Once you see everything as a bunch of habits, it’s like someone gave you a flashlight and a crowbar and you can get to work

Thursday, April 8th, 2021

Charles Duhigg first became interested in the science of habits — interested enough to go on to write The Power of Habit — as a news reporter in Baghdad:

The U.S. military, it occurred to me as I watched it in action, is one of the biggest habit-formation experiments in history.


I had been in Iraq for about two months when I heard about an officer conducting an impromptu habit modification program in Kufa, a small city ninety miles south of the capital. He was an army major who had analyzed videotapes of recent riots and had identified a pattern: Violence was usually preceded by a crowd of Iraqis gathering in a plaza or other open space and, over the course of several hours, growing in size. Food vendors would show up, as well as spectators. Then, someone would throw a rock or a bottle and all hell would break loose.

When the major met with Kufa’s mayor, he made an odd request: Could they keep food vendors out of the plazas? Sure, the mayor said. 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. Some people started chanting angry slogans. Iraqi police, sensing trouble, radioed the base and asked U.S. troops to stand by. At dusk, the crowd started getting restless and hungry. People looked for the kebab sellers normally filling the plaza, but there were none to be found. The spectators left. The chanters became dispirited. By 8 P.M., everyone was gone.


At boot camp, he had absorbed habits for loading his weapon, falling asleep in a war zone, maintaining focus amid the chaos of battle, and making decisions while exhausted and overwhelmed. He had attended classes that taught him habits for saving money, exercising each day, and communicating with bunkmates. As he moved up the ranks, he learned the importance of organizational habits in ensuring that subordinates could make decisions without constantly asking permission, and how the right routines made it easier to work alongside people he normally couldn’t stand.


“Understanding habits is the most important thing I’ve learned in the army,” the major told me. “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 get up. You want to make running easy? Create triggers to make it a routine. I drill my kids on this stuff. My wife and I write out habit plans for our marriage. This is all we talk about in command meetings. Not one person in Kufa would have told me that we could influence crowds by taking away the kebab stands, but once you see everything as a bunch of habits, it’s like someone gave you a flashlight and a crowbar and you can get to work.”


  1. Kirk says:

    Yet another example of the “people in charge” failing to understand how things really work. That major has grasped the bare outlines of something, but he’s failed to take the next step and begin analyzing how he has to understand the environment he creates and influences through his decisions and actions.

    Habits are all well and good, but the thing that has to be understood and incorporated into your “whole picture” effort is that the formal verbiage is often meaningless. You can set all the policies you like, telling people not to riot, but the real way you stop the riots isn’t to pronounce commandments from on high, it’s to take away the things in the environment that contribute to the “ease of riot”. The major in this vignette has managed to grasp a means to influence things via treating the symptom, but he’s failed to take in the larger lesson that is here: Change the environment, influence the behavior.

    You have to step back and look at the entire environment, from the tiny little influencers that encourage the behaviors you don’t want to the ones that you try to change with things like memorandums and policy letters.

    I used to work in a military unit that had a huge problem with people being late back to work after lunch hour. We were isolated, the mess hall available to us sucked, and everyone wound up driving somewhere else to eat and then got stuck in traffic. Commanders and First Sergeants railed against this problem for years, to no avail–Despite truly draconian measures.

    I was gone for a few months to go to a school. Came back, and there were virtually no cases of anyone being late to the afternoon work-call formation. What had happened?

    Wasn’t anything that the commanders or First Sergeants had done. The locally convenient mess hall had finally gotten its incompetent Mess Sergeant replaced, and the new guy was so damn good that we had new problems with the mess hall being overcrowded at lunch and us not being able to get in–Which, in enough time, produced a spate of “late-to-formation” issues because nobody could get into the mess hall to eat! But, for a short halcyon period, we had good food available at lunch… And, no “late-to-formation” problems with the troops.

    The really amazing thing about all that, looking back? Nobody ever paused to analyze the issue and say “Yeah, they’re late to formation because the food at the local mess hall sucks at lunch…”, and then take steps to fix the issue by changing that facet of the environment.

