How can you form or disrupt a habit? Psychology and business professor, researcher, and author of Good Habits, Bad Habits Wendy Wood dives into the science of changing or replacing behaviors in your life. Discover why the simple decision of forming or disrupting a habit isn’t enough, why willpower without context will hinder your efforts, and why we should be mindful about mindlessness.
Book: Good Habits, Bad Habits/em>
Bio: Wendy Wood is Provost Professor of Psychology and Business at the University of Southern California. She has written for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, and her work has been featured in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, Time magazine, and USA Today, and on NPR. She lectures widely and recently launched the website Good Habits Bad Habits to convey scientific insight on habit to the general public.
This transcript is unedited.
Peter: With us today is Wendy wood. She is a professor of psychology and business at the university of Southern California and she’s written for the Washington post Los Angeles time. She’s been in the New York times. It should talk cargo Tribune time magazine. That’s important to understand because the book I’m about to tell you about, which was really an excellent book I really loved, is, is written more like a writer wrote it than a professor wrote it. And it’s good to know that she’s had a lot of background and a lot of practice and she just told me that her mother was an English teacher. So it comes well-deserved. It’s a really well written, very interesting book. It’s called good habits, bad habits, the science of making positive changes that stick. I’m really delighted to have Wendy with us. Wendy, welcome to the Bregman leadership podcast.
Wendy: Oh, lovely to be talking to you, Peter, and thank you for the kind words about the book.
Peter: Thank you for writing such a great book and for being such a good writer and thanks for making the time to speak with us. So my first question, and I have pages of questions, we’re not going to get to all of them, but my first is like what is going on in the world right now that everybody’s writing about habits? James clear wrote atomic habits. Gretchen Rubin wrote four tendencies, Duhigg wrote the power of habit. I wrote four seconds, which is a book about habits. Why is everybody, and I don’t know if you have a view of this, but why do you think, and you’ve done so much research on habits, why do you think this is such a hot topic right now in this world?
Wendy: I can tell you why I started studying habits. And I think it’s the same reason that other people are interested in it too, which is research and personal experience have shown that it’s easy to make that initial decision to change. We do that a lot. You know, that’s the basis of new year’s resolutions. Everyone’s diet plans, exercise plans, savings plans, but the persistence is hard. And so many goals in our lives, health goals, savings goals in work settings is our performance goals require persistence. You have to move beyond that initial decision and actually stick with that. And so understanding what the mechanisms are that help people stick with change, that’s a different thing than understanding what gets people to change. That persistence, I think is the whole key to so many things in life. And once you realize that these are required difference, psychological processes, then persistence becomes an issue in and of itself. Right? And based on what we know from neuroscience, from psychology, from behavioral economics, we’d realized that the natural way people persist is they form. It happens. So, so that just opens up all kinds of new ways of thinking about our own behavior and other people’s,
Peter: Do you feel like you’re defining habits differently than other people, you, you, you actually in the book go through several iterations. I feel like cause everything’s a story and the story develops about what a habit actually is. And I’m curious. Well why don’t we just start with what is your definition of a habit?
Wendy: I define have a S in terms of mental representations and I think that’s actually pretty standard in the field. So what she picked up in the book is my progression in my own research understanding as I came to understand exactly what a habit is and the data and the experiments and the experiences that led to that definition. So it’s a mental representation. It’s a kind of a mental shift. Shortcut is a way to think about that that helps you repeat what you’ve done in the past that was successful for you in the past. Doesn’t mean it’s going to be successful for you right now, but it’s what comes to mind because it was successful in the past. And you’ve repeated it often enough for it to become a habit.
Peter: So you make a good case in the book that it’s actually a part of your brain but a different part of your brain. So it’s still a part of your brain. When I think of habits in the past, I’ve, I’ve almost thought that they are they are ways of short-cutting the brain. Meaning you don’t have to involve the brain at all. If I have a habit to brush my teeth, I’m not thinking about it. My brain is not operating, I’m just doing it. But that seems now that I think about it, obviously the brains involved somewhere somehow. And, and you’re not, you know, you’re, you might be mind LIS about it. You might not be mindful about it. You might be mindless about it, but it’s still a brain process.
