Joe: I’m excited to welcome our guest today, Charles Duhigg.
Charles is a Pulitzer prize-winning reporter, and the author of two New York Times Best Sellers: The Power of Habit about the science of habit formation in our lives, companies, and society; and Smarter Faster Better about the science of productivity.
He currently writes at The New Yorker magazine, and was previously a reporter at The New York Times, where he won a Pulitzer prize for explanatory reporting. Charles studied history at Yale and received an MBA from Harvard Business School. He has appeared on This American Life, N.P.R., the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and Frontline.
Charles, welcome! I'm so appreciative that you took the time to meet with us and talk to our audience.
We've all been looking forward to this on the team at the Alliance [for Decision Education.] Our mission is to empower students everywhere with decision skills and you've written two books that [are] very much in the foreground of our thinking as we're developing what those learning outcomes should be, and what the standards are. And I just want to say hello, welcome.
Charles: Thanks for having me on. I really appreciate it.
Joe: Great. And I was wondering—to help frame our conversation—can you just tell us how you see habits and productivity relating to decision-making?
Charles: Sure. So I think that habits are really important when it comes to decision-making.
One of my books Smarter Faster Better focuses on Annie Duke and how she made decisions as she was a poker player. [Annie] of course, is involved with the group [Alliance for Decision Education]. And what we know is that we tend to think of decision-making as something that we engage in deliberately, we do [it] consciously. But what study after study has shown us is that actually about 40 to 45% of what we do every day—what we think of as being decisions—are actually habits, right? There are things that happen within our brain almost automatically. Because there's a cue, a routine, and a reward.
We go into autopilot. We actually stopped thinking and as a result, we end up doing what feels like a decision, but is an automatic pattern that's been established by time and history.
Joe: Can you break that down a little bit for us? What do you mean by “cue?”
Charles: So every habit has three components. We think of a habit as one thing, but it's actually three things.
There's a “cue,” which is a trigger for an automatic behavior to start. And then there’s a “routine,” which is the behavior itself, what we think of as the habit. And then finally there’s a “reward.” Every habit in your life delivers a reward to you, whether you're aware of it or not.
It's important to recognize this because once you understand that habits have these cues and these rewards, you start seeing the world differently. Everyone from Aristotle to Oprah has focused on habits and they've always focused on that behavior, on the routine.
But if you can diagnose the “cues” and the “rewards” that influence how someone behaves, and start fiddling with those, you have much more power over changing the patterns in people's lives.
“Every habit has three components. There's a 'cue,' which is a trigger for an automatic behavior to start. And then there’s a 'routine,' which is the behavior itself, what we think of as the habit. And then finally there’s a 'reward.' Every habit in your life delivers a reward to you, whether you're aware of it or not…. If you can diagnose the 'cues' and the 'rewards' that influence how someone behaves, and start fiddling with those, you have much more power over changing the patterns in people's lives.”
— Charles Duhigg
Joe: So I don't know if you'd know this—you probably do—but we actually built an entire program called HabitWise for middle school students. Your habit loop was basically the building block from where we began with thinking about it…
Charles: Oh, that's great.
Joe: …everything from productivity habits for kids around homework and study time to habits about managing their exercise or their practicing for their instruments, all sorts of things.
One of the things that I found challenging—first when reading the book, and then when trying to develop the program—was getting good at noticing what “cues” I was responding to and what behaviors they were kicking off. But it was really the cues that were hard to identify.
Have you found examples that are crisp for people to go, “Oh, okay, that's a cue. I get it”?
Charles: Yeah, absolutely. So 90% of cues fall into one of five categories. It's usually: a time of day; or a certain physical place; or it's the presence of certain people; or it's a certain emotion that you feel; or it's a preceding behavior that's become ritualized.
Let's say you have a habit you want to change. What's a habit that you have that you'd like to change?
Joe: Oh, um… I would like to choose a healthier thing to have with my coffee and the morning.
Charles: Okay. So, a cue can be more than one of those five things. But it's at least one of those five things.
