0]; s.parentNode.insertBefore(po, s); })(); While I haven’t updated in about two weeks, I still have been journalling.  It’s been an eventful last two weeks, and I’ve read a few awesome articles from Buster Benson’s post “The Habit Manifesto” and Chris McCann’s post on “The Science of Habit”. [...]

  5. [...] Tweet (function() { var po = document.createElement('script'); po.type = 'text/javascript'; po.async = true; po.src = 'https://apis.google.com/js/plusone.js'; var s = document.getElementsByTagName('script')[0]; s.parentNode.insertBefore(po, s); })(); While I haven’t updated in about two weeks, I still have been journalling.  It’s been an eventful last two weeks, and I’ve read a few awesome articles from Buster Benson’s post “The Habit Manifesto” and Chris McCann’s post on “The Science of Habit”. [...]

  6. Hey Chris! Nice post, I do this a lot and I have a lot of good habits I want to adopt using this model. I’ve already achieved several. I’m wondering though, is there a limited number of habits that you can wire into your brain? I’ve definitely had some habits that went away. Does the book / your experience say anything about that?

    Ricky Yean

    August 11, 2012 at 8:56 pm


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