Wendy: Yeah. Has to be. But, but what you are reflecting is our understanding of ourselves is only part of who we are. So our understanding is that we understand that thinking, experiencing part of our ourselves and habits aren’t part of that. So you’re right, in a sense, habits sort of bypass that decision making, but they’re engaging a different part of the brain that has a different way of learning than our conscious experiencing style.
Peter: You know, it just occurred to me, there’s so much that’s been written about mindfulness, right? There’s like so much out there and there’s been such a focus in the world of mindfulness and in some ways in your book you’re advocating mindlessness. You’re like, like there’s a way in which it’s like, you know what, there’s probably good usefulness for mindfulness, but there’s really a lot of usefulness in mindlessness too.
Wendy: Well, I think that’s particularly true for the repeated behaviors that we want to instill in our lives as the things that we do without thinking. So, and this is what we’ve learned from successful people is that so, so your studies of successful leaders, I bet they are very focused on problem solving and making decisions and doing the right thing and being responsive to people. But the reason they can do that is because they’ve automated so many of them basic leadership skills that they’re not even thinking about doing those things. So those big e-cig skills of interacting with employees and making sure that everyone’s voice gets heard, making sure people have a chance to figure out how to get on board. They understand what the broader goals are. All of those things will be structured in so that leaders can then focus on what’s most important to them, which is the innovations that will help them move forward.
Peter: Right? And, and, and again, in the case that you make for the way our thinking brain works and that we can’t rely on willpower, et cetera, it’s like that, you know, you use this example and it’s a well known example, you know, Obama wearing the same suit or, or Zuckerberg where it’s like you could save that mental energy for the hard decisions as opposed to what do I want to eat right now? Or what do I want to wear?
Wendy: Exactly. Right? But you can’t just dismiss. So the challenge that Obama and Zuckerberg had was they sort of dismissed the habit piece. Right? That was something trivial. It was something that was not important to them, what they wore. But it actually is really important.
Peter: Well, with that, that towns, that tan suit proved it to Obama.
Wendy: Exactly. Exactly.
Peter: So, so you’re saying be
Wendy: Mindful of the habits that be mindful of what you choose to be mindless about. Yeah, exactly. Right. Because that’s, that’s the thing you want, you don’t want everything in your life to be a habit. Just like you don’t want everything in your life to be a challenge in decision. Right. Finding the right balance. Right. And understanding that balance is really, that’s what’s the critical point.
Peter: So as I said in the beginning, there’s been a lot written about habits. What are you hoping that your book is going to add to the conversation?
Wendy: Well, I’m a researcher and it’s a science based book. I love that you think it’s a writerly book because it was meant to be that as well, but it’s definitely based on the latest scientific understanding of habit. Right. And that’s what differentiates it. I think from other books in the market and it’s not focused on any specific area. So if you are concerned about saving money, it’s a useful book. If you’re concerned about leadership, that’s a useful book. If you’re concerned about health, it’s a useful book so it doesn’t have a specific domain or content. Instead it is very broadly based.
Peter: Right, right. And it does deliver on that you start the book early by dismissing the power of willpower that so many of us, according to you, three quarters of Americans still rely on it or believe it works. I, I find myself in that position to like, I find myself when I have been undisciplined in something berating myself and promising to be better next time and finding that though that doesn’t seem to work, I keep at it. Why, why is that? Like, why do you know, I mean, I don’t know if your research has looked at this, but why do we keep relying on something that seems to really not work?
Wendy: Well, I think there are a couple of reasons. One is has to do with Americans in particular. And it’s a country founded by Puritans and they followed the Protestant work ethic. I believe that self-denial was a value in and of itself because that’s how you got to heaven, right? So that’s a piece of it. We find Americans are really focused on self control and willpower. But in addition, it’s what we know, right? So you can only introspect about your own experience, the habitual parts of your brain that are actually delivering that repetition. And then persistence. We can’t really introspective about, we don’t know about it. We’re not aware of it. And so we focus on what we know.
