By: Alicia Jerome MS, RDN
Charles Duhigg, in his book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, explains the power of the habit loop: cue – routine – reward. He argues that when we are able to find, alter, and adopt this habit loop we can change even our well established habits!
Dietitians can tap into this habit loop and begin to understand their client’s unique habits. If late night overeating is a big issue, the dietitian can help the client see what the cue, the routine, and the reward are. Then, together, they can begin to switch out each element to see what naturally fits and what can generate a new or modified habit. Or for example, if an athlete wants to gain weight, the dietitian can help craft a habit loop to achieve that goal like finding a cue that already exists for the athlete, maybe riding home after an early morning practice. Then, the client can begin to anchor routines around that existing cue, like packing and eating an apple with almond butter or peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The cue will remain consistent, but the client must learn to connect that cue with their new routine. The hardest part will be to create a consistent and crave-able reward (food or non-food) that self-propels the habit loop.
Duhigg, digs deep into this habit loop and provides a great level of understanding on how to create the most effective cues, setting up manageable routines, and selecting or homing in on a reward that our minds can quickly begin craving. For only when we crave the reward, does the cue and routine combine to make a habit.
The author shared an interesting business example about the introduction of Fabreze, a liquid that isolates and eliminate odors, by Proctor & Gamble (P&G). Creating the product wasn’t the hard part for the company. It was how to market this novel product; how to make it a household habit. Initially, the team focused on helping people eliminate embarrassing smells. They found and piloted the product on people who needed to cover offensive odors – smokers, a park ranger who regularly was sprayed by skunks, etc. When it launched in 1996, Febreze was a dud. Researchers and marketing experts went back at it and began to add a pleasant scent on top of the odor neutralizing technology. They found that the people who did use the product craved a clean smell reward after cleaning a room or their house. The cue was cleaning (which people already did!), the routine was to finish with a spray of Febreze, and the reward was the clean smell! This was it! People did not find reward in neutralizing an odor but in the desire to make everything smell as clean as it looked.
Throughout the entire book, Duhigg, provides example after example, in well-crafted narratives, of the habit loop. Another example was the habit created by the newly appointed CEO of Alcoa in 1987. Paul O’Neill made his first speech as CEO to investors, stock analysts, and long-time employees with the primary mission of making Alcoa the safest company in America. This new safety goal was not well received, but this one “keystone” habit had the power to create a ripple effect and “start a process that, over time, transforms everything.”1
This effect can also be seen when someone decides to adopt one aspect of healthy living. The book gives the example of exercise. Commonly, one who starts to seriously incorporate exercise will also likely start to eat better, become more productive at work, stop smoking, use their credits cards less, and on and on. The keystone habit, exercise, created a cascade of other good habits.
The Power of Habit is filled with stories of companies, athletes, churches, and individuals who were able to create a good habit, a neurological craving that changed the course of their history, while learning to kick a less-desirable habit. Science shows that we no longer have to be “stuck” with the past.
- Duhigg, C. The Power of Habit. 2014: Random House.