    You have to take a wholistic approach to these things, but hardly anyone has the wit or imagination to do so. The major in this vignette will likely go far, if he ever finishes with his epiphany and gets to the meat of the matter.

  2. Goober says:

    Creation of habits is all fine, but honestly, the real root of the thing is not so much habit creation, but mindfulness. Habits created without thought, are often as destructive as they are helpful. You must be mindful in your actions.

    I’ve heard many people, for instance, talk about “maintaining frame” in personal interactions. Essentially, what they are talking about is mindfulness – reacting to something exactly how you choose, instead of how the other person wants you to, either through manipulation, goading, instigating, or other methods, both conscious and unconscious, that might make you react in a way that you hadn’t intended. For instance, instead of getting pissed and lashing out at a person that has demonstrated incompetence for the umpteenth time, you deal with the situation in a controlled manner, exactly how you intended. You do this by creating the habit of being deliberate and mindful. You consider the situation, consider their point of view, and then discuss the solution. I’m not suggesting that this means that you need to be a pushover, just that if you choose to take punitive action, you do so because you have chosen to do so, rather than out of anger or emotion.

    I’ve recently changed in a big way with patience and process. I spent most of my first 35 years or so being very results oriented. I was laser focused on getting a job done as quickly as possible. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and it mostly wasn’t, but it definitely can be in certain circumstances. After 35 years of regretting that my high productivity seemed to result in a few simple, stupid mistakes being made because of rushing a project, I found out that the old saw “slow is smooth and smooth is fast” has a lot of truth to it, and have slowed down a bit in my processes. I don’t think that it has reduced my productivity much, but it has massively increased my accuracy, which, as I’ve learned through the last 6 years since I made this conscious effort, is far more valuable in my trade, as well as in my hobbies. 6 years ago, a woodworking project that I’d completed would have been done quite quickly, but when I look now at those projects, I can see the visible flaws in every one of them. These weren’t flaws for lack of skill, they were flaws from being in too much of a damn hurry, and my unrelenting focus on getting the job done as soon as possible, rather than getting it done as perfectly as my skills will allow. (example, a table that I built using a board that had bowed, badly, after I squared it on the joiner and table saw. After it bowed, I should have reduced its dimension by squaring it again, or just tossed it . Instead, I just glued it and clamped it hard, to bend the bow out of it, which worked for a couple of years, until all the pressure from the bow eventually pulled the glue apart and now my table has a small gap in it)

    I also suffered from a lack of deliberation as a result of my desire for speed. Instead of going back to the office and consulting a specification manual or a set of project plans, I would go off of memory and make the call right then and there on site. Usually, this worked out fine. Sometimes, not so much. If I recalled the wrong detail, or remembered the spec of a different project, my guys would be undoing something that I’d told them to do by the time i got back to the office, because my desire to get a fast answer lead to me not taking the time to get the right answer.

    I fixed this by changing my habits through mindfulness. I trained myself to seek fulfilment through doing things correctly, rather than quickly. “Perfect is close enough” has become my mantra. Instead of blindly following the habit of “get it done, now”, I’ve mindfully changed my behavior to be “get it done, right”. It wasn’t easy. Part of my issue was a bit of insecurity, in that I would not accept that sometimes, I didn’t have an answer to a question from memory, and that if I didn’t have that answer, that it was a sign that I wasn’t good at my job. It’s silly, I know, to expect yourself to know off the top of your head every specification and detail in a multi-tens of millions dollar project, but it was a thing I had to realize in myself and change, again, through mindfulness. The words “I don’t know” were simply not something I could allow to pass my lips. I changed it into “I don’t know, but give me a few minutes and I’ll have an answer for you”, and my life has changed massively just because I could say those words.

    Another bad habit that I changed through mindfulness is the inability to delegate. I felt like I had to do everything myself. Again, this wasn’t a lack of trust in the people around me, so much as it was that damn insecurity rearing its head. I found myself fixing a toilet in the office bathroom one day, and just realized that was not the highest and best use of my time. I made one of the interns do it, and from that day forward, I’ve made a mindful decision to be better and delegating.

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