So here's how you figure out what the cue [is]. When you sit down and you pour yourself a cup of coffee and you have that urge to eat the unhealthy danish or donut or something like that…
Joe: Wow, you nailed it.
Charles: Write down five things: What time of day it is? Where are you? Who else is around you? How are you feeling at that particular moment emotionally? And is there some behavior that's become ritualized that's associated with this?
My guess is that your morning habit fits into a couple of those, right? It's definitely a certain time of day. There's definitely a preceding behavior that's become ritualized, which is pouring yourself a cup of coffee. It might be that emotionally you feel like you need a boost. You might feel like, “oh God, the day is about to start and I'm already behind.”
Once you identify those things, do this exercise a couple of days in a row. And what you'll find is that something remains constant. Something is the same every single time you have that urge to eat the donut. And that's your cue. And once you know the cue, then you've diagnosed half of what you need to know.
Joe: I appreciate that. I think the other one that was the most frequently asked, was: how do I create a habit around exercise?
Charles: Okay. Rewards are the more important part, right? So we'll get to the rewards in a second.
But the cue for creating an exercise [habit] is think of one of those five things, or maybe two of those five things. So try and exercise at the same time of day each time you do it. Maybe it's in the afternoon, maybe it's in the morning. Try to exercise with the same people. Meet your friend Bob at the gym, [or] go on a run with Susie every Wednesday. Make this as consistent as possible.
Try to figure out: is there some type of ritual you go through before you start exercising? For me, I always stretch the exact same way. I run three to four times a week. I do the exact same stretches before I run every single time, because it just makes running easier for me. The preceding behavior has become ritualized.
And so as a result, I'm not like, “Oh, I don't want to start this.” I just do the stretches, then I'm like, “Okay, this is when I start running.” So think in terms of these cues when you're creating a new habit.
Joe: All right. That makes sense. And you said that actually the reward is the more important part?
Charles: The reward is the more important part, and it's the harder part to figure out.
Right. So let's take that morning… So, when's the last time you ate something unhealthy in the morning with your cup of coffee?
Joe: Oh, this morning. [laughs]
Charles: Okay. What'd you eat?
Joe: Two eggs and then I had a leftover donut from the weekend.
Charles: Okay. So you're not too worried about the two eggs, right?
Joe: No, I'm not worried about the eggs.
Charles: The leftover donuts. So what do you think the reward was that the donut provided?
Joe: I'm assuming it was the sugar, but it might've just been that I had some control over doing something positive, something pleasant, before digging into whatever problems had arisen in emails and other things that I needed to do.
Charles: Totally. And I can think of a couple of other possibilities, right? So one possibility is the reward was the sugar, one possibility is the carbohydrates, right? Eggs are high in protein, but there's no carbs in there. And we know that when you eat carbs, you get this burst of energy. You're exactly right, it might've been emotional. It might've been like, “okay, I'm going to reward myself and give myself a sense of satisfaction before I’ve got to go and start doing something hard,” like dealing with emails or whatever it is. It might've also been that you don't want to waste. It's a leftover donut from the weekend. It's going to go stale. It's already Wednesday. So you don't want to be the type of person that lets things go to waste, and that's playing a role in your thinking. So there's a bunch of different rewards that this might provide for you, maybe more than one.
The thing is, if you can't figure out which reward it is, you don't know how to change the habit. So you have to run experiments. So let's say that the sugar is the biggest reward for you. Then tomorrow morning, instead of eating a donut, put some Splenda on your thumb and rub it on your tongue and see if that makes the craving for a donut go away. If so, then that sweetness from the sugar, that's what [the reward] is.
Or maybe it's the energy from the sugar and the carbohydrates. So the next [experiment is] instead of having a donut, when you feel that urge for donut, go shotgun two espressos, or a red bull or something. See if it makes the urge for a donut go away.
Maybe it's that sense of luxury that you get to indulge in something before [your day]. So the next morning, instead of having the donut, when the urge hits you, let yourself do something else kind of luxurious, maybe take an extra long shower or make yourself a smoothie. Or have some really nice fruit or something.
