Lisa Markwell: At last, the reason why it's so hard to break bad habits

FreeView from the editors at i

Share

Because reading other magazines and newspapers is part of my job, it's not often that I do more than scan pages, noting down stuff that might be useful to me professionally. But a feature from last Sunday's New York Times magazine stopped me in my tracks; I've been quoting it and imploring friends and colleagues to read it all week.

The piece in question is all about marketing, and how the US retail giant Target has such sophisticated methods of gleaning information about its customers, it managed to send promotional vouchers to a young girl for pregnancy products before she'd even told her family she was expecting. Chilling.

What is particularly fascinating – beyond the gasp factor of the store's methods – is a detailed analysis of our habits: why we do what we do.

If you've ever wondered, like me, why you can't seem to stop your afternoon biscuit habit, or why you keep buying limescale remover even though you've got five bottles at home, or why you interrupt whatever you're doing for the ping of a text message, wonder no more. This article, by Charles Duhigg, explains the process that forms our habits. It also explains why it's so hard to break those habits.

Duhigg details how he broke his own confectionery habit, but it wasn't easy. We have a hard-wired system of "cue, routine, reward" that applies to much of our behaviour.

Think about it: in positive terms, you put on your nightie (cue), you brush your teeth (routine) and then you go to bed feeling virtuous (reward). That's a good habit.

In negative terms, you hear your incoming email chime and you stop doing that (up til then) important task to look at it, even though there's a strong chance it'll be spam. The sound is a cue too strong to resist, even though the reward is negligible at best. Oh dear, I'm definitely hooked on that habit.

Turning off alerts, forcing yourself to walk a different route that doesn't pass the extortionate coffee shop, not rising to the teenage slammed-door challenge... it's all possible with practice. I intend to lose the stubborn half-stone and save the elusive £20 I seem to waste every week in the supermarket by starting on a different aisle and not buying anything that's at eye-level (the most expensive and heavily promoted).

Duhigg has now written a book on the subject of habits and how to change them (to be published by William Heinemann in April), but if you can't wait until then to fix your frustrating failings, go here. Prepare to have your eyes opened.

 

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Financial Control Manager - Regulatory Reporting

£400 - £550 per day: Orgtel: Financial Control Manager - Regulatory Reporting ...

Lead Application Developer

£80000 - £90000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: I am current...

Senior Networks Architect

£65000 per annum + 15% Pension, Health, Travel & Bonus: Progressive Recruitmen...

SAP BW/BO Consultant

£55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: SAP BW/BO CONSU...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

How silly of me to assume it was Israeli bombs causing all the damage in Gaza

Mark Steel
 

Careful, Mr Cameron. Don't flirt with us on tax

Chris Blackhurst
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices