It started in Cairo.

Lisa was a scientist’s dream subject. She’d been obese, a smoker, a drinker and a deadbeat who couldn’t hold a job. Then she turned her life around. At 34, she was “lean and vibrant,” a non-smoker and a non-drinker, debt-free and gainfully employed.

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It started in Cairo.

Lisa was a scientist’s dream subject. She’d been obese, a smoker, a drinker and a deadbeat who couldn’t hold a job. Then she turned her life around. At 34, she was “lean and vibrant,” a non-smoker and a non-drinker, debt-free and gainfully employed.

For three years, neurologists, psychologists, geneticists and sociologists poked and prodded her and others with destructive habits who had remade their lives in a short period of time. How did they do it? How did Lisa do it?

 She explained that when her husband left her, she spiraled downward. The very bottom was showing up at his girlfriend’s house, screaming that she was going to burn down her condo. She had no husband, no job. But she did have a little credit so she decided to go to a place she had always wanted to visit--Egypt.

 Her first morning there, she was awakened by the call to prayer from a nearby mosque. She was so disoriented that instead of lighting a Marlboro, she lit a ball point pen. Then she knocked over a water jug.

“And then I started thinking about my ex-husband and how hard it would be to find another job when I got back, and how much I was going to hate it and how unhealthy I felt all the time. I felt desperate, like I had to change something, at least one thing I could control.”

Out of that desperation came a plan. She would trek through the desert, a “crazy idea,” but she was determined to do it. She gave herself a year to prepare. And part of the preparation was quitting smoking.

That one change set off a chain reaction that led to changes in every part of her life. The changes were actually visible in her brain! The neural patterns of her old habits had been overridden by new patterns.

 Lisa literally reprogrammed herself. It’s not just people who can do it. Companies, such as Procter & Gamble, Starbucks, Alcoa and, Target, have also transformed themselves.

We, like Lisa and Starbucks, are creatures of habit.  “All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits,” Williams James wrote in 1892. We think we’re making decisions, but we’re not. A study by Duke University showed that 40% of the actions people performed each day were not the result of conscious decisions, they were habits.

 “In the past decade, our understanding of the neurology and psychology of habits . . . has expanded in ways we couldn’t have imagined 50 years ago . . . . Transforming a habit isn’t necessarily easy or quick. It isn’t always simple. But it is possible. And now we understand how.”

PART ONE: The Habits of Individuals


Habits never really disappear.


Due to a bout of viral encephalitis, 71-year-old Eugene Pauly lost his recent memory and his ability to make new ones. He began working with Larry Squire, a professor and researcher who specialized in memory.

The images of Pauly’s brain reminded Squire of images he had seen 30 years earlier of the brain of H.M., one of the most famous patients in medical history.

H.M., or Henry Molaison, suffered a brain injury at a child and developed debilitating seizures. When he was 27, a surgeon removed part of his brain. The seizures lessened, but most of his memory was gone alone with the ability to make new memories.

“I loved learning about H.M.,” said Squire, “because memory seemed like such a tangible, exciting way to study the brain.”

Although there were similarities between the men, there were vast differences as well. H.M. had to be institutionalized after his surgery. Eugene was able to carry on conversations.  

His intellect was sharp, but he couldn’t recognize his grandchildren.

Eugene and his wife Beverly used to walk every day. One day he slipped out of the house alone. Soon he was walking by himself every day. Squire realized something was happening in his brain that wasn’t a function of memory.

“He was absorbing new information. But where inside his brain was that information residing?”


At laboratories at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sensors have been implanted in the brains of rats. In one experiment, scientists studied the rats’ brains as they traveled through a maze to get a reward. At first the brains worked hard, but as the rats became more familiar with the maze, they didn’t work as hard.

The same process happens in our lives. We back the car out of the garage automatically. The basal ganglia, the most primitive part of our brain where habits are formed, takes over.  

One way of looking at habits is as a “three-step loop.” First there’s the cue, the trigger that sets an action in motion. Then there’s the routine which can be physical, mental or emotional. Finally there’s the reward. The more these are practiced, the more automatic they become until a habit is born. Once a habit is born, the brain can stop working so hard.