The point is to go through and experiment with different ways of satisfying different rewards. And then just ask yourself, is the craving for the donut gone? Because one of those is going to make the craving for the donut disappear. One of them, [for example] you're going to put the Splenda on your tongue and you're going to be like, “oh, I don't need the donut anymore.”
Now you know your cue. Your cue is it always hits at a certain time of day, right. And the proceeding ritualized behavior of coffee. And the reward is you're craving something sweet.
But there's lots of things that are sweet, that are healthier than donuts, right? Eating an apple is super sweet. Putting some Splenda on your tongue or in your coffee is super sweet. And the point is once you know that cue and that reward, now you have the ability to shoehorn a new behavior, a healthier behavior, instead, and to come up with a better habit.
Joe: I love that. Yeah. You're supposed to be experimenting to try and figure out what the reward is. That's really interesting.
Charles: And this is a really important thing, right? I think that you guys have spent a lot of time talking about this and thinking about this. And Smarter Faster Better, my second book, spends a lot of time talking about it.
We should always think of what we do as experiments. My wife is a scientist. She's a biologist. If every experiment that she did worked exactly the way that she expected it to, she'd be the worst scientist on earth. That is not why you do experiments, just to confirm what you already know. You do experiments to figure out what works and what doesn't work. When something is a failure, that means that it's a successful experiment. And just because you experiment with trying to figure out whether the reward for donuts is sugar versus a sense of luxury, if you still have that craving for a donut one morning, if you give into it, that doesn't mean that it's a failure, [or] that you failed. That means you conducted an experiment and you learned something useful, and now you need to use that knowledge to do better next time.
Joe: That's a really interesting frame. I appreciate it. This idea that you're running [experiments] to gather information about the world and about yourself.
Joe: You mentioned your other book: Smarter Faster Better. I've got it right here because I've been chewing it up. There's marginalia all through it. And you mentioned Annie [Duke,] you quote her in here at one point saying what she's trying to do when playing poker is pay for information. That's what she's doing, she's making bets. Since you just talked about experiments, maybe you can explain that a little bit.
Charles: I think Annie's approach is exactly the right one. Annie doesn't judge her success based on whether she wins or loses hands. Annie judges her success based on how much she learned from the hand she just played. So you could lose a hand of poker. And if you learned your opponents “tell,” or you learned how your opponent thinks, or you learned something about how your opponent bets, then you just won. Even though they won the hand, even though they took your chips, you now have a piece of information that means that—at the moment that it matters most—you’re going to be able to beat them. Because in poker you're always going to either win or lose. And then when you think about it, it’s the same way in life.
I've talked to lots of people who say things like, “I went and I took this job and six months in, I hated it and I quit, and I feel terrible. I feel like I wasted six months of my life.” Well, sure. You can feel that. But that's not the right way to think. That's not the right way to feel. The right way to feel is to say [that] you could have ended up in a situation where you had that job you hated for years and years and years. And with only six months education, you learned you don't like that job. And you probably learned something about the job that you do want. Same thing is true of relationships, right? There are lots of people who see divorce as a failure, but then you talk to people who have gotten married and gotten divorced, and they'll often tell you, “It was 13 great years and then two terrible years. I learned so much about myself and about what I want, and how to live with other people in those 13 years. And even in those two years. And the next time I get married, or the next relationship I'm in, is going to be amazing because I know so much.” Life is a series of experiments. If you have not failed, it means that you are not running enough risky experiments. Failure is what makes you a success.
“Life is a series of experiments. If you have not failed, it means that you are not
running enough risky experiments.” — Charles Duhigg
Joe: I really do appreciate that frame. I'm wondering, where in the course of your work did your way of seeing things develop into that? Because we're really interested in trying to figure out how to help young people—students particularly—develop that sort of disposition about the world.
Do you remember when you started seeing life as a series of experiments and that you were constantly trying to gather information and learn?
Charles: I think I had to, because I found that everything I do, the first time I do it, I'm a failure. Right? There are lots of people—and I’ve always been jealous of these people— who go out on the tennis court and they're just amazing from the start. They're great athletes. Somebody sits down and they've never written before in their entire life, and they write a book and it's a bestselling book. They’re Harper Lee, they write To Kill a Mockingbird, the only book that she ever wrote in her entire life that got published during her lifetime. I mean, that would be awesome, right?
