By Charles Duhigg
EVERY NEW YEAR, small-business owners,
multi-tasking executives and harried parents make
resolutions. This year, they tell themselves, I’m going
to organize my receipts every week! And exercise
more! And keep the kids away from the iPad!
And then, come February—well, you know. The
receipts are in a pile. The running shoes are deep in
the closet. And the kids just reached level 134 on
But this year can be different. When I was writing my book about the science of habit formation,
The Power of Habit, I asked neurologists, psychologists and other researchers if there’s a right way to
create New Year’s resolutions. In particular, I told
them that I wanted to stop eating cookies in the
afternoon, my brother-in-law wanted to exercise
more and my sister wanted to stay on top of her
receipts. What’s more, I said, my siblings had offered
to pay for a Costco shopping spree if I helped them
change their behaviors.
No problem, the scientists said. Any habit can
be changed—as long as you know how.
The first step, they told me, is understanding
that every habit has three parts: a cue, a routine and
For years, for instance, I had a habit of eating a
chocolate chip cookie every afternoon. That was my
routine. The scientists said I needed to figure out the
cue. Cues can be a specific time of day, a particular
emotional state or other triggers. And so I began
paying close attention to my environment whenever
I felt a cookie urge, and pretty quickly discovered
that it always occurred at about 3: 30 in the afternoon. A time of day was my cue.
Next, I had to figure out the reward.
Was it the cookie itself? Or the burst of
energy that comes from a blast of sugar?
I started conducting experiments. One
day, when the cookie urge struck, I bought a cup of
coffee, to see if what I really needed was a pick-me-
up. The next day, I bought an apple to see if reduc-
ing hunger was the reward I craved. On day three,
I went for a walk around the block.
What I discovered was that the real reason I
went to the cafeteria every afternoon was because it
offered an opportunity to see my friends and gossip
for half an hour. The reward I was really craving
Once I understood my habit loop, the habit
was easy to change. I resolved that every afternoon
I would walk to a co-worker’s desk to gossip,
rather than to the cafeteria.
That was a year ago, and today, I’m happy to
report, I weigh 18 pounds less. And my sister and
brother-in-law? At first, they were skeptical.
“Starting a big exercise plan seems kind of
intimidating,” my brother-in-law told me. “And I
look like an idiot in the gym.”
The scientists had told me that an important
component of creating a new habit—and keeping a
New Year’s resolution—is starting small. So I asked
my brother-in-law if, maybe, he could start by
focusing on his existing daily routines.
“What if, at work, you park in the farthest spot
from the door?” I asked him. “No one looks like an
idiot walking across a parking lot.”
My sister’s quest to stay on top of her receipts
was different. She knew her cue: She wanted to file
her receipts at the end of each day. But she needed a
reward to make that behavior into a habit.
“How about, whenever you file your receipts,
you allow yourself 30 minutes to surf the Internet
and watch dumb You Tube videos?” I asked her.
My sister loves dumb You Tube videos.
Since then, things have improved for them, as
well. My brother-in-law not only walks across the
parking lot every day, he also now habitually walks up
the stairs and goes on a brisk stroll every night. My
sister has an accordion file full of organized receipts,
and an encyclopedic knowledge of videos of
cats singing Broadway tunes.
And, I am now the proud owner of 216
rolls of paper towels from Costco, all stacked
in the garage and paid for by my siblings. C
Costco member Charles Duhigg is a
Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter at The
New York Times.
NEUROLOGISTS SAY there
are four basic steps to
changing a habit.
1. Identify the habit
loop. Every habit has three
components: a cue, a routine and a reward.
2. Figure out the cue.
Cues are almost always a
specific location or time of
day, a particular emotional
state, the presence of certain other people or a
behavior that’s become ritualized. Notice what’s going
on when the habit strikes.
3. Experiment with
different rewards. Are you
hungry? (In which case an
apple should work as well
as a cookie.) Do you need a
break? (So take a walk
around the block, instead of
to the cafeteria.)
4. Have a plan. Write
your New Year’s resolution
as a formula: When I see
CUE, I will do ROUTINE in
order to get a REWARD.
It takes some willpower
at first, but according to
studies, over time, that pattern will become automatic,
and new, better habits will
How to form good
habits and ditch the
The Costco Connection
The Power of Habit is available at most
The habit loop
Tablet or smartphone?
Scan or click here for a video
explanation of the habit loop.
(See page 5 for scanning details.)