Habits can be broken, but they’re never really extinguished which is a huge advantage for us. Imagine if you had to relearn how to drive after every vacation.


Larry Squire, the memory specialist, became convinced that Eugene was forming new habits. His work with him revolutionized the scientific community’s understanding of how the brain works.  Since then, the science of habit formation has exploded. Corporations, as well as researchers, are studying how habits are formed and how they can be changed.


Seven years after Eugene’s illness, his life had settled into a routine. He suffered a minor heart attack and then a massive one that killed him.

His wife Beverly said, “He would have been really proud to know how much he contributed to science. He told me once . . . that he wanted to do something important with his life, something that mattered. And he did. He just never remembered any of it.”


 Who wants to admit their house stinks?


In the early 1900s, Claude C. Hopkins was asked by a friend to design a national ad campaign for a new product, “a minty, frothy concoction called Pepsodent.”

Hopkins was an advertising genius whose rules are still used today. Puffed Wheat, according to him, was “shot from guns.” Cleopatra had used Palmolive soap.

But he wasn’t interested in toothpaste. People didn’t brush their teeth. in those days. Still, he finally agreed to take it on and within 10 years, half of Americans daily.

 How did he do it? He created a craving. “That craving is what makes cues and rewards work. That craving is what powers the habit loop.”

The specific craving was the universal desire to be beautiful. He convinced people that removing the film on their teeth would make them beautiful. The cue was the film, the routine was brushing, the reward was a beautiful smile.


Drake Stimson led a team of marketing executives charged with designing an advertising campaign for Procter & Gamble’s new product, a spray that could remove bad smells from fabric. It was called Febreze.

They tested it and it bombed. People didn’t know their houses smelled bad because they had become desensitized to it. And if they did, they didn’t want to admit it.

“Who wants to admit their house stinks?” asked Stimson.


Wolfram Schultz, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Cambridge did experiments on monkeys’ brains. One monkey, Julio, received a reward every time he pressed a lever when he saw a colorful shape.

Julio’s brain activity spiked when he received the reward. Then he began to anticipate the reward and his brain activity would spike as soon as he saw the colorful shape. He was developing a strong habit.

Then Schultz changed the experiment. Sometimes the juice was diluted or late or didn’t arrive at all. Julio would get angry or mopey and his brain would show a new pattern, craving. This is the same craving that keeps a gambler at the slot machine long after he’s promised himself he’ll leave. It’s the same craving that makes thoughts of a diet disappear when you smell something delicious. Like a Cinnabon.

Most food sellers are together in food courts. But Cinnabon likes to be separate so the aroma isn’t diluted with other food and shoppers can smell the rolls before they even see the shops. “By the time a consumer turns a corner and sees the Cinnabon store, that craving is a roaring monster inside his head and he’ll reach, unthinkingly, for his wallet.”


Drake Stimson and his team were back to Square One. They interviewed  psychologists, professors, and consumers. One woman said she used Febreze, not to get rid of any specific odors, but as part of her house-cleaning. She’d finish a room with a spritz.

They started watching videos of women cleaning. At the end, each had a little smile of satisfaction.  They decided to sell Febreze as the very end of cleaning, “the fun part.”

They added perfume to the recipe so that Febreze didn’t just eliminate bad odors , it added a pleasant one. Febreze became the reward for cleaning. Within two months of the Febreze relaunch, sales doubled.  Today, Febreze and all its spin-offs is a billion dollar a year business.


It turns out, Charles C. Hopkins wasn’t the first to link toothpaste with ugly film and a beautiful teeth. So, why did Pepsodent succeed when other toothpastes failed?

Pepsodent created a craving. Unlike the other toothpastes of its time, it produced a tingle. Consumers began to crave it. Without it, their mouths didn’t feel clean. The tingle was the signal that the product worked.

For companies, understanding the science of cravings makes the difference between a successful product and a dud. Cravings drive habits. We crave the tingle so we brush our teeth. We crave the satisfaction of a clean house, so we give the sofa a spritz of Febreze.