It would be awesome to be a success from the start. But for me, every time I do something, it's always a failure first. I mean, I'm writing my third book right now. The first two books I wrote. In each case, I wrote the first chapter, I edited it with my editor. We worked on it for months and months and months. And then we're like, “yeah, this isn't working. We've got to throw it out.” And we just throw out the entire thing. It's happened twice now. Oh my God. It's basically happened three times, because it happened with this book too. So like the thing is if I didn't see things as experiments, I'd go nuts because I’d assume that I'm a total failure. It's not a mistake if you learn from it, right? I tell my kids this all the time. It's not a mistake if you learn something from it, it's only a mistake if you fail to learn from it. And as long as that's true, you always get more bites at the apple. Nobody just plays one game of tennis in their entire life. Nobody has to write just one book. You get as many bites at the apple as you want. And the key is: when those bites aren't great, learn from it so that you do better the next time.
“It's not a mistake if you learn something from it, it's only a mistake if you fail to learn from it. You always get more bites at the apple. Nobody just plays one game of tennis in their entire life.
Nobody has to write just one book. You get as many bites at the apple as you want. And the key is: when those bites aren't great, learn from it so that you do better the next time.” — Charles Duhigg
Joe: So segueing from that, you mentioned the second book and the third that you’re working on. When you got interested in the second book, in this topic of productivity, that seems a bit of a jump from your first work. What, what led you there? What was it that got you inspired to explore that topic?
Charles: Well, The Power of Habit is about how habits function, right? How they work inside our brain. And it kind of raised this question, which is: what are the right habits? What are the good habits? And it turns out that the answer is that the best habits are the ones that teach us how to think more deeply. Particularly when thinking is hard, when we're feeling angry or tired or sad or panicked, when there's people who are screaming at us that we have to make a decision right now, when there's pressure either from us or from others to feel like we need to make a choice. How do we slow down and think more deeply about the choices we're making?
Because we know that throughout history the most successful people are the people who think most deeply, right? Everyone only has 24 hours in a day. So the people who do best are the ones who figure out how to use those 24 hours better. And oftentimes it has to do with sitting down and thinking more about your priorities, your decisions, the choices you're making, what your goals are, and how to build the habits that help us.
“The best habits are the ones that teach us how to think more deeply. Particularly… when we're feeling angry or tired or sad or panicked… [or] when there's pressure either from us or from others to feel like we need to make a choice… Everyone only has 24 hours in a day. So the people who do best are the ones who figure out how to use those 24 hours better. And oftentimes it has to do with sitting down and thinking more about your priorities, your decisions, the choices you're making,
what your goals are, and how to build the habits that help us.” — Charles Duhigg
Joe: So related to goals just for a second, since you mentioned them, I was reading your appendices about the hacks that you found useful for yourself. And you talked a bit in there about SMART goals, which I thought was pretty interesting. I wonder if you could explain those a little?
Charles: So there's this basic idea that just setting a goal and aspiration isn't really enough, right? Like if you talk to people that make New Year's Resolutions… there's been a bunch of research done about New Year's Resolutions particularly by Katy Milkman, who's fantastic. What she's found is that New Year's Resolutions can work. It does not work if you say “my resolution is to get in better shape,” or “my resolution is to lose 30 pounds.” Those aren't really goals. Those are wild aspirations.
Charles: What does work is setting essentially “a New Year's plan.”
Where you say I'm going to wake up tomorrow and here's what I'm going to do differently. Plans should it include certain things? These are what SMART goals are, right? It should be specific: what are you actually trying to do? Be specific. I want to not just “get in great shape.” I want to “lose five pounds in the next 60 days. And then I want to lose five pounds in the 30 days after that.” Make it measurable: how are you going to actually measure whether you're getting closer or farther away from your goal? Well, if you get on a scale, you can measure that, right? But that means I need to go buy a scale and I need to get in the habit of standing on the scale every morning and noting down whether my weight's gone up or down.