Peter: [Inaudible] Okay. So, so let’s, let’s begin to, I’m going to jump to to give people context. The, the sort of, the basis of habit formation, right? Like your, your conclusion in the sense of this is what it takes to build a habit. And then I kind of wanna play with a play with it in example. So we could use me as an example or we could, so you have these four steps context, repetition, rewards, consistency. And then actually total control. So call it five steps. Can you just give us a sentence on each so that people have a context of like based on all of the research and it’s deep research and this isn’t, by the way, for those of you who are listening, a shortcut to not reading Wendy’s book, we’re talking with Wendy wood, good habits, bad habits because it’s, you know, you write actually a little bit like Malcolm Gladwell writes in this way where the process of getting there is just as interesting as the conclusions. But give us for now the conclusions of like give us this five step process.
Wendy: Yeah, I don’t know if it’s five steps. I think of it in terms of three. But you’re right, we separated them out somewhat in the book. First is repetition. So the habitual parts of your brain learn to pick up repeated activities. It’s very different than our thinking conscious selves. But habits only that each time you do something, the habit memory is strengthened slightly. So it gets incrementally stronger and you have to keep doing that same thing over and over to actually form a strong habit. You can’t make good decisions, I’m going to do it. That doesn’t form a habit. Habits form through doing the second piece is a reward. When you do something that you enjoy, you’re likely to do it again in the future. So we’re likely to form habits mostly for things that we actually enjoy doing that are rewarding us in some way.
Wendy: And that reward needs to be a certain kind of our reward. So it needs to be a media because when you get a reward, your brain releases that neuro transmitter, dopamine sometimes called happiness chemical. It does many things beyond just registering. We did something that made us happy. It also ties together information and memory that actually forms that have a Thai stick together. The information about context you’re in with what you just did to get that reward, to form that mental shortcut in your head. And then the third piece is context. That context needs to be consistent. It needs to be the same context so that your brain can pick up that sames,
Peter: Say a word about what you mean by context. Just so it’s clear to people.
Wendy: Yeah, so content is everything around you. Everything. That’s not you, it’s the location you’re in the time of day, the electronics or whatever it is, technology. You’re dealing with other people around you. These are all parts of your context. You want that to actually be as become associated with the payers in your mind that you repeat on a regular basis. Like when you get up in the morning and you walk into your kitchen, if you’re me, at least the first thing you think of is coffee and how to make it. You’re not asking yourself, what do I do? Do I really want coffee instead? Coffee? And you just start that context, activates thoughts if something that’s being rewarding in the past, drinking coffee. So you do what’s needed automatically to get there.
Peter: And, and based on the research that you’ve talked about, even if the coffee’s not good or even if you’re tired of the coffee, you’ll keep doing it.
Wendy: Yes. That’s one of the tricks is once habits form, you tend to repeat them even if they’re not the best thing to do in the current context, unless you have a lot of time to think and make a decision. And then of course we can always override our habits and do something different. But most of the time that’s just too much work. So we wake up, we make coffee whether we need it.
Peter: Okay. I have a question about that, but before we do, you talked about those are the three things you’ve also talked about. Other things you talked about consists in the book consistency and total control. How did those fit in?
