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Eye of the Optimist-Changing Habits

Excerpt from the self-help book, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg (Random House, 2012, pages 61 and 92). 

The author uses a narrative style throughout much of this book to instruct on consciously changing habits from the point of view of real peoples's successful experiences in changing their own habits or the habits of others. In this excerpt, Duhigg tells how a football coach named Dungy found a way to turn a failing team into a winning team by developing a strategy by which to change the players' habits.

"Rather than creating new habits, Dungy was going to change players' old ones, and the secret to changing old habits was using what was already inside players' heads. Habits are a three-step loop--the cue, the routine, the reward--but Dungy only wanted to attack the middle step, the routines. He knew from experience that it was easier to convince someone to adopt a new behavior if there was something familiar at the beginning and end.

"His coaching strategy embodied an axiom, a Golden Rule of habit change that study after study has shown is among the most powerful tools for creating change: Dungy recognized that you can never truly extinguish bad habits.

"Rather, to change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.

"That's the rule: if you use the same cue, and provide the same reward, you can shift the routine and change the habit. Almost any behavior can be transformed if the cue and reward stay the same.

"The Golden Rule has influenced treatments for alcoholism, obesity, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and hundreds of other destructive behaviors, and understanding it can help anyone change their own habits. (Attempts to give up snacking, for instance, will often fail unless there's a new routine to satisfy old cues and reward urges. A smoker usually can't quit unless she finds some activity to replace cigarettes when her nicotine craving is triggered.)" (Page 61)

Duhigg concludes the story of coach Dungy by saying that he finally got hired to coach the Bucs NFL team, after being rejected by hiring committees four times prior to that. Dungy demonstrated the validity of his strategy by proving it in practice: he became the only coach in NFL history to lead a team to reach the play-offs in ten consecutive years, and the only African American coach to lead a team to win a Super Bowl.

Dungy nevertheless had trouble sustaining his team's success. He then offered a way to make the new habits enduring, according to Duhigg: "If we keep the same cue and the same reward, a new routine can be inserted, but that's not enough. For a habit to stay changed, people must believe change is possible, and most often, that belief only emerges with the help of a group." (Page 92) Find or create a support group or community that will help you stay away from the bad habit, such as nicotine or whatever. As far as I can see, an example of of this sort of activity may be the way vegetarians create social clubs or events like cooking groups or activities, recipe books and trade, new restaurants and so on. Eventually, a change to self-identity and group identity emerges. We are really talking about deliberately changing culture by renovating the old and building something new from within the old structure and belief system.

Duhigg's book advocates that not only individuals can change bad habits by following this strategy; he lays out a strategy for business and positive societal change as well. A community, then the larger society has to cultivate a new identity by changing habits, encouraging habit change and supporting those who wish to change their habits similarly. The collective motivation turns into a collective belief that change is happening and will transform society and endure.

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