How College Habits Changed My Life

College saved my life. Or, more accurately, the good and bad habits I learned in college saved my life.

And since then, nothing has been the same.

In 1993, I left Albuquerque, New Mexico, and a high school with a 50 percent drop out rate, for New Haven, Connecticut, and Yale. Here is what I did not know at the time: that sheets should be washed more than once a semester; that if you stand in the rain for 40 minutes, a shower afterward might be a wise idea; that when a professor says you need to read the book, you actually need to read the book; that I would develop the best – and worst – habits of my life, and they would shape every major decision over the next two decades, including the profession I chose, who I married, how I raise my children and, today, why I believe those choices have a meaningful purpose. However, at my freshman assembly, I had no idea what was to come. That day, Yale’s provost gave the assembled class three pieces of advice: if you are feeling tired, go to sleep. If you aren’t hungry, don’t eat. And if you are feeling homesick or overwhelmed, have a small piece of chocolate and remember that everyone else – no matter how confident or popular they seem – feels the same way. It was great advice. It was – though I didn’t know it at the time – a small tutorial in how to create habits by choosing cues (I’m exhausted), routines (go to bed!) and rewards (ahhhh!).

And I, of course, ignored it all. Six months later, I was delirious with exhaustion, 10 pounds heavier and on the phone to my mother, explaining that I was pretty certain a transfer to the University of New Mexico – or maybe a year living in my old room and rebuilding my battered ego – was a good idea.

Luckily, my parents ignored me. And the school slowly, painfully, taught me how to be an adult. Most important, my professors and administrators showed me how to understand my own mind – to shape my urges, emotions and passions, and eventually to become a reporter at the New York Times and an author.

One of the reasons I wrote The Power of Habit is to help college students experience this same process of self-discovery and transformation. The Power of Habit explains what we’ve learned in the past decade about the neurology and psychology of habit formation. It explains how to identify habits, how to craft the small patterns that inexorably shape our decisions, and how to influence the negative – and positive – behaviors that occur just below the surface of our consciousness.

Each lesson in The Power of Habit is embedded in a narrative – the story of how Tony Dungy led the Indianapolis Colts to the Super Bowl, how Starbucks became a behemoth, how Martin Luther King rallied Montgomery to the bus boycott – that seeks to explain why habits shape so much of the world.

There are a few chapters that, I think, would particularly appeal to college students:

How to create willpower habits. For decades – ever since a group of 4 year-olds were presented with a single marshmallow, and told if they resisted for 10 minutes, they would get a second treat – we’ve suspected that willpower is like a muscle that can be strengthened or weakened with practice. But how do you strengthen willpower? By making it into a habit. Starbucks needs employees who can deliver exceptional customer service for eight hours a shift. But many of their employees are recent high school graduates, people without professional experience, workers likely to get exhausted and yell at an angry customer or be drawn into workplace dramas.

So Starbucks developed a training system to encourage habits that strengthen workers’ willpower. This chapter explains how students can use those same techniques in their own lives.

How people – and groups – create habits that change lives. A century ago, almost no Americans brushed their teeth. Then a canny advertising executive added a slight irritant to a toothpaste recipe, and Pepsodent launched a tooth brushing habit across the nation. Alcoholics Anonymous was designed by a stockbroker with no background in psychology or medicine, but who intuitive understood how to shift the habits of millions of addicts. A 26-year-old clergyman named Martin Luther King Jr. chose to nurture a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, by targeting the city’s social habits – and the contemporary Civil Rights Movement was born.

In each instance, these habits changed or grew because leaders knew how to identify and influence the cues, routines and rewards that shape behaviors. Students – your students – can use those same tools to influence their lives, friends and communities, and to understand the wider world.

The importance of service to others, and investing in a community. Habits are, in a sense, the residue of our self-image and they strengthen when we believe we can change, particularly as part of a group. As one Dartmouth psychologist told me, “change occurs among other people. It seems real when we can see it in others peoples’ eyes.”

The Power of Habit explains why the friends we choose, the organizations we join and the contributions we make to our communities matter. Through stories about the Olympian Michael Phelps and the success of the Outkast song Hey Ya!, it explores how groups shape our habits, and how our habits, it turn, shape the groups we join.

Organizational habits, and administrators, professors and communities. Organizations – like individuals – develop habits that guide how work gets (or doesn’t get) done. For instance, when Paul O’Neill, future Treasury Secretary, became chief executive of the aluminum company ALCOA, he decided to focus on one organizational habit – worker safety – to transform the company. The Power of Habit explores why some habits, known as keystone habits, matter more than others and how they shape cultures within Universities and companies.

Everything that I am, as a person, began in college. As a freshman, I leaned habits of curiosity, discipline and self-confidence that have propelled me to a life better than I ever expected. I also developed habits of self-pity, bad eating, and the occasional inability to listen to my inner compass that have taken me years to unlearn.

Studies show that explaining to college students how habits work – illustrating the so-called ‘habit loop,’ and providing examples of how habits shift – puts those tools within reach. I wish I had been exposed to these insights as a freshman. I would be honored if my book helps introduce your students to these ideas.

Please don’t hesitate to contact me if I can be of any help,

Charles Duhigg


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Study Guide for The Power of Habit


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