Make it actionable: “what are you going to do?” rather than “what are you going to feel?” So, okay. If I want to lose five pounds, then that means that tomorrow morning, I can't eat a donut.
Joe: [laughs] Ouch.
Charles: So I'm going to take all the donuts out of my house. Also, it means that I think I need to run at least twice a week. Right? So that's A, actionable. R is realistic. Is it realistic to go running twice a week? Is it realistic to get rid of all the donuts in your house? Well, the answer is yes, but, you know, my kids are going to complain if I get rid of all the donuts. So I need to find something else that the kids like that I don't like to replace the donuts.
Yeah. I can go running twice a week, but in order to do that, I need to shift my schedule a little bit so that I have a little bit more extra time in the morning on Tuesdays and Thursdays, or I get off work earlier on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Right? I need to think realistically about how I make this plan happen.
And T is timeline. So I said I want to lose 30 pounds. Again, I'm going to lose five pounds in the first 60 days. That means the timeline is that I need to be down two pounds in the first 15 days. Let me work backwards. How do I get to those two pounds in 15 days? What I just did, it took a minute and a half. But now we have a plan.
Charles: Now I have a plan to lose weight. And that means when I wake up tomorrow morning, instead of being like, “Oh yeah, I had that New Year's Resolution,” now I'm like, “I know what to do right away.” Just because I figured out S-M-A-R-T: specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, timeline.
It can be anything. Obviously we use that because it spells smart. But the point is, if you have a process in place to make a goal into a plan, it's much more likely that it's going to actually get done.
Joe: So you've talked about goals, you've talked about making a plan for them. Another thing that you talked about was thinking probabilistically. And I wonder if you could just explain what that is and how it's helpful?
Charles: Right. So our brain loves certainty, right? Our brain loves to know that if you flip a coin, it's either going to come up heads or tails. But the truth of the matter is that before you flip that coin, there's just a bunch of probabilistic odds, right?
Charles: Now, it turns out it's 50/50 for the coin flip. But let's say it starts getting more complicated. Our brain just wants to say, “look, it's either going to be heads or tails.” And for a coin flip, it doesn't really matter. But when it comes to our life, what we want to do is we want to train ourselves to not just look for binary choices. We want to train ourselves to look for outcomes that we might not be thinking about and figure out how likely they are.
So one of the things I do before I make a decision—because oftentimes my natural inclination is to think of decisions as either good or bad, or right or wrong—is I sit down and I say, “okay, look, if I'm going to buy this car, I'm either going to be happy or unhappy. But there's a bunch of other stuff, right? Maybe if I bought that other car, I would actually be happier. What are the odds?” I bought a Highlander a couple years ago. If, instead of buying a Highlander, if I bought a RAV4, what are the odds that I'd have been happier with the RAV4 than the Highlander? Well, actually, they're kind of the same car. They're not that different. And the Highlander's a little bit bigger and I like a bigger car. So I don't need to worry about the RAV4, but what if I bought a sports car? Right? That's not even on the table right now. Would I be happier with a sports car? Would I ... No. Actually, I would love driving a sports car, I'd look awesome. But then when I needed to take the kids to school, it'd be a nightmare, right?
By forcing yourself to think about other possibilities, what is sometimes referred to as counterfactual thinking—assuming that what actually happened is not what actually happened—forcing yourself to begin asking, “What are the probabilistic odds that this choice might have been better or worse?” You begin training yourself to think more complexly, to be able to see opportunities that other people might not see.
Now, I mentioned counterfactual thinking, right? This is when we think probabilistically about the past. Some people who are listening, they might think be facing a choice whether to go to high school X or high school Y, or college X or college Y. Well, you went to high school X, right? You didn't go to high school Y. And you think to yourself, “This is a great choice. I loved going to high school X. So I was right. I did the right thing.”