Almost any behavior can be transformed if the cue and reward stay the same.


When Tony Dungy took over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers they were one of the worst teams in the National Football League, perhaps in the history of professional football. They were dubbed “America’s Orange Doormat.”

But Dungy’s coaching was beginning to pay off. He didn’t believe in a lot of tricky plays, just a few executed perfectly, automatically, time after time. He taught the players to stop thinking and start reacting.

The key to winning was changing players’ habits, not the cue or the reward, the routine. He recognized what study after study has shown: You can never truly extinguish bad habits. You can, however, change the habit, by keeping the old cue and the old reward and inserting a new routine. That’s the Golden Rule of Habit Change.

The Golden Rule has influenced treatment for all kinds of destructive behavior from alcoholism to overeating.


Bill Wilson took his first drink when he was 22-years-old.  By the time he was 39, he was drinking three bottles of liquor a day and his life was falling apart. Repeated attempts to quit had failed. He called on God for help

“I am ready to do anything. Anything!”

He never took another drink. That was the beginning of Alcoholics Anonymous, “the largest, most well-known and successful habit-changing organization in the world.”

AA is based on the Golden Rule of habit change. The cues and rewards remain constant, but the routine changes. As part of the 12-step program, alcoholics make an “inventory” of themselves. In other words, they identify the cues that lead to drinking. They also identify their rewards. It’s often things like escape, companionship, and emotional release, all of which can be satisfied at an AA meeting.

“AA forces you to create new routines for what to do each night instead of drinking. The triggers and payoffs stay the same; it’s just the behavior that changes.”

Mandy didn’t drink, but she was a chronic nail-biter. The tips of her fingers showed nerve damage. The habit was ruining her life.

She saw a psychologist who practiced “habit reversal training.” He walked her through nail-biting from cues to reward. The cue was tension in her fingers. The reward was the physical stimulation.

Describing the cues that set off behavior is called awareness training and is the first step in habit reversal training.

The psychologist had Mandy keep track of when she bit her nails. He had her substitute a competing response, such as putting her hands in her pocket. She substituted a new physical stimulation, like rubbing her arm or rapping her knuckles.

Within one month, she had completely broken her old habit.

“It seems ridiculously simple, but once you’re aware of how your habit works, once you recognize the cues and rewards, you’re half-way to changing it,” says Nathan Azrin, one of the developers of habit reversal training. “The truth is, the brain can be reprogrammed. You just have to be deliberate about it.”


In Tony Dungy’s second season, the Bucs made it to the play-offs for the first time in 15 years. Dungy became a favorite with the sports media, for his family values, as well as his coaching. He frequently brought his sons, Eric and Jamie, with him to the stadium.

The Bucs became a winning team, but they had one destructive habit: They clutched in the big game. The players trusted Dungy’s system during the regular season, but slipped into their old patterns when it really counted. After losing two straight Super Bowls, Dungy was fired.


“My name is John and I’m an alcoholic.”

John turned to AA the first time when a car accident he caused left his son with a broken arm.  After a year of sobriety, he felt his drinking was under control and he stopped going to meetings.

Then his mother was diagnosed with cancer and he fell off the wagon. Another DUI convinced him if he didn’t get sober, he’d eventually kill his kids. He started going to meetings again.

This time, his sponsor stressed the importance of belief in a higher power. John was an atheist and it was a difficult concept for him. But, he “worked” at believing there was something bigger than him. He’s now been sober for seven years and he credits his sobriety to his belief in a higher power.

Belief in an integral part of AA. Habit replacement alone works fairly well until a major life stress occurs. Then, those, like John, who believe in a higher power are better equipped to stay sober.

The belief doesn’t have to be belief in God. Belief itself is the key. “Belief was the ingredient that made a reworked habit loop into a permanent behavior.”


Tony Dungy was hired by the Indianapolis Colts and taught the team to change their habits. It worked well during the season, but, the Colts, like the Bucs, choked under play-off pressure.

Then, tragedy struck. Dungy’s son Jamie died. The team rallied around their coach. “Something changed,” one of the players said. “Something shifted.” The team gave into Dungy’s vision and went on to win the Super Bowl.  