Wendy: The contexts that are important are ones that actually support the behavior. Once that promote the action, make it easy because then again, you’re more likely to repeat the action over and over or even when you’re not thinking about whether it’s something you want to do. So I use an example in the book of a car I got a few a couple of years ago that had all of these fancy warning signals on it. The safety devices that beeped whenever you got close to something. And I hated it to start off with, complained a lot. But after I got used to it, I didn’t notice it. And then when I rented a car, it didn’t have those warning devices. And the first thing I did was I backed into a brick wall cause I didn’t want to do that. But the warning signals weren’t there to continue to guide me. Right. And the environment’s shifted. I didn’t notice the signals that I was getting from my old car anymore. They become part of my automated experience. But the environment was cuing me to do the right thing, which is avoid obstacles. And I continued to respond to those messages. E no one, I wasn’t thinking about them. So that’s an environment that takes the control of the behavior. So out of your own decision making and OD helps to automate it for you so that you’re just responding to it. And that’s what a supportive context is. Let’s,
Peter: Let’s talk about this in, in relation to something very specific. And I guess there’s, there’s two kinds of habits, like things I want to start doing and things I want to stop doing. Or I guess it means like you call it disruption, but disrupting a habit or which would be, you know, stopping doing something and, and forming a habit. And so I like, I, so I’m just going to use me as an example and I can think of any number of habits. Mostly I want to stop bad habits, which might put me, even though I’m Jewish in the puritanical mindset of like control. But so I always feel better when I’m not eating sugar. I always feel better when I’m not even sure. And, and, and right now I’m off sugar, right? I’m not, I’m totally 100% restricting myself, which seems to be the easiest way because otherwise I end up over reading it. And I found myself in the popcorn example. You did this great experiment with popcorn where you gave people stale popcorn that didn’t taste good and they just kept eating it because they didn’t interrupt their they didn’t interrupt themselves and they were just following their habit of eating popcorn while watching a movie.
Wendy: People with strong habits kept eating kept, even though they told us they hated the stale popcorn, people with weak habits who didn’t typically popcorn in the movie theater, they didn’t eat the stale popcorn. They only ate it when it was fresh. So it’s like the habit just perpetuate. Right. So go on,
Peter: I feel like I’m like that with sweets. So what kind of coaching would you give me in order to, because right now I’m either all or nothing like I will overeat or I will not eat anything. And I would love to develop, like to disrupt my habit of overeating on sugar. So I could just have like a little bit ice cream and give it up and then done and then go to the next thing and not, not have it be an all or nothing thing. So my first question is, is that a habit challenge? And then second thing is if it is a habit challenge, help me out.
Wendy: It is definitely a habit. So I think that what you describe is a habit that is causing you problems simply because of the availability of sweet things around [inaudible]. We’re constantly given sweet things to eat. Every business meeting has donuts in the middle of the table or cookies or putting it in.
Peter: Yeah. It’s one of the challenges, which is that you can’t, in terms of context managing the environment. And I live in New York city, so as soon as I walk out of the street there’s smells and there’s stores and there’s big chocolate chip cookies and windows and you know, you pass one ice cream store and then there’s another, so it’s, you can’t control, I can’t control, I think in my mind I can’t control for at least environment. I don’t know if that would be exactly the same thing as context.
Wendy: Yes, it is the same thing. And actually you can control that context by walking in, say, walking through central park instead of walking by a place where you buy frappuccinos or whatever your weakness is. You can also control your own personal environments by if you have sweet, sweet things in the house, put them away and make them harder to get to. So you have to make a decision in order to access them. What the challenge for many of us is that we’ve gotten used to big bowls of open candy and bags of cookies on the counter in the kitchen and we just walked by them and end up snacking even when we didn’t intend to. So they were to control your own environment and certainly your work environment.
Peter: So create some more friction that makes it harder to do what you don’t want to do.
Wendy: Exactly. I mean we know how to do that in America. We’ve done it before. We have at a policy level, we, we cut smoking rates more than in half since the middle of the last century. And we did it simply the way you’re describing by controlling the environment, adding friction to smoking. So it’s banned in all public places. Now in most, everywhere we go, you know, don’t see ads for it. There are taxes on cigarettes. It’s just gotten a whole lot harder for us to smoke. That’s friction. It disrupts the habit.
Peter: So what do I, how do I bring rewards into this picture?