Charles: The really sophisticated way to think about this is to say, “Okay, let me think for a second. Let me honestly ask myself, if I had gone to high school Y, how would my life be different right now? Would it be better in some ways? Would it be worse in other ways?” What if I went to high school W? I wasn't even thinking about high school W, right? What if I went to Semester at Sea? What if I decided to do homeschooling? Would I be happier? Which parts of my life would be better? Which parts of my life would be worse? We have this bias towards wanting to prove to ourselves that the choices we made were the best choices.
Charles: But thinking honestly about the choices we made in the past and trying to ask ourselves, what could have been a better choice? Maybe not better a hundred percent, maybe better in just some ways versus other ways. That means that when it's time to decide where to go to college, now, suddenly, you have a much more sophisticated way [of making the decision]. Instead of looking at college X or college Y, now you're thinking about college X, college Y, College A, College W, Semester at Sea, all these different things.
And you might end up going to the same college. You might still say college X. That's the way to go. But you've made that decision better. Because now you know, in addition to college X, I also want to do Semester at Sea for at least one semester. Right? And at college X, I'm not going to get the same thing that I would've got at college W. So I need to find some way to get that, because it's really important to me.
“When it's time to decide where to go to college, you have a much more sophisticated way [of making the decision]. Instead of looking at college X or college Y, now you're thinking about college X,
college Y, College A, College W, Semester at Sea, all these different things.
And you might end up going to the same college. You might still say college X… But you've made that decision better. Because now you know that at college X I'm not going to get the same thing that I would've got at college W. So I need to find some way to get that, because it's really important to me.” — Charles Duhigg
Joe: So it sounds to me that there are three ideas wrapped up in there.
One is that you're suggesting that we expand the number of possibilities that we're considering, that we don't just go with the one we think is likely or second most likely or the one we prefer, the one we don't prefer, but to really increase the range of things we're considering. The other one it sounded to me like you're suggesting is that we put actual numbers and estimates to those things. And the last one was to use counterfactuals to generate some other things that we might want to attend to.
Can you address each of those? It sounds like this idea of “there are more ways for the future to unfold than it will unfold” is on your mind, [and] with that [we should] increase the number of options [we consider].
Charles: Yeah. The mistakes that most people make in life, they're not obvious mistakes. The mistakes that most people make are not considering an opportunity, not seeing a potentiality when it was there. Right? It is our instinct to see things in binary ways. It's hard to force our brain to see multiple possibilities. And so why is it important to just force yourself to sit down and dream about multiple possibilities? Because there might be something you're not considering.
Charles: But you can't hold all dreams equal, right? Some dreams are better than others. So why do we do that second thing? Why do we force some kind of probability on it? Try and force ourselves to say: is this likely, is it unlikely? Like if I had to compare two things to each other, how would I think about it? It's because that helps us figure out which dreams are worth paying more attention to. We want to dream big. But then once we've dreamed big, I can only focus on four or five dreams at the same time. So let's figure out which four or five are most likely or most important to me.
And then that last one, the counterfactual [thinking], looking back, is because, again, you want to learn from your mistakes. But sometimes you don't know that you've made a mistake until you look for evidence of it. Right? So I went to Yale as an undergrad. Loved Yale. Thought it was fantastic. Perfect place for me. But, you know, maybe I would've been happier at University of New Mexico, or maybe I would've been happier doing Semester at Sea, or maybe I would've been happier at Georgetown or a small liberal arts college. Right now, I'll tell you, I doubt it, but I don't know if that's true or not until I sit down and I think to myself, okay, imagine what it would've been like at Georgetown.
“The mistakes that most people make in life, they're not obvious mistakes. The mistakes that most people make are not considering an opportunity, not seeing a potentiality when it was there. It is our instinct to see things in binary ways. It's hard to force our brain to see multiple possibilities.
And so why is it important to just force yourself to sit down and dream about multiple possibilities? Because there might be something you're not considering.” — Charles Duhigg
Charles: Actually, Georgetown would've given me some stuff that Yale didn't. And I don't mind that. I don't mind ... I think the trade off was worth it to me. But now that I recognize what I'm missing because I didn't go to Georgetown, now I know that that's something I need to go and get on my own.