PART TWO: The Habits of Successful Organizations


It was a minor tweak, but the effect was electrifying.


Paul O’Neill was brought in as CEO of Alcoa because the company was in trouble. Stockholders were less than enthused when he announced that his focus would be employee safety. He didn’t say anything about profits.

But, within a year, Alcoa’s profits hit a record high. How did focusing on employee safety result in increased profits? O’Neill attacked the keystone habit, those habits that can start a chain reaction. The ripple effect caused positive changes throughout the company.

“I knew I had to transform Alcoa,” said O’Neill, “but you can’t order people to change. That’s not how the brain works. So I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing. If I could start disrupting the habits around one thing, it would spread throughout the entire company.”

By focusing on employee safety, O’Neill actually caused a radical realignment. In order to keep employees safe, you had to understand why they were injured in the first place. It meant rethinking everything.

He started with a simple habit loop. The cue was an employee injury.  In response to it, the unit president had to contact O’Neill within 24 hours. That meant everyone up the chain of command from the employee to the unit president had to be aware of it immediately. To keep accidents to a minimum, suggestion boxes were made available. People started talking and listening.

O’Neill was building “new corporate habits.”

As safety increased, costs came down, quality went up, productivity increased, and profits skyrocketed.

Keystone habits have been identified in families. Those that eat dinner together have children with better homework habits, more confidence and better emotional control.


Michael Phelps had the perfect body for a swimmer. Long torso, huge hands, short legs.  He also had obsessive tendencies which are necessary for any super athlete. But to become a gold-medal winning Olympic champion, he needed more. He needed habits that would make him “the strongest mental swimmer in the pool.”

Phelps’s coach taught him to play an imaginary videotape of a perfect race over and over in his mind. He would play it first thing in the morning and last thing at night and again before races. That keystone habit allowed all his other habits—diet, training--to fall into place “on their own.”

At the basis of why keystone habits are so successful is the concept of small wins. One accomplishment, which by itself may seem inconsequential, leads to the next and the next and convinces people that bigger accomplishments are possible.

An example comes from the gay rights movements. In the late 1960s, when gays began to campaign against homophobia, they were unsuccessful. But, in the early 1970s, they convinced the Library of Congress to reclassify books about the gay liberation movement from HQ 71-471 (Abnormal Sexual Relations, Including Sexual Crimes) to a newly created category, HQ 76.5 (Homosexuality, Lesbianism, Gay Liberation Movement, Homophile Movement.)

“It was a minor tweak, but the effect was electrifying.”


Before Alcoa, Paul O’Neill had worked for the federal government, specifically on infant mortality which was higher in rural areas of the U.S. than in some parts of South America. He started asking why these babies were dying. Each answer led to more questions.

Babies were dying because of premature births. Why were they born prematurely? Because their mothers were malnourished, not just when they were pregnant, but before they became pregnant. Why were they malnourished? Because they didn’t know about nutrition. Why not? They were never taught about it. Why? Because their teachers didn’t know about it.

In order to fight infant mortality, O’Neill had to start with teachers. Teacher education was the keystone habit that caused a chain reaction. Today the infant mortality rate is 68% lower than when O’Neill started the job.  


I owe everything to this company.


Travis Leach was the son of drug addicts. He dropped out of school at 16 and couldn’t hold a job, not even at McDonald’s. He couldn’t take the stress of angry customers and would yell, shake and sometimes cry. He was frequently late for work or he wouldn’t show up at all. As much as he tried to do better, he failed.

One day, someone suggested he apply for a job at Starbucks. A month later, he was a barista. Six years later, he was the manager of two Starbucks, overseeing 40 employees, making $44,000 a year. The changes in his life were all brought about, he says, by his Starbucks training. “I owe everything to this company.”

Starbucks doesn’t just teach its employees how to make coffee, it teaches them the life skills that they never learned from at schools or at home.  “With more than 137,000 current employees, and more than one million alumni, Starbucks is now one of the nation’s largest educators.’

