Hacking Habits: How to Make New Behaviors Last for Good

I am blogging from Atlanta, Georgia at the 2014 Catalyst Conference. I have the honor of joining the Catalyst Blogger Team, and I’ll be publishing live notes and key insights on the speaker sessions. Speaker lineups include, Andy Stanley, Tim Keller, Christine Caine, Matt Chandler, Charles Duhigg and many more. I hope these insights will empower you to rise to the top.


We’re living in the golden age of neurology and how habits work. In the last decade, we’ve entered this golden age. 

The argument is that every habit that can be changed. How habits function is an interesting mix of science, passion, and faith. 

How habits function?

40-50% of what we do everything is not a choice, but a habit. 

You brain lapses into an automatic behavior and goes to sleep. 

The Habit Loop - Charles - Duhigg - Catalyst-Conference

The Habit Loop – every single habit has three parts. 

A three-step loop: 

  • First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. 
  • Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. 
  • Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. 

Some habits seem to matter and ripple effects. 

Keystone habits – habits that affect other habits and behaviors. 

e.g., People who exercise changes our spending habits, time management habits etc. 

How do you tap into the keystone habit within you?

HPBCD – Chemical

P&G Researcher would use HPBCD chemical and with 3 years of research and 7 million investments. He would make Febreze. Febreze becomes the most disappointing, biggest product that fails in the P&G lineup. Researchers began to experiment new ways. People they sell to already have cleaning habits. Let’s take an advantage of an existing habit. 

The cue – the need for bad smell 

The routine – to spray the Frebreze 

The reward – give some aroma into it. 

Febreze sales explode. $200 million in first year, $1 billion a year today. 

Lesson: Make sure the reward is actually rewarding.

The reason why habits are so difficult to change is because the reward is not actually rewarding. 

How do you implement change? 

Starbucks sells customer service, not coffee. Howard Schultz says Starbucks sells you an experience. 

Marshmallow Experience

Brings marshmallow in a room. Ask 4 year olds to wait for 10 minutes and when you come back promise them you’ll give them another one. Kids who waited and mustered the willpower became the most successful. 

If you give kids willpower, there are more likely to succeed than anything else. Willpower can be taught. It can be developed. If you will make willpower into a habit, that’s key. 

Lesson: The most powerful rewards emotions. 

Question: What habits do you need to cultivate to be a change maker? 

About the Speaker: In 2013, Charles Duhigg was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Reporting as a member of the New York Times staff for the series “The iEconomy,” which examined Apple’s manufacturing practices overseas and what they can tell us about the state of the American economy today. Charles is also the winner of the National Academies of Sciences, National Journalism, and George Polk awards, and a frequent contributor to television and radio, including the PBS Newshour, Frontline, Dr. Oz, This American life, and various programs on CNBC and NPR. He is a graduate of Yale University and the Harvard Business School. Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit spent over a year on the New York Times bestseller list. 

  • Florine

    Thanks Paul Some habits are so hard to break. Need to think of breaking the cycle. I pray that I succeed

  • Juz Game

    Hi Paul, did you actually read the book Power of Habit? Half of what you wrote above are not quite correct/not very useful.

    The Febreze example is used to illustrate how to create new habits through making the brain crave for it. The HPBCD chemical in Febreze could eliminate bad smells to become odorless. The problem was that the housewives were so used to the bad smells in their homes that they couldn’t smell them, so they didn’t use Febreze. What P&G did was to create a crave in the housewives — that house cleaning is not complete until they spray Febreze … the aroma in Febreze acts as a reward that signals the completion of the housecleaning task.

    The keystone habit definition is correct. The example used to illustrate keystone habit is Alcoa company. By focusing on one single keystone habit “safety”, i.e. achieving zero accidents, the employees start to develop other habits that result in the increase of their quality, productivity etc.

    “How do you implement change?
    Starbucks sells customer service, not coffee. Howard Schultz says Starbucks sells you an experience.”

    The above statement is true. But saying that Starbucks sells you an experience … how does that relate to “how to implement change?”

    “Lesson: The most powerful rewards emotions.”

    What is the lesson of this statement? (The statement looks incomplete).

    I do not mean to offend you. But I do think that if you are going to blog then at least get the facts straight. 🙂

    • Juz Game

      OK, applying my critique to my post above, I realized that what I wrote about Alcoa is rather cryptic :p Here’s the context to Alcoa.

      Alcoa (Aluminum Company of America) smelts aluminum and manufacture aluminum products. When Paul O’Neill took over, had problems ranging from low product quality, frequent accidents (at least one per week) and the managers and workers didn’t see eye to eye. O’Neill used worker safety as the focus that both the executives and the union agreed on. Safety was the keystone habit that triggered other habits —
      “to understand why injuries happened, you had to study how the manufacturing process was going wrong. To understand how
      things were going wrong, you had to bring in people who could educate
      workers about quality control and the most efficient work processes, so
      that it would be easier to do everything right, since correct work is
      also safer work.” (quote from Charles Duhigg’s book “The Power of Habit”) In learning how to work correctly and therefore safely, quality and productivity increase while costs decreased –> leading to increased profits. 🙂