Charles Duhigg is a Pulitzer Prize-winning staff writer at The New York Times and author of “The Power of Habit,” a book about the science of habit formation in our lives, companies and societies.
In The Power of Habit, Duhigg shares scientific discoveries that explain why habits exist and how they can be changed. The book uncovers a whole new understanding of human nature and its potential for transformation.
Duhigg recently spoke with Mom Minded and answered our most pressing questions about habits as they relate to parenting and learning.
“The Power of Habit” is now at the top of our summer reading lists. Want to add it to yours? Attend our Twitter party on July 19 from 12-2 p.m. ET and join the summer learning conversation using the hashtag #PowerofHabit. Ten lucky participants will win their own copy of “The Power of Habit.”
Q: You have said vacations are a great time to change an old habit or form a new one. How can parents take advantage of that learning while on summer vacation?
A: Summer vacations are terrific because when we’re away from our old patterns, our habits are easier to change. Every habit — no matter how simple or complex — has the same structure, which we call the “habit loop.” There is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional behavior. Finally, there is a reward. During the summer, our cues change — kids wake up at different times, they play with new friends. The key is to make sure that you’ve identified a new routine for a new cue and are providing a reward to reinforce that behavior.
Q: Any thoughts on a fun activity or two to help parents bring the Power of Habit to life?
A: One of the most important patterns that parents can give their children are willpower habits. If you teach kids to make self-discipline automatic, you’re giving them a huge advantage in life. To quote Todd Heatherton, a psychologist from Dartmouth, “That’s why signing kids up for piano lessons or sports is so important. It has nothing to do with creating a good musician or a five-year-old soccer star. When you learn to force yourself to practice for an hour or run 15 laps, you start building self-regulatory strength. A five-year-old who can follow the ball for 10 minutes becomes a sixth-grader who can start his homework on time.”
Q: Do have any tips for parents to help children develop good reading habits at home?
A: The key to developing reading habits is rewards — if kids learn to associate reading with relaxing enjoyment, they’ll be drawn to the activity more and more, and their reading skills will get reinforced. For parents, this means praising kids when they read — but in addition, building reading into a “special” event, something parents and kids do together, a time when they feel loved.
Q: What advice can you provide for “tweens” to better understand and take control of their bad habits?
A: The best advice is to help teenagers — or anyone else — learn how to control their habits. Take, for instance, nail-biting. Many teenagers bite their nails (and are told by their parents to stop). One study from 2006 looked at a nail-biter named Mandy. It got so bad that she went to see a behavioral therapist.
“What do you feel right before you bring your hand up to your mouth?” the therapist asked Mandy.
“There’s a little bit of tension in my nails,” Mandy said. “It hurts a little bit here, at the edge. Sometimes I’ll run my thumb along, looking for hangnails, and when I feel something catch, I’ll bring it up to my mouth. Once I start, I have to do all of them.”
Asking patients to describe what triggers their behavior is called awareness training, and it’s a way to get people to recognize a habit’s cues. The tension that Mandy felt in her nails cued her nail-biting.
Next, the therapist asked Mandy to describe why she bit her nails. At first, she had trouble coming up with reasons. As they talked, though, it became clear that she bit when she was bored. The therapist put her in some typical situations, like watching television or doing homework, and she started nibbling. When she had worked through all of the nails, she felt a brief sense of completeness, she said. That was the habit’s reward: a physical stimulation she had come to crave.
Then the therapist taught Mandy what is known as a competing response. Whenever she felt that tension in her fingertips, he told her, she should immediately put her hands in her pockets or under her legs, or hold her pencil or something else that made it impossible to put her fingers in her mouth. Then Mandy was to search for something that would provide a quick physical stimulation — such as rubbing her arm brusquely or rapping her knuckles on her desk — anything that would produce a physical response. The cues and rewards stayed the same. Only the routine changed.
A week later, Mandy had only bitten her nails three times and had used the competing response seven times. After a month, the nail-biting habit was gone. The competing routines had become automatic. One habit had been replaced by another.