At the core of the training is an intense focus on an all-important habit: willpower. It’s the single most important keystone habit for success, more important than IQ.

Starbucks needed to teach willpower because they knew if you were charging $4 for coffee, they’d better deliver it with something extra, outstanding service. In order for employees to have the necessary “pep,” they had to be able to control their emotions, remain focused and disciplined throughout their shift. Starbucks spent millions developing curriculums on willpower.


In one famous experiment of willpower, researchers gave four-year-olds a choice. They could eat one marshmallow now, but if they could wait 15 minutes, they could eat two.  Years later, they tracked down the children. The ones who waited had the best grades,  were more popular, and did fewer drugs. The same discipline that helped them wait, paid off in later life.

Researcher Mark Muraven wanted to know why, if willpower was a skill, it wasn’t constant from day to day.  What better way to test willpower than with fresh, warm chocolate chip cookies?

Students were presented with a bowl of cookies and a bowl of radishes. Half were told to eat the radishes, half the cookies. Then they were presented with an impossible puzzle. They students who had used up their willpower resisting the cookies did poorly. The students who at the cookies and had a full supply of willpower did well.

“Willpower,” says Muraven, “isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like the muscles in your arms or legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there’s less power left over for other things.”


To develop their curriculum, Starbucks trainers watched what was happening in their stores. They saw that willpower lagged when lines were long and customers were nasty. They gave their employees specific instructions on how to deal with these situations and drilled them until they became automatic.

“This is how willpower becomes a habit: by choosing a certain behavior ahead of time, and then following that routine” when it’s tested.  


Howard Schultz, the powerhouse behind Starbucks, grew up in public housing. He didn’t have much going for him, but he did have one thing that was indispensible, a mother that wouldn’t let him quit. He got a scholarship to college and after, a job as a Xerox salesman. He would start at the top floor of an office building, knock on every door asking if they needed his wares, and worked his way to the lobby.

When he bought Starbucks in 1987, it had six stores. Three years later, there were 84 stores. Today, there are 17,000 stores in more than 50 countries.

“I really, genuinely believe that if you tell people that they have what it takes to succeed, they’ll prove you right,” says Schultz.  


Before Travis was working at Starbucks, his mother was hospitalized with an infection. She died before he had a chance to say goodbye to her.  A week later, his father was in the same hospital. He tried to see him but the nurse told it was past visiting hours. The next day, he was gone.

He says if he had been working at Starbucks, he would have known how to handle the situation. He would have had the skills to stand up for himself. Instead, he just left.

CHAPTER SIX:  THE POWER OF A CRISIS: How Leaders Create Habits through Accident and Design

You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.


Rhode Island Hospital was a terrible place to work in 2000.  There was tension between the doctors and the nurses who felt they were not respected.  In order to work around the doctors, they developed ways to communicate among themselves. Patterns and habits developed, but they were toxic.

“And when the habits within Rhode Island Hospital imploded, they caused terrible mistakes.”

One such mistake was brain surgery on the wrong side of an elderly man’s skull. He eventually died.


An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change doesn’t sound like a bestseller, but it was. Its authors, Yale professors Richard Nelson and Sidney Winter, posed the theory that while it may seem like organizations are making rational decisions based on logical thinking, they’re really just doing what they’ve always done. In other words, relying on habits.

Organizations, like people, have habits. They make it possible to get things done, but they can also be destructive. Organizations aren’t families where everyone is working toward the same goal. Instead, within every organization there are groups of allies and enemies. Truces between enemies enable the organization to work.

“Most of the time, routines and truces work perfectly. . . . However, sometimes even a truce proves insufficient. Sometimes, as Rhode Island Hospital discovered, an unstable peace can be as destructive as any civil war.”


The King’s Cross subway station, part of the London Underground, was enormous. It was also controlled by various fiefdoms. There were four heads of the four major departments. There was no communication between them. Each of them guarded his own turf. Most of the time, it worked. The trains ran on time and passengers got where they needed to go.

But one night, the flaws in the system became all too apparent. It was during rush hour that a passenger alerted a ticket agent to a burning tissue at the bottom of one of the five story escalators. He immediately put it out. But that’s all he did.

