THE GOLDEN RULE OF HABIT CHANGE – Why Transformation Occurs – Part 5

Within a week of Dungy’s firing by the Bucs, the owner of the Indianapolis Colts left an impassioned fifteen-minute message on his answering machine. The Colts, despite having one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks, Peyton Manning, had just finished a dreadful season. The owner needed help. He was tired of losing, he said. Dungy moved to Indianapolis and became head coach.

He immediately started implementing the same basic game plan: remaking the Colts’ routines and teaching players to use old cues to build reworked habits. In his first season, the Colts went 10–6 and qualified for the play-offs. The next season, they went 12–4 and came within one game of the Super Bowl. Dungy’s celebrity grew. Newspaper and television profiles appeared around the country. Fans flew in so they could visit the church Dungy attended. His sons became fixtures in the Colts’ locker room and on the sidelines. In 2005, Jamie, his eldest boy, graduated from high school and went to college in Florida.

Even as Dungy’s successes mounted, however, the same troubling patterns emerged. The Colts would play a season of disciplined, winning football, and then under play-off pressure, choke.

“Belief is the biggest part of success in professional football,” Dungy told me. “The team wanted to believe, but when things got really tense, they went back to their comfort zones and old habits.”

The Colts finished the 2005 regular season with fourteen wins and two losses, the best record in its history.

Then tragedy struck.

Three days before Christmas, Tony Dungy’s phone rang in the middle of the night. His wife answered and handed him the receiver, thinking it was one of his players. There was a nurse on the line. Dungy’s son Jamie had been brought into the hospital earlier in the evening, she said, with compression injuries on his throat. His girlfriend had found him hanging in his apartment, a belt around his neck. Paramedics had rushed him to the hospital, but efforts at revival were unsuccessful. He was gone.

A chaplain flew to spend Christmas with the family. “Life will never be the same again,” the chaplain told them, “but you won’t always feel like you do right now.”

A few days after the funeral, Dungy returned to the sidelines. He needed something to distract himself, and his wife and team encouraged him to go back to work. “I was overwhelmed by their love and support,” he later wrote. “As a group, we had always leaned on each other in difficult times; I needed them now more than ever.”

The team lost their first play-off game, concluding their season. But in the aftermath of watching Dungy during this tragedy, “something changed,” one of his players from that period told me. “We had seen Coach through this terrible thing and all of us wanted to help him somehow.”

It is simplistic, even cavalier, to suggest that a young man’s death can have an impact on football games. Dungy has always said that nothing is more important to him than his family. But in the wake of Jamie’s passing, as the Colts started preparing for the next season, something shifted, his players say. The team gave in to Dungy’s vision of how football should be played in a way they hadn’t before. They started to believe.

“I had spent a lot of previous seasons worrying about my contract and salary,” said one player who, like others, spoke about that period on the condition of anonymity. “When Coach came back, after the funeral, I wanted to give him everything I could, to take away his hurt. I kind of gave myself to the team.”

“Some men like hugging each other,” another player told me. “I don’t. I haven’t hugged my sons in a decade. But after Coach came back, I walked over and I hugged him as long as I could, because I wanted him to know that I was there for him.”

After the death of Dungy’s son, the team started playing differently. A conviction emerged among players about the strength of Dungy’s strategy. In practices and scrimmages leading up to the start of the 2006 season, the Colts played tight, precise football.

“Most football teams aren’t really teams. They’re just guys who work together,” a third player from that period told me. “But we became a team. It felt amazing. Coach was the spark, but it was about more than him. After he came back, it felt like we really believed in each other, like we knew how to play together in a way we didn’t before.”

For the Colts, a belief in their team—in Dungy’s tactics and their ability to win—began to emerge out of tragedy. But just as often, a similar belief can emerge without any kind of adversity.

In a 1994 Harvard study that examined people who had radically changed their lives, for instance, researchers found that some people had remade their habits after a personal tragedy, such as a divorce or a life-threatening illness. Others changed after they saw a friend go through something awful, the same way that Dungy’s players watched him struggle.

Just as frequently, however, there was no tragedy that preceded people’s transformations. Rather, they changed because they were embedded in social groups that made change easier. One woman said her entire life shifted when she signed up for a psychology class and met a wonderful group. “It opened a Pandora’s box,” the woman told researchers. “I could not tolerate the status quo any longer. I had changed in my core.” Another man said that he found new friends among whom he could practice being gregarious. “When I do make the effort to overcome my shyness, I feel that it is not really me acting, that it’s someone else,” he said. But by practicing with his new group, it stopped feeling like acting. He started to believe he wasn’t shy, and then, eventually, he wasn’t anymore. When people join groups where change seems possible, the potential for that change to occur becomes more real. For most people who overhaul their lives, there are no seminal moments or life-altering disasters. There are simply communities—sometimes of just one other person—who make change believable. One woman told researchers her life transformed after a day spent cleaning toilets—and after weeks of discussing with the rest of the cleaning crew whether she should leave her husband.