Wendy: Well if you wanted to form an alternate habit then you might find something else that you enjoy doing and substitute that for when you typically go from mid morning coffee and ended up in the coffee shop with all of the cookies and the,
Peter: But between you and me, what’s a better reward in the moment than like a big scoop of like Ben and Jerry’s chubby hubby? Like, like I mean I don’t want to just assume everyone has the same experience as I do, but or S caramels, sea salt. I mean is that really cause, cause for me one of the challenges is the future self rewarded versus the presence self. Right in the moment. What I want the biggest reward in the moment is for me to eat some ice cream after the moment I will have regretted it. So it’s a reward to my future self. But there’s also a lot of research that says it’s, you know, that’s sort of a little difficult to focus on your future self versus your current present self. So what can I do? What kind of a reward that could be better than a big scoop of ice cream.
Wendy: The point is with the popcorn study that you might think you’re responding to that reward. And when we ask people who have habits to eat popcorn in the cinema, they say, did they do it because they like the taste of popcorn and it’s something they look forward to and how would you not do it? But they keep doing it even when it tastes bad and they’re not getting that reward. So the point is that the core explanation for your behavior may not be actually what’s controlling and what control, what’s controlling your behavior is probably something more to do with the environment and the fact that you have maybe sat on that couch in the past and enjoyed bowls of ice cream. And so that’s what comes to mind when you sit on it again.
Peter: Yeah. And that’s, that’s a great point. And, and maybe for me, I, since I tend to work all the time, then setting an eating a bowl of ice cream reflects a kind of relaxation that I don’t really afford myself except if I’m eating a bowl of ice cream. So what you’re saying is the reward to not eating that ice cream. It might be to sit back and actually sit around and do nothing and relax for, you know, for 10 minutes and read something I want to read as opposed to just eating the ice cream. And what I probably shouldn’t do is replace the ice cream habit with a Netflix bingeing habit and then I’ll just watch Netflix for 10 minutes and then three hours later emerge from, you know, an entire season of Silicon Valley. So that’s probably like you have to be careful what you reward yourself with that it doesn’t throw you into another habit cycle that you’re going to have to disrupt.
Wendy: Exactly. And you need to keep in mind that your conscious experience of what you are enjoying is not what drives to happen. Your habit is driven by the rewards you got in the past, right? Not the way our conscious mind works.
Peter: So we think we’re rewarding ourselves in the present, but what we’re really doing is remembering like instinctively remembering a past ex. It’s so interesting. You, you talked earlier about a disrupting thought, right? That you have to think if you want to disrupt something, you, you kind of bring yourself to thinking. And I find that my habits are often prompted by emotion more than thought. So it’s like a feeling like I, I’m drawing, I’m not thinking I could be thinking, I don’t wanna eat this and yet I’m feeling like I really do want to eat this. In your view and in your research, am I making a false distinction? Is it all in your mind or am I having an emotional experience that may make it hard to counteract my intellectual experience? Do you understand my question? Does it make sense?
Wendy: Sorta. thoughts don’t disrupt habits. And so, so there are sort of two parts to your question. One was about the disruption piece. Thoughts don’t disrupt habits. Changing the cues that activate habits, that’s what disrupts habits. And so you can think about ways to change those cues in the future so that your habit won’t be activated. Right? Cook, eat, you don’t hang around on that sofa at the times. In the past when you usually ate ice cream, right? You decide I’m going to go for a walk in the evening instead, or I’m going to go out with someone and to do something else. All of those are competing activities that will disrupt the cues and put you in a different patient. So that’s one answer. The second is you’re talking about cues to habits. Be in your emotions and your feelings. That’s certainly possible. I mean, there’s no reason why pecked. I think for many of the behaviors that are really challenging to us, there are cues that come into internally as well as externally, right? Controlling our cell phones. Most of us just pull it out whenever we get forward or whenever we’re in a situation that we don’t really want to engage with other people, then we just pull out our cell phones. So, so yes, those can become cues for behavior, just like external factors can, how do we, we deal
Peter: With how do we create a reward for those moments of boredom. So if what I’m trying to, if what I’m trying to disrupt is my desire to pick up my phone in a moment and I’m feeling is bored and maybe some on we or I’m you know, with a group of people and the conversation lapses or whatever it is, and my or I just go to the bathroom and my instinct is to pull out my phone because I’ve got a moment where I’m not 100% occupied. And how do we, how do we create reward for those moments when the replacement of that activity is boredom, which I think we’ve become less and less tolerant of.