31 people died that day, the result of organizational habit that worked, until a fire erupted. Then it became aware that no one person had ultimate responsibility for passenger safety.


Four months after the elderly man with the botched surgery on his brain died at Rhode Island Hospital, another surgeon operated on the wrong side of a patient’s head. 18 months after that, a surgeon operated on the wrong part of a child’s mouth during a cleft palate surgery. Five months after that, a surgeon operated on the wrong finger of a patient.

Rhode Island Hospital became the poster child for hospital error and the local and national media jumped all over the story.

Some at the hospital became defensive. But one administrator, Dr. Mary Reich Cooper, realized that the crisis was an opportunity to reexamine all of the hospital’s procedures. “Sometimes people need a jolt, and all the bad publicity was a serious jolt,” she said.

Successful leaders know that a crisis gives them the best chance they’ll ever get to make significant changes. As President Obama’s former chief of staff  Rahm Emanuel said in 2008 after the financial meltdown: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”  

CHAPTER SEVEN: HOW TARGET KNOWS WHAT YOU WANT BEFORE YOU DO: When Companies Predict (and Manipulate) Habits

To sell a new habit, wrap it in something that people already know and like.


It’s no secret that companies keep track of us, what we buy, when we buy, even why we buy. Every time we use a loyalty card, redeem a coupon, hand over a credit card, shop on line, call customer service, or fill out a survey, we’re giving them information. But Target has taken it to a whole new level.

Andrew Pole was working there when he was asked, “Can your computers figure out which customers are pregnant, even if they don’t want us to know?”

It was an important question. Consumers are loyal. They buy the same kind of coffee and tooth paste over and over. But when their going through a major life upheaval such as marriage, divorce, a new house, or a new job, they’re apt to change.  Or, in the parlance of analysts,  “They’re vulnerable to intervention by marketers.” And there’s no bigger life upheaval than having a baby. Target knew that was the prime time to hook consumers. “Pregnant women and new parents, after all, are the holy grail of retail.”

By analyzing what women who had signed up for their baby registry were buying--unscented lotion in the middle of their pregnancy, washcloths close to their delivery date-Pole was able to figure out which women who hadn’t signed up were pregnant. He was able, in a sense, to “peer inside a woman’s womb” and send her the coupons she needed.

But women don’t necessarily want strangers peering inside their womb. Target had to be sneaky. In their individualized flyers, they sandwiched the coupons for lotions and washcloths between coupons for dog food and sneakers.


How do you sell a record that people hate?

That was the problem for Steve Bartels, promotion executive at Arista Records. The song was “Hey Ya!” by OutKast. He thought it would be a sure hit. He convinced radio stations to play it, but listeners hated it so much, they turned the dial.  

The problem was “Hey Ya!” didn’t sound like other songs. People want to listen to their favorite songs or songs that sound like their favorite songs.  But Bartels wasn’t ready to give up.


During World War II, meat was scarce, but organ meat was plentiful. The problem was getting housewives to serve it. They weren’t familiar with it. The solution was to make it seem familiar by “camouflaging it in everyday garb.”

The government sent out mailers telling women their husbands would “cheer for steak and kidney pie” which would contain a little steak and a lot of kidney. Butchers gave out recipes for meatloaf made with liver. Organ consumption rose by 33% during the war.


Arista decided the secret to making “Hey Ya!” a hit was to make it familiar. To do that, they sandwiched it between “sticky” songs, songs that keep the listener listening. Some songs are sticky because people like them. Some are sticky even though people hate them. Men say they hate Celine Dion, but they don’t switch the station when her songs come on.

It worked. People got used to “Hey Ya!” Then they started to crave it. It sold more than 5.5 million records and won a Grammy.  


In 2000, the YMCA spent a fortune updating their facilities assuming that’s what people wanted. It did bring more people in at first, but it didn’t keep them there. Research showed that to keep people coming back, the gyms had to be friendly. Employees had to know their names. Classes needed to encourage people to make friends.

