Why You're Operating on Autopilot a Large Part of the Time

In the past few weeks, I finished reading Charles Duhigg’s book “The Power of Habit”.  He’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for the New York Times who graduated from Harvard Business School and Yale University.  He began studying habits while he was a reporter in Baghdad, covering the US military. 

I was intrigued by this book—I have a lot of bad habits.  Mindless snacking, severe procrastination, excessive shopping, taking naps instead of exercising.  The list is long.  Could I work on these and change them, I wondered?  

The book states the technical definition of a habit is: “the choices that all of us deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about but continue doing, often every day.”  

According to Mr. Duhigg, about 40-45% of our daily actions are actually done by habit, as opposed to conscious decision making.1 That’s almost half of what we do every day!  Most intriguingly, he said, “Habits can be changed, if we understand how they work.”  Bingo!  

So, here’s the short version of Mr. Duhigg’s analysis of the science of habits:  

Located deep inside your brain is a small oval of cells about the size of a golf ball.  This mass of cells is called the basal ganglia.  To study the basal ganglia, scientists attached probes to the heads of rats and observed the activity in the rats’ brain as they ran through a maze.  The rats’ basal ganglia went crazy as they navigated the maze.  But as the maze became more familiar, the rats’ mental activity decreased.  He said,As the route became more and more automatic, each rat started thinking less and less.”  He continued, “The rat had internalized how to sprint through the maze to such a degree that it hardly needed to think at all.”  Thus, it was found that the basal ganglia “was central to recalling patterns and acting on them.”  

Amazingly, this small mass of cells inside our brains are what control 40-45% of our daily activities!  What happens is that the brain “converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine”.  This is because the brain is constantly looking for ways to conserve it’s precious resources. 

Mr. Duhigg states:

“When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making.  It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks.  So unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the pattern will unfold automatically.” 

So how are habits formed?

Mr. Duhigg outlines a three-part “habit loop” that serves as a framework for all habits.  First, there is a cue, which can be a specific location, a person, an object, or an emotion.  A cue can be just about anything.

Then, there is the routine.  The routine is what happens after experiencing the cue.  The routine can range from very simple to extremely complex.  Completion of the routine leads to the reward, which can be either physical or emotional.

Let’s deconstruct an example.  One of my habits that I perform every morning is making the bed.  The cue: getting out of bed and seeing that the sheets and blankets are a crumpled mess.  The routine:  on auto pilot, I fold the blankets and straighten out the bed.  The reward:  a freshly made bed, something I look forward to every night.  This is one of my good habits.

Here’s another example that I think many of you can easily relate to.  When I worked in a corporate cubicle, I would wander to the snack table every day at around 2:30-3:00 p.m.  The cue:  needing a break, feeling sluggish in the late afternoon.  The routine:  get up from my desk and automatically head toward the snack table to indulge in a sugary treat.  The reward:  a temporary sugar rush/energy.  This was one of my bad habits. 

But there’s more.  In order for the habit loop to take hold and endure, there must be two other factors present; a craving for the reward and belief in the change that the habit creates.  The craving “powers” the habit loop, and belief in the change solidifies the new behavior, making it permanent.

I learned about Tony Dungy from this book.  According to the book, Dungy played football in the NFL and dreamed of being a Head Coach for the NFL.  He spent many years coaching at the college level, and then as an assistant in the NFL.  After 17 years, he landed a Head Coaching with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  At that time, the Bucs were widely regarded as the worst team in the NFL.  

Dungy’s strategy was based on changing his player’s habits.  Instead of teaching them hundreds of different plays, he concentrated on having his team execute a few plays on autopilot, without thinking, and faster than the opposing team could react.  With this strategy, he turned the Buccaneers into one of the most successful teams in the NFL.

But the Buccaneers would fall short of the Super Bowl two years in a row and Dungy was fired.  He had succeeded in changing his players’ habits during the regular season, but in the post-season, his team seemed to revert back to their old ways.  Under the stress of the post-season, they began to think about their plays instead of just executing automatically.  Dungy found that his players’ habits didn’t stick.

After Dungy was fired, the Indianapolis Colts called.  He took over as Head Coach in 2002 and although the Colts had impressive seasons from 2002-2005, a Super Bowl berth remained elusive.  Dungy saw the same thing happen; his system would take hold during the regular season, but the players reverted to their old habits after reaching the post-season.  

In December of 2005, tragedy struck when Dungy’s college age son committed suicide.  As the news spread, there was some kind of emotional shift within the team.  They started to believe in Dungy’s system.  And when they believed, they bought into his system 100%.  The habits they formed stuck around, even through stress and hardship.  The next season, the Colts won the Super Bowl.  

The example provided by Mr. Duhigg about Tony Dungy and the Colts perfectly illustrates the habit loop.  There was the cue (the technical stuff players would look for when on the field), the routine (the few plays that Dungy taught), and the reward (winning games).  The feeling the players got when they won created the craving.  And then, the habits became permanent when the team began to believe in the system, causing the team to stick to their habits.  

And that, my friends, is the habit loop in action! 

Hopefully, this will help you to become aware of your habits and to start thinking about your own habits, good and bad!




  1. Harvard Business Review; https://hbr.org/2012/06/habits-why-we-do-what-we-do