Wendy: Think you’re focusing too much on the emotion. I can’t help you with that. Could the boredom of the two might, it’s variance. I can help you with the behavior that’s tied to that. And that is disrupting cues. So in order to change that behavior, right, you need to make it more difficult. African person to checking your phone, put it away, turn it off, if you turn it off. Turning it on again is so time consuming that it’s really pretty good friction to stopping that kind of sporadic phone checking that we all fall into.
Peter: It’s interesting, I mean the challenge is an elevator for example, where you may have been on the phone, you get on an elevator and you’re gonna, you know, you probably, it probably doesn’t make sense to turn it off and then turn it on 20 seconds later. But that’s how often. And that’s how little we turn. We check our phones, like we check our phones in 10 or 22nd instruments, like we don’t really show, you know,
Wendy: So times today
Peter: And 50 times. Yeah, exactly. Because we, we, you know, as soon as we got off the elevator, we’re gonna need our phones again. So you’re saying we turn off our phone, maybe going into an elevator as a cue to turn off our phone and reaching the floor is acute to turn on the phone.
Wendy: Every time you stop using your phone, you put it away, right? You’d fend it off right? Make it difficult to access. And if that is your habit, then you’re not going to be one of these people whose sporadic weight checks their phone 50 times a day. You’ll pull it out the tech times a day. You actually need it and you’ll invest the effort to, to use it.
Peter: And so is there, when you think of rewards in a situation like that, what would the, how would you, how would you manufacturer in a reward around a behavior like that?
Wendy: Why is that necessary? Well, I’m just thinking about your model of these three things. The challenge, it’s not, that’s not the challenge. The challenge is disrupting the habit. And if you want to disrupt an existing habit, what you have to do is change the cues. That’s the easiest way. So if you are blind, if you are relying on willpower to change a habit lost because that haven’t, memory is going to stick around much longer than your desire to change it.
Peter: So of the, of the three things that you talked about, it’s probably for disrupting a habit. It’s creating that friction and repetition that’s more important than rewards for disrupting a habit, for creating a habit. You need the reward. Yes. so let me ask you one last question. I know we’re, I’m having so much fun and there’s like a million other things we could talk about and maybe we do this again at some point. I’m curious, and I don’t know if your research has looked into this, but I’m curious about deeply ingrained habits of thought, like acting with a survival instinct or not trusting other people. Like you say, just have a habit of not trusting you. Do you have any experience in changing habits of thought or disrupting habits of thought when you follow the same rules? Have you looked into that?
Wendy: I haven’t studied habits of thought simply because it’s not clear that people necessarily learn those in the same way that they learn habitual behaviors possible. Right. But there’s just not much research on that topic. Right. So I don’t know.
Peter: Right. That’s you know, not knowing is also a really good way to end something cause there’s a lot, there’s like so much depth here and the drive to all research, which you’ve done so well is to keep getting to that place of not knowing and then exploring and finding more out, which you did a lot in terms of habits. We’ve been talking with Wendy wood, her book is good habits, bad habits, the science of making positive changes that stick. My challenge to you as you’re listening is, you know, hopefully this was an interesting conversation. Make it useful by thinking about one habit today that you may want to integrate into your life or one habit that you may want to disrupt and think about these three rules that when do these, this process in a sense of context, repetition and rewards and, and play with it. And, and let us know how, how how it works for you and what you’re running into. Wendy, thank you so much for being on the Bregman leadership podcast.
Wendy: Oh, thank you so much for inviting me. Great fun.