“It’s a variation of the lesson learned by Target and radio DJs: to sell a new habit—in this case exercise—wrap it in something that people already know and like, such as the instinct to go places where it’s easy to make friends.”



All of us are simply a bundle of habits.


Rosa Parks was not the first black person who refused to give up her seat to a white person.  Then why did her refusal spark the civil rights movement? Because it was more than an individual act of defiance.

It was aided by social habits, “the behaviors that occur, unthinkingly, across dozens or hundreds or thousands of people which are often hard to see as they emerge, but which contain a power that can change the world.” Social habits are at the root of many movements.

Movement start because of the social habits of friendship and the strong ties between close acquaintances. They grow because of the habits of the community, and the weak ties that hold neighborhoods and groups together. They last because participants develop new habits that create a new identity and feeling of ownership.

Rosa Parks was known and respected by whites as well as black. She was active in dozens of clubs and had friends that belonged to the various economic and social strata of Montgomery, Alabama.  

When a bus boycott was called, her friends and acquaintances signed on.


Say you’re an executive at a company. Another executive is looking for a job at your company and asks you to put in a good word. If the person is a stranger, the answer is no. If the person is a close friend, the answer is yes. But if the person is an acquaintance?

Studies have shown that more people get their jobs through acquaintances, or “weak ties,” than through friends. We tend to know what our friends know. But weak ties give us access to new information.

“The power of weak ties helps explain how a protest can expand from a group of friends into a broad social movement. Convincing thousands of people to pursue the same goal is hard. There’s a tool that activists have long relied upon to compel protest. It’s a form of persuasion that has been remarkably effective over hundreds of years. Peer pressure.”


In 1979, Rick Warren was a Baptist pastor without a church. He wanted to start a congregation for people who didn’t already attend church, but he didn’t know where it should be. He spent months studying census records, phone books, newspaper articles, and maps. He settled on Saddleback Valley in Orange County, California, the fastest-growing region in America. His first prayer group consisted of seven people in his living room.

Today, Saddleback Church is one of the largest in the world with more than 20,000 parishioners. His book, “The Purpose-Driven Life” has sold 30 million copies.

“At the core of his church’s growth and his success is a fundamental belief in the power of social habits.”

Recognizing people’s need for social contact, Warren asked church members to host and lead small classes in their home. He gave them a curriculum designed to instill Christian habits.

According to one manual, “All of us are simply a bundle of habits . . . Our goal is to help you replace some bad habits with some good habits that will help you grow in Christ’s likeness.”

Warren put the responsibility on the parishioners, which leads to the third aspect of how social habits drive movements. Ideas must become self-propelling. That’s what happened in Montgomery.

Black citizens took responsibility for meeting violence with nonviolence. They were committed to achieving equality. Martin Luther King told them, “We must meet hate with love. If I am stopped, our work will not stop. For what we are doing is right. What we are doing is just. And God is with us.”

The civil rights movement spread from Montgomery across the south. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act which outlaws all forms of segregation.

CHAPTER NINE: THE NEUROLOGY OF FREE WILL: Are We Responsible for Our Habits?

I honestly believe anyone in my shoes would have done the same things.


Angie Bachmann began to gamble because she was bored. Her children didn’t need her anymore and her days were long and empty. So long that she’d taken to covering the clock so she wouldn’t look at it constantly.

As a special treat, she was to the casino one day with $40 in purse. She lost the money, but the hours flew by and she felt invigorated. She started going once a week. She got good at it and one day won $530, enough to buy groceries, pay the phone bill and have a little left over. The company that owned the casino, Harrah’s Entertainment, began sending her coupons for free meals. She could treat the family.

Gambling was a way for her to relieve the stress of elderly parents, a disinterested husband, and children who had their own lives. When she started to lose, she borrowed money from her parents. Harrah’s gave her a line of credit.

Soon she was going to the casino every day. She was irritable when she wasn’t there. The high of winning was immediate. The pain of losing passed quickly.

“The compulsion she felt to gamble caught her completely off guard. It was a new sensation, so unexpected that she hardly knew it was a problem until it has taken hold of her life. One day it was fun, and the next it was uncontrollable.”