“Change occurs among other people,” one of the psychologists involved in the study, Todd Heatherton, told me. “It seems real when we can see it in other people’s eyes.”

The precise mechanisms of belief are still little understood. No one is certain why a group encountered in a psychology class can convince a woman that everything is different, or why Dungy’s team came together after their coach’s son passed away. Plenty of people talk to friends about unhappy marriages and never leave their spouses; lots of teams watch their coaches experience adversity and never gel.

But we do know that for habits to permanently change, people must believe that change is feasible. The same process that makes AA so effective—the power of a group to teach individuals how to believe—happens whenever people come together to help one another change. Belief is easier when it occurs within a community.

Ten months after Jamie’s death, the 2006 football season began. The Colts played peerless football, winning their first nine games, and finishing the year 12–4. They won their first play-off game, and then beat the Baltimore Ravens for the divisional title. At that point, they were one step away from the Super Bowl, playing for the conference championship—the game that Dungy had lost eight times before.

The matchup occurred on January 21, 2007, against the New England Patriots, the same team that had snuffed out the Colts’ Super Bowl aspirations twice.

The Colts started the game strong, but before the first half ended, they began falling apart. Players were afraid of making mistakes or so eager to get past the final Super Bowl hurdle that they lost track of where they were supposed to be focusing. They stopped relying on their habits and started thinking too much. Sloppy tackling led to turnovers. One of Peyton Manning’s passes was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. Their opponents, the Patriots, pulled ahead 21 to 3. No team in the history of the NFL had ever overcome so big a deficit in a conference championship. Dungy’s team, once again, was going to lose.

At halftime, the team filed into the locker room, and Dungy asked everyone to gather around. The noise from the stadium filtered through the closed doors, but inside everyone was quiet. Dungy looked at his players.

They had to believe, he said.

“We faced this same situation—against this same team—in 2003,” Dungy told them. In that game, they had come within one yard of winning. One yard. “Get your sword ready because this time we’re going to win. This is our game. It’s our time.”

The Colts came out in the second half and started playing as they had in every preceding game. They stayed focused on their cues and habits. They carefully executed the plays they had spent the past five years practicing until they had become automatic. Their offense, on the opening drive, ground out seventy-six yards over fourteen plays and scored a touchdown. Then, three minutes after taking the next possession, they scored again.

As the fourth quarter wound down, the teams traded points. Dungy’s Colts tied the game, but never managed to pull ahead. With 3:49 left in the game, the Patriots scored, putting Dungy’s players at a three-point disadvantage, 34 to 31. The Colts got the ball and began driving down the field. They moved seventy yards in nineteen seconds, and crossed into the end zone. For the first time, the Colts had the lead, 38 to 34. There were now sixty seconds left on the clock. If Dungy’s team could stop the Patriots from scoring a touchdown, the Colts would win.

Sixty seconds is an eternity in football.

The Patriots’ quarterback, Tom Brady, had scored touchdowns in far less time. Sure enough, within seconds of the start of play, Brady moved his team halfway down the field. With seventeen seconds remaining, the Patriots were within striking distance, poised for a final big play that would hand Dungy another defeat and crush, yet again, his team’s Super Bowl dreams.

As the Patriots approached the line of scrimmage, the Colts’ defense went into their stances. Marlin Jackson, a Colts cornerback, stood ten yards back from the line. He looked at his cues: the width of the gaps between the Patriot linemen and the depth of the running back’s stance. Both told him this was going to be a passing play. Tom Brady, the Patriots’ quarterback, took the snap and dropped back to pass. Jackson was already moving. Brady cocked his arm and heaved the ball. His intended target was a Patriot receiver twenty-two yards away, wide open, near the middle of the field. If the receiver caught the ball, it was likely he could make it close to the end zone or score a touchdown. The football flew through the air. Jackson, the Colts cornerback, was already running at an angle, following his habits. He rushed past the receiver’s right shoulder, cutting in front of him just as the ball arrived. Jackson plucked the ball out of the air for an interception, ran a few more steps and then slid to the ground, hugging the ball to his chest. The whole play had taken less than five seconds. The game was over. Dungy and the Colts had won.

