Patricia Sheridan's Breakfast With ... Charles Duhigg

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Award-winning investigative journalist Charles Duhigg has recently published "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business," which includes a chapter on former Alcoa CEO Paul O'Neill. In his work as a business reporter for The New York Times, Mr. Duhigg has explored everything from toxic water to the "iEconomy." He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children. He will be at the Westin Convention Center in Pittsburgh Friday for "A Conversation With Paul O'Neill and Charles Duhigg" to benefit Gilda's Club of Western Pennsylvania. Tickets are $100, and doors open at 11:30 a.m. For reservations, call 412-338-1919.

I have to ask: Have you gotten into any bad habits while running around promoting the book?

[Laughing] Unfortunately, yes. I have to say I'm getting on airplanes a lot more than I would like, and it's just totally thrown off all of my eating habits and my exercise habits. I used to be so good and disciplined about this stuff [laughing]. You know, it's kind of like magic. The cues get thrown off. It has unfortunately done some damage to my exercise and eating habits, but the end is in sight. I'm going to get back on the treadmill [laughing].

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Hear more of this interview with Charles Duhigg.

In the book, you talk about how changing your environment can help change bad habits. I guess it works both ways.

Exactly. It's really true. What's really interesting is all the studies about quitting smoking when you go on vacation because you are away from your normal cues. But no one has done the studies about how you start eating terrible food when you get on an airplane every three days. I think to myself, "I'm traveling. I'm supposed to indulge when I'm traveling." Luckily, it has been a fairly minor impact, but I am looking forward to re-establishing the good habits.

It has been proven you can change brain chemistry by changing your habits. However, can't your resolve be hijacked by the chemical changes that fat, sweets, alcohol or other substances create?

On a purely biochemical level, yes. We know there are certain chemicals that are designed to give us a rush of pleasure. But, one of the most amazing things about being human is our capacity to override that pleasure. To either say, "I don't need that pleasure right now. I'm going to ignore the craving." Or to find something else that we find a deeper sense of reward from.

Take carbohydrates, for instance. Our brain is essentially programed to enjoy carbohydrates because they give us a sense of fullness and a rush of pleasure. When people go on low-carb diets, they start to almost subconsciously experience distress from eating carbohydrates.

Television is designed to sort of reward our pleasure centers, and yet there is that sense of anxiety when you have work to do when you are watching TV. It would be so much more satisfying to go and get the work done. Through sort of the capacity for reason and decision-making, we actually have the ability to ignore or to change those reward instincts. That's incredibly powerful and incredibly important.

For all the science involved, it's interesting that it works if you believe you can change. It comes down to something as mystical as faith.

Right, that's a huge part of it. We know from study after study that to change a habit, someone really on some level has to believe that change is possible.

The reason habits are powerful is you walk by that cookie jar 10 times a day, and you don't want to have to remind yourself and use willpower every single time. At some point, your brain will relax and lapse into automatic behavior. That's why habits are powerful. It's that constant vigilance that gets really tiring.

One of the things we know is that to make exercise into a habit and eating healthfully into a habit, at some level you need to believe that you can actually do it. Particularly with really hard habits. Permanent change is possible.

OK, but that is on an individual scale. In the book, you write about when Paul O'Neill changed the culture at Alcoa. Habit shifts on that scale almost seem like cult or swarm mentality.

Yeah, it is like a culture. Organizations have cultures and people identify with those cultures and those cultures influence how people behave. I think you are exactly right that what happens when an organizational habit emerges is that we essentially see dozens or thousands or tens of thousands of people making similar habitual decisions -- oftentimes for different reasons or without really consciously realizing they were making similar decisions. That is what a company is. That is what a culture is.

The insight that Paul O'Neill had when he was at Alcoa was how powerful this culture could become and how much it could be shaped by looking at the decisions that people weren't paying a huge amount of attention to or by building systems that train people to make these decisions almost automatically.

He focused on worker safety, and he established this belief that every person within Alcoa matters and that you should be judged by the measure of your efforts, not by the measure of your pedigree. Think about how that shapes not only the big strategic decisions we make -- which are important -- but the small decisions you make every day: how you treat your secretary, how you treat your boss, how you interact with other co-workers, whether you are a collaborative or competitive culture.

So being a part of a struggling industry, publishing and newspapers, did you uncover a habit that could turn around this industry?

[Laughing] As you know, newsrooms are built around habits. Our entire day is usually structured around this very fast pace. The one thing I think for newspapers is trying to figure out how to increase our pace of innovation without losing those things that make newspapers important and special. We don't want to become these aggregation farms.

I am going to pick on Huffington Post. A lot of its content is great. They are doing a lot of original content now, but historically a lot of what they did was aggregation. Newspapers don't want to become that, and yet Huffington Post is incredibly popular. It's incredibly successful. Obviously, in retrospect, there are some lessons from Huffington Post and other websites that we should have learned. There is definitely hope. Our industry is not going to die.

You also point out in the book that making lists (which Paul O'Neill does) and keeping journals or writing things down does something to the brain that is helpful when it comes to changing habits.

Absolutely, and study after study has shown this to be true.T here isn't anything magical about putting pen to paper, but it does force you to think kind of deeply. Simply taking that extra step tends to have this huge impact.

So after finishing the book, did you look at your life and think you have so much more control than you thought?

I think the big insight for me was that by understanding how this stuff works, you get a huge amount of control. One of the reasons I wrote the book is because I was enormously frustrated by the fact that I felt like I was a smart, successful person and that there were all these parts of my life that felt like they were out of my control [laughing]. It was frustrating that I couldn't make myself exercise every day ... I didn't want to think about this stuff all the time. What I learned was that once you understand how habits work and understand how to diagnose the habit and break it into its components -- the cue, the routine and the reward -- you gain power over changing them.


Patricia Sheridan can be reached at or 412-263-2613 or follow her on Twitter at


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