Charles: People hate counterfactuals. They hate looking back on the past and assuming that they made the wrong choice when there's such little evidence that they made the wrong choice. But the way you succeed is you train yourself to see what could be wrong choices when there's very little evidence that you didn't make the right one.
Joe: It reminds me a little bit of what Michael Mauboussin is always talking about: to get the base rate, to look for the external. Get out of your inside view of “what I think my experience is going to be” and just start from the ground of, “okay, the average person who goes to Georgetown, are they happy with their decision?”
Charles: That's exactly right. And what you find is everyone is happy with their decision. Right? You never find people who are like, “I made exactly the wrong decision when I went to college.”
Charles: Nobody, unless they're divorced, says, “I married the wrong person.” Nobody says it's a terrible idea to have kids. We all want to prove to ourselves that we made good choices. And that's great. You probably did make good choices, but it's worth doing the exercise to ask yourself, “Is there a better choice I could have made?” so that the next time you encounter a choice, you're better prepared to see the possibilities.
“We all want to prove to ourselves that we made good choices. And that's great. You probably did make good choices, but it's worth doing the exercise to ask yourself, 'Is there a better choice I could have made?' so that the next time you encounter a choice, you're better prepared to see the possibilities.”
— Charles Duhigg
Joe: I'm wondering about this next book that you're writing. Can you tell us anything about it?
Charles: Oh, yeah. I'm not really talking about it yet. Because it's still percolating, but hopefully it'll be done eventually. [laughs]
Joe: [laughs] Well, I certainly hope so. Considering how much value you've gotten out of the first two.
Charles: Me too.
Joe: I'm also wondering, when you think about habits, one way I've thought about them is: they're just automated decisions. We've turned them into almost algorithms. We're still taking an action. We're still making a choice. It's just we're often not doing it consciously. And part of what you recommend is we make it quite conscious and pay attention to it and break it down and start thinking about, “Is it good for us?” “Do we want it?” Et cetera. And then this more recent one seems to be a lot about deliberative decision making, with those bigger, more consequential [decisions] and therefore ones that are deserving of more attention. Is that a fair way of describing those in your mind?
Charles: Yeah. I think so. And I think this recognition that even though habits feel like they're automatic, we actually have a lot of opportunities to change them. We have a lot of opportunities to control them. And even though big consequential decisions feel like something that we're fully in control of, a lot of them are influenced by the habits in our lives. Right?
One of my favorite examples from Smarter Faster Better is, building this cognitive routine, a habit of trying to review your day and trying to figure out “How did I spend my time? Was it the right way to spend my time?” Now, the way that I do this, and that many people do it, is I come home and I tell my wife all about my day in excruciating detail.
“Even though habits feel like they're automatic, we actually have a lot of opportunities to change them. We have a lot of opportunities to control them.” — Charles Duhigg
Charles: And you know what? She doesn't care. It's boring. She doesn't care how I spent the hours between 11 o'clock and 12:30, what I did before lunch. But I tell her all about my day. And the reason I'm telling her is because it's a habit, it's a routine that forces me to think about: did I spend my day well, or did I spend it poorly?
Charles: And that's the point. We think about the choices that we make at work as being deliberate choices. But if we have a habit that forces us to reflect on them, then we learn more about how to make better choices, and how to build better habits. At Netflix, they have this thing called Stop-Start-Continue. They're constantly giving each other feedback. And when you give each other feedback, what you're supposed to do is you're supposed to tell them something that you hope that they start doing, something you hope that they stop doing, something you hope they continue doing.
And again, it's just having this [habit] to fall back on that makes that feedback conversation easier, right? It's easier to start when you know what structure to push it into.
“ [Build a] cognitive routine, a habit of trying to review your day… It's a habit, it's a routine that
forces me to think about: did I spend my day well, or did I spend it poorly? Just having this [habit]
to fall back on makes that feedback conversation easier. It's easier to start when
you know what structure to push it into.” — Charles Duhigg
Joe: I'm wondering when you think about all that you've learned so far around habits, productivity, decision-making, probabilistic thinking, et cetera. If you could just pick one thing that you would pass on to the next generation of decision makers and say “I would wave my wand and they would all be better at X.” What's the X?
