My name is Charles Duhigg, and I’m a reporter for The New York Times. I’m also the author of the recently published book, The Power of Habit, about the science of habit formation in our lives, companies and societies.
I’ve worked at the Times since 2006. My latest series focused on Apple and was named “The iEconomy.” It won a Pulitzer prize for explanatory reporting in 2013. Before that, I contributed to other series, including “Golden Opportunities,” “The Reckoning,” and “Toxic Waters.”
But let’s be honest, you aren’t visiting this site so I can brag about series and awards. (Unless you’re my mom. Hi mom!)
I’m also a native of New Mexico. I studied history at Yale and received an MBA from Harvard Business School. I have appeared on This American Life, N.P.R., The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, and Frontline. Before becoming a journalist, I worked in private equity and – for one terrifying day – was a bike messenger in San Francisco.
I first became interested in habits about a decade ago, as a reporter in Iraq, when I heard about an army major who had been analyzing videotapes of riots.
The major had recently been assigned to oversee a base near Kufa, about an hour south of Baghdad. To prepare, he had studied footage of the nearby towns shot by drone planes, and had noticed a pattern that often emerged when a crowd turned violent. Frequently, before a riot erupted, a small crowd of Iraqis would gather in a plaza or other open space and, over the course of several hours, start shouting angry slogans. Spectators would show up. Food vendors would arrive. The angry shouts would get louder. More time would pass. The major showed me one videotape of people milling around a plaza, and pointed out that most of them stuck to an area about the size of a five-foot box. They would talk to neighbors and watch the action, but not move much – except for at dusk, when they would often saunter over to the food vendors, and then walk back to their original spot.
“Now look here,” the major said. The tape was running at high speed, and the tiny people on the screen looked like hyperactive ants. Most of them were relatively still. But not everyone “Watch how far this guy moves.” He pointed to one of the dots on the screen. “Fifteen feet to the left. Eighteen feet to the right. Then up to the edge of the crowd, and back to the middle. That guy’s a troublemaker. If we were watching this live, we’d arrest him as soon as we saw that much movement.”
Indeed, as the tape rolled on, one of those energetic dots picked up a glass bottle and threw it against a wall. Another frantic dot threw a rock. Soon, the spectators were drawn in. Within 15 minutes a full-scale riot was underway. Eventually, everyone on the screen was moving all over the place.
The major had watched this tape and dozens of others before he met with Kufa’s mayor for the first time. At that meeting, the men discussed various items of business. Before leaving, the major asked the mayor for an odd favor: Could the local police keep food vendors out of the plazas?
Sure, the mayor said. No problem.
A few weeks later, a small crowd gathered near the Masjid al-Kufa, or Great Mosque of Kufa. Throughout the afternoon, it grew in size. People started chanting angry slogans. Iraqi police, sensing trouble, radioed the U.S. base and asked troops to stand by. At dusk, the crowd started getting restless. More and more people were shouting. Spectators began looking for the kebab sellers normally filling the plaza, but there were none to be found. It was dinnertime. The crowd was hungry. A handful went home to eat. Others left to find restaurants. By 8 P.M., almost everyone was gone. The riot never happened. In fact, there hadn’t been a riot since the major arrived.
I asked him how he had figured out that removing the food vendors would change peoples’ behavior.
The U.S. military, he explained to me, was one of the biggest habit-formation experiments in history. “Understanding habits is the most important thing I’ve learned in the army,” he said. “It’s changed everything about how I see the world. You want to fall asleep fast and wake up feeling good? Pay attention to your nighttime patterns and what you automatically do when you wake up. You want to make running easy? Create triggers to make it a routine.”
The major was a small man from Georgia. He was perpetually spitting either sunflower seeds or tobacco into a cup. He told me that prior to entering the military, his best career option had been repairing telephone lines, or, possibly, becoming a methamphetamine entrepreneur, a path some of his high school peers had chosen to less success. “My wife and I write out habit plans for our marriage,” he said. “This is all we talk about in command meetings. I’m telling you, if a hick like me can learn this stuff, anyone can.”
That’s what this book is about: how anyone can learn this stuff. Changing habits isn’t necessarily quick or easy. But it is possible. And now we know how.