You want to know what’s fun about being an editor? You get to live vicariously through people who are smarter, better traveled, and more interesting than you. Charles Duhigg is one of those people. Charles is an investigative reporter at The New York Times — if you haven’t been following his series on Apple, it’s really worth your time — as well as the author of a book I worked on, just published last week by Random House, called The Power of Habit. I know I’m not an objective source on this — I’m probably closer to a cheerleader — but the book was a total blast to work on and is full of ideas and stories and case studies that make you think about your life — including the way you eat, exercise, shop — in a different way. More than 40% of what we do in the course of any given day, it turns out, is not the product of rational decision-making; it’s habit. And that’s scary. Charles was kind enough to take a moment from his all-out media blitz to guest-post for us today about a particular DALS weakness, dessert. Tell us how to be better, Charles…
Let me be completely honest with you: I like dessert.
Not just a little bit. A lot. Basically, I would rather eat dessert than dinner. In fact, I have often had dessert for dinner. I’ve become accustomed — scarily so — to dessert every night. And it turns out I’m not alone.
This wasn’t a big problem before I had kids. Now, however, I have a 3-year-old (or, as he points out, a three-and-three-quarters-year-old). And guess what? He loves dessert, too! And not just a little bit. A lot. What a coincidence! We once went to Costa Rica so that he could see some monkeys and a white sand beach, and all he remembers is the chocolate I let him have after dinner each night. I am not kidding: if you ask him about Costa Rica today, he will tell you it’s a place where you can eat chocolate every night.
That isn’t good.
So, a few years ago when I started researching the science of habits for my book, one of my goals was to figure out how get a handle on my dessert habit (and my son’s). Not to go all Official Book Summary on you here, but in the last decade, our understanding of the neurology of habit formation has been transformed. In particular, we’ve learned that every habit has three components: a cue, which is like a trigger for an automatic behavior; a routine, which is the behavior itself; and a reward. Scientists refer to this as the “habit loop.”
When we’re talking about dessert, the habit is pretty obvious: There’s a cue (“dinner is over!”) a routine (“ice cream time!”) and a reward (“oh my god, this chocolate chip crunch tastes good, oh my oh my god”). What neurologists have learned is that habits are powered by cravings. In fact, if we could stick electrodes in my brain (which I wouldn’t recommend – very messy), we would see that as soon as dinner is over, my brain starts anticipating – which is another way of saying craving – that chocolate chip crunch. And if the ice cream doesn’t arrive? My brain gets unhappy, and starts giving off patterns that look a lot like anger — or even depression.
Which brings me to my son. Once dessert became a habit for him, it was nearly impossible to stop. He would throw a fit if dessert wasn’t delivered. He would scream and cry and throw himself on the floor. One night, after I denied him a cookie, my son told me — before storming off — that I was no longer fit to be his father. Superman, he announced, would be taking my place. I would be a bystander who happens to share his home. Which, to be honest, kind of hurt. (Would Superman spring for a Costa Rican vacation, kid? Doubtful. That guy is notorious for using the “there’s no pockets in this leotard” excuse to skip out on the bill.)
My wife and I knew we had to change my son’s dessert habit. But how? When I asked the psychologists I was interviewing for my book, they told me that you can’t destroy or eradicate habits – you can only change them. The key, they said, was inserting a new routine – a new behavior – into my son’s after-dinner habit loop.
So we got to work. We realized that whenever our son talked about dinner, he always mentioned dessert. He had become habitualized to associate mealtime with sweets. We went to work on that cue. Now, when we talk about dinner with our son, we emphasize all the other important aspects: the togetherness, the chance to talk about our days, the fact (well, as far as he knows) that Superman got strong because he ate lots of vegetables.
And, most important, we found new rewards. If our son eats his dinner, he gets to read a story with me before bed. Every time he takes three bites of broccoli, we tell him a joke. (The knock knock banana one kills EVERY SINGLE TIME.) It’s not that we never let the poor kid have dessert — we just vary it, and keep him guessing. Sometimes it’s fruit. Sometimes it’s one marshmallow. Sometimes it arrives after his bath, and sometimes it shows up in his snack, before dinner. Habits emerge when patterns are predictable – when our brains learn to crave a specific reward at a specific moment.
It has worked, too, and not just for desserts. If you play with cues and rewards, you can change almost any habits. Studies have shown that when people disable the buzzing on their smart phones, for instance, they stop checking their emails at the dinner table because the cue has been disrupted (and so the craving for the reward of distraction that email provides never materializes). Smokers who start drinking a double-espresso with their morning paper (rather than smoking a cigarette) are more likely to quit. Why? Because the caffeine provides a buzz that is similar to nicotine. The reward is still delivered – but the behavior has changed.
Speaking selfishly here, the best news is that I no longer gorge on dessert every night. I model better eating habits. I’m not saying I deserve a trophy or anything. But, on the other hand, have you ever seen Superman pass by the donut box without snagging a jelly filled piece of fried dough? I didn’t think so. Take that, so-called “Man of Steel.” — Charles Duhigg
P.S. GIVEAWAY!!! Comment below with a story about how you broke a habit (your own or your kid’s) and be eligible to win a free autographed copy of the book.
UPDATE: A.E. Hoseth (#73) and Ali (#82) are the winners. Thanks for playing!
Illustrations and cover design by Anton Ioukhnovets.