Two weeks later, they won the Super Bowl. There are dozens of reasons that might explain why the Colts finally became champions that year. Maybe they got lucky. Maybe it was just their time. But Dungy’s players say it’s because they believed, and because that belief made everything they had learned—all the routines they had practiced until they became automatic—stick, even at the most stressful moments.

“We’re proud to have won this championship for our leader, Coach Dungy,” Peyton Manning told the crowd afterward, cradling the Lombardi Trophy.

Dungy turned to his wife. “We did it,” he said.

How do habits change?

There is, unfortunately, no specific set of steps guaranteed to work for every person. We know that a habit cannot be eradicated—it must, instead, be replaced.And we know that habits are most malleable when the Golden Rule of habit change is applied: If we keep the same cue and the same reward, a new routine can be inserted.

But that’s not enough. For a habit to stay changed, people must believe change is possible. And most often, that belief only emerges with the help of a group.

If you want to quit smoking, figure out a different routine that will satisfy the cravings filled by cigarettes. Then, find a support group, a collection of other former smokers, or a community that will help you believe you can stay away from nicotine, and use that group when you feel you might stumble.

If you want to lose weight, study your habits to determine why you really leave your desk for a snack each day, and then find someone else to take a walk with you, to gossip with at their desk rather than in the cafeteria, a group that tracks weight-loss goals together, or someone who also wants to keep a stock of apples, rather than chips, nearby.

The evidence is clear: If you want to change a habit, you must find an alternative routine, and your odds of success go up dramatically when you commit to changing as part of a group. Belief is essential, and it grows out of a communal experience, even if that community is only as large as two people.

We know that change can happen. Alcoholics can stop drinking. Smokers can quit puffing. Perennial losers can become champions. You can stop biting your nails or snacking at work, yelling at your kids, staying up all night, or worrying over small concerns. And as scientists have discovered, it’s not just individual lives that can shift when habits are tended to. It’s also companies, organizations, and communities, as the next chapters explain.

The line separating habits and addictions is often difficult to measure. For instance, the American Society ofAddiction Medicine defines addiction as “a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry.… Addiction is characterized by impairment in behavioral control, craving, inability to consistently abstain, and diminished relationships.”

By that definition, some researchers note, it is difficult to determine why spending fifty dollars a week on cocaine is bad, but fifty dollars a week on coffee is okay. Someone who craves a latte every afternoon may seem clinically addicted to an observer who thinks five dollars for coffee demonstrates an “impairment in behavioral control.” Is someone who would prefer running to having breakfast with his kids addicted to exercise?

In general, say many researchers, while addiction is complicated and still poorly understood, many of the behaviors that we associate with it are often driven by habit. Some substances, such as drugs, cigarettes, or alcohol, can create physical dependencies. But these physical cravings often fade quickly after use is discontinued. A physical addiction to nicotine, for instance, lasts only as long as the chemical is in a smoker’s bloodstream—about one hundred hours after the last cigarette. Many of the lingering urges that we think of as nicotine’s addictive twinges are really behavioral habits asserting themselves—we crave a cigarette at breakfast a month later not because we physically need it, but because we remember so fondly the rush it once provided each morning. Attacking the behaviors we think of as addictions by modifying the habits surrounding them has been shown, in clinical studies, to be one of the most effective modes of treatment. (Though it is worth noting that some chemicals, such as opiates, can cause prolonged physical addictions, and some studies indicate that a small group of people seem predisposed to seek out addictive chemicals, regardless of behavioral interventions. The number of chemicals that cause long-term physical addictions, however, is relatively small, and the number of predisposed addicts is estimated to be much less than the number of alcoholics and addicts seeking help.)

It is important to note that though the process of habit change is easily described, it does not necessarily follow that it is easily accomplished. It is facile to imply that smoking, alcoholism, overeating, or other ingrained patterns can be upended without real effort. Genuine change requires work and selfunderstanding of the cravings driving behaviors. Changing any habit requires determination. No one will quit smoking cigarettes simply because they sketch a habit loop.

However, by understanding habits’ mechanisms, we gain insights that make new behaviors easier to grasp. Anyone struggling with addiction or destructive behaviors can benefit from help from many quarters, including trained therapists, physicians, social workers, and clergy. Even professionals in those fields, though, agree that most alcoholics, smokers, and other people struggling with problematic behaviors quit on their own, away from formal treatment settings. Much of the time, those changes are accomplished because people examine the cues, cravings, and rewards that drive their behaviors and then find ways to replace their self-destructive routines with healthier alternatives, even if they aren’t fully aware of what they are doing at the time. Understanding the cues and cravings driving your habits won’t make them suddenly disappear—but it will give you a way to plan how to change the pattern.

-Charles Duhigg

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