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The Science of Habit

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In addition to the principals of distribution one thing that falls under this broad discipline of psychology/marketing is the science of habit.

The absolute best book on this subject is The Power of Habit written by Charles Duhigg. This science applies to both personal habits (smoking, exercise, etc) and habits within products (engagement, usage, retention, etc).

Habits are a series of actions that are converted into an automatic routine. A good simple example of this is brushing your teeth. You automatically put toothpaste on your toothbrush before brushing your teeth. You don’t think individually about what you’re doing throughout the process but chunk the whole process of brushing your teeth into one automatic action.

Habits are made up of three components: cue, routine, and reward.

The cue is the trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. The routine is the mental or emotional actions you do automatically. Finally there is the reward which helps you remember the habit and encode it automatically to your brain.


The biggest secret to changing any habit is you can’t directly change a habit but you can replace it with a new habit.

To change any habit you first have to identify the routine you want to change and components that make up to habit. For example I had the terrible habit of waking up to my morning alarm, then going back to bed, hitting the snooze button on my phone, and completely over sleeping. This was the habit I wanted to change.

The second thing to do is experiment with rewards. My old reward I was the reward of getting back into bed the first time I turned off the alarm. The cue in my example is pretty easy to identify as the alarm. In a general sense a cue can be a location, a time, an emotional state, other person, or a preceding action.

The habit/reward combo I decide to use to replace my old bad habit involved doing two things.

The first was I put my phone far enough away from my bed that I was forced to stand up when the alarm came on. The second was I replaced my habit of going back to my bed with checking my email, facebook, twitter notifications on my phone. I forced myself to stand up when my alarm went off and gave myself a new reward, checking my notifications, while standing up. Because I didn’t go back to bed when my alarm went off and forced myself to stay standing with the reward of checking email, facebook, and twitter my body naturally stayed awake afterwards.

I think it would also be helpful to see one more example but around creating, not changing, a habit in the business context. Here is the story of how Claude Hopkins popularized toothbrushing with his product Pepsodent.

Instead of doing what other toothpastes companies were doing at the time, advertising the long term downsides of not brushing your teeth, he instead created a habit of toothbrushing. Hopkins discovered a thin film that naturally coats your teeth each day and advertised Pepsodent as a promise to remove the tooth film and give you beautiful white teeth if you brushed everyday. On top of that Pepsodent contained in its ingredients citric acid which created a cool tingling sensation after you brushed your teeth. This tingling sensation became the reward people craved and the reason they used Peopsodent every time they brushed their teeth.

When looking at your own habits and your companies habits, look at them in terms of cues, routines, and rewards. I promise it will be an eye opening exercise 🙂


Written by Chris McCann

August 6, 2012 at 4:36 am