In 2001, she owed Harrah’s $20,000. She declared bankruptcy.


Brian Thomas suffered all his life from sleepwalking. It was harmless until one night in 2008, he killed his wife. In his sleep state, he thought she was an intruder.

The police charged him with murder, but there was no motive. All the evidence pointed to a happy marriage.

A sleep specialist evaluated him and found he was the victim of sleep terrors, a primitive habit that demands a fight or flight response. Thomas hadn’t consciously committed a crime, and he was acquitted.


Three years after Angie Bachmann declared bankruptcy, her parents died within months of one another leaving her nearly a million dollars. She bought a new home in Tennessee, a state without gambling. “I didn’t want to fall back into bad patterns.”

But, she decided to go to the casino, one last time. Harrah’s was glad to see her and began sending limos to take her to the casinos in Mississippi. They flew her family to Lake Tahoe, put them up in a suite and gave her $10,000 to play with.  Before long, she’d lost $250,000.

The brains of pathological gamblers, like Angie, are different from those of social gamblers. Pathological gamblers experience near-wins as wins. Social gamblers see them for what they are, losses. That’s why slot machines are programmed to supply a steady stream of near-wins.

By 2006, Angie Bachmann had lost all the money her parents had left her and even her house.


What’s the difference between Brian Thomas and Angie Bachmann? Both were acting because of powerful cravings. Thomas was exonerated, Bachmann was not. After Harrah’s sued her for the money she owed, she countersued, claiming that by extending her credit, they preyed on a habit they knew she couldn’t control.

“I honestly believe anyone in my shoes would have done the same things,” she said. Her case went up to the State Supreme Court. The court found her guilty.

APPENDIX: A Reader’s Guide to Using These Ideas

This is the chapter everyone has been waiting for. Simple rules for breaking bad habits, simple rules for establishing good ones. Unfortunately, they don’t exist.

“Some habits yield easily to analysis and influence. Others are more complex and obstinate, and require prolonged study. And for others, change is a process that never full concludes.”

Yet, there is a framework for reshaping habits.

  • Identify the routine.
  • Experiment with rewards
  • Isolate the cue
  • Have a plan

Step One: Identify the Routine

A habit consists of a cue, a routine and a reward. Duhigg had a bad habit when he started researching this book. Every afternoon he’d go to the cafeteria and buy a chocolate chip cookie. He gained eight pounds. He tried to stop. He couldn’t.

The routine was obvious: getting up from his desk, going to the cafeteria, buying the cookie, eating it while chatting with friends.

But what was the cue? Hunger? Boredom? Low blood sugar? The need to socialize?

Step Two: Experiment with Rewards

One day instead of getting a cookie, Duhigg went for a walk. The next day he brought a cookie back to his desk. The next he bought an apple and ate it with friends. The next he drank a cup of coffee. The next he walked over to a friend and chatted.

After each different reward, he jotted down the first three things that came to his mind when he got back to his desk—emotions, random thoughts, whatever. 15 minutes later, he asked himself if he still craved a cookie. After chatting with a friend, he no longer wanted a cookie.  

Step Three: Isolate the Cue

Duhigg looked for patterns in his behavior to see when he got the cue to have a cookie. He noted the location, time, his emotional state, other people present, and the action immediately preceding the craving.

One thing that was consistent was the time. It was always between 3 and 4 P.M.

Step Four: Have a Plan

Duhigg’s plan was simple. “At 3:30 every day, I will walk to a friend’s desk and talk for 10 minutes.”

To be sure he remembered, he set an alarm. It didn’t work immediately. Some days he was too busy and ignored the alarm, then later went for a cookie. Other days there was no one around to talk to and he got a cookie. But when he followed his plan, he felt better.

“Eventually, it got to be automatic.”

“Obviously,” writes Duhigg, “changing some habits can be more difficult. But this framework is a place to start. Sometimes change takes a long time. Sometimes it requires repeated experiments and failures. But once you understand how a habit operates-once you diagnose the cue, the routine and the reward-you gain power over it.”

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