Charles: I think the X is to know that you can change literally anything in your life at any point in your life. There's this idea that, once a habit is ingrained, it's impossible to change. There's this idea that as you get older, it's harder to change. And every piece of science shows that that's not true. There is someone who's been a smoker for 30 years who will quit today and will never smoke another cigarette. This happens all the time.
And you have these opportunities to create healthy habits that will serve you well. We know that habits are easier to create when there's big changes afoot, when your cues change. When you move from high school to college, suddenly all your habits are up for grabs. When you get a new group of friends, you can form new habits. The habits that young people form because their lives change so much and so quickly. The habits that you form, if you form habits that you're choosing, rather than habits that just happen to you, you are setting yourself up for a lifetime of success.
“Habits are easier to create when there's big changes afoot, when your cues change. When you move from high school to college, suddenly all your habits are up for grabs. When you get a new group of friends, you can form new habits. [Young people’s] lives change so much and so quickly… If you form habits that you're choosing, rather than habits that just happen to you, you are setting yourself up
for a lifetime of success.” — Charles Duhigg
And there is nothing in your life that you cannot change. I know that there are times when it will feel like you are powerless, and you will feel hopeless, and it will feel hard, and you won't want to do the work. And I'm telling you, the work is worth doing because any habit that you want, you can create. Any bad habit you want to get rid of, you can change. The key is to learn as much as you can about how your own brain works, and the way that you do that is you do experiments. You pay attention to your successes and your failures. You force yourself to reflect on what's happened by having conversations with other people or keeping a journal. The more work you do, the more it'll pay off. Even if it doesn't feel like it at this exact moment.
Joe: That's such a great, powerful message. I really appreciate it, Charles.
“And I'm telling you, the work is worth doing because any habit that you want, you can create. Any bad habit you want to get rid of, you can change. The key is to learn as much as you can about how your own brain works, and the way that you do that is you do experiments. You pay attention to your successes and your failures. You force yourself to reflect on what's happened by having conversations with other people or keeping a journal. The more work you do, the more it'll pay off.” — Charles Duhigg
Joe: I've got two last questions we close with. One is: from your perspective, what will look different in society when we succeed in our mission to ensure Decision Education is part of every middle and high school student’s learning experience?
Charles: Hopefully people won't play the lottery anymore. [laughs]
Joe: [laughs] I'll ask about this for our adult listeners: Which book would you recommend as priority reading for listeners who are keen to improve their decision-making?
Charles: Oh man, that's a good question. Well, actually there's two books. They're both novels. There's a book called A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. It won the Pulitzer Prize a couple of years ago. That's just a fantastic book. The way that it's written is all about decisions, all about the decisions that we realize we're making and the decisions we don't realize we're making. And how often those decisions can have consequences that we can't anticipate.
And then the second book I would suggest is a book named Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. And, because it's a tough book to read. It's about England in the 1700s. And it's told from the perspective of one of the leading thinkers of that time. And he always thinks about decisions. He always thinks about when you should make a decision, how you make a decision, and the importance of decisions. So those are the two books I'd recommend.
Joe: That's fantastic. I think those are the first two novels a guest has recommended. So that's going to be fun. We'll put the links to those on our site. If listeners want to go online and learn more about you, where would you have them go?
Charles: Yeah. Just Google Charles Duhigg or The Power of Habit. There's lots of stuff online. On Twitter @cduhigg. And if they email me, I'm just firstname.lastname@example.org. I respond to every single reader email that I get.
Joe: And I know now how you do it.
Charles: Yeah. [laughs]
Joe: I read in your appendix how you actually go about dealing with that many emails.
Charles: That's right.
Joe: A little productivity tip. I won't say it in the podcast, so people go get the book and take a look.
Charles, thank you so much for coming on. We'll put links to all that on the podcast website. Really appreciate you making the time to come speak with us. And thank you for the excellent work that we've been relying on for our own understanding about productivity and about habits. Really appreciate it.
Charles: My pleasure.
Published May 11, 2022