Katy Milkman: See if any of this feels familiar. You wake up in the morning, you unplug your phone from the charger and check the weather and social media and maybe a quick YouTube video.
Now fast-forward. Let’s say you’re waiting for your morning train into work. It’s delayed, so you check your phone again, and your high school friend posted a cute picture of their son’s soccer game, but nothing too exciting. Then you get on the train, and 10 minutes into the trip, you check your phone again—a couple of interesting headlines.
You get into the office, you get settled, and you have a conference call in five minutes, but you decide to check your phone again—a couple of fun tweets but no new alerts. You grab a quick lunch at a nearby café, and you check your phone—big concert announcement from an artist you love; you make a note to grab tickets. You’re in a long afternoon meeting. You check your phone a couple of times for the latest sports scores.
Now you’re back home. Fast-forward to bedtime. You settle in for the night, plug your phone in, set the alarm app, and then you decide to check it just one last time to see if you missed anything.
According to a 2018 consumer survey from Deloitte, the average American adult checks their phone a whopping 52 times a day. On this episode of Choiceology, we’re looking at how and why so many of our behaviors end up on autopilot, for the worse and for the better.
Reporter: A firefighter makes a daring rescue, and it was just in the nick of time.
Katy Milkman: I’m Katy Milkman, and this is Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. It’s a show about the psychology and economics behind the decisions people make. We bring you true stories involving high-stakes choices, and then we explore the latest research in behavioral science to help you avoid costly mistakes and achieve your goals.
Stephan Kesting: My name is Stephan Kesting. I’ve been a firefighter for 21 years, and I’m currently an officer at my fire hall.
Katy Milkman: Stephan works with the Delta Fire Department in British Columbia, Canada.
Stephan Kesting: When somebody goes to the fire academy to learn the basic skills of firefighting, they’re not learning the advanced stuff. It’s the bread-and-butter tools and skills of the fire service. They’re learning how to pull a hose line. They’re learning how to do a search. They’re learning how to operate on a radio. They’re learning chain of command. So it’s things like that that they’re learning and that they’re making instinctive really.
Katy Milkman: Making skills instinctive is a fundamental part of a firefighter’s training.
Stephan Kesting: One of the drills you might do in fire academy is you’ve got all your gear laid out, and they start a stopwatch, and say, “OK, you’ve got 45 seconds to get this on.” Starting with the boots. So you basically jump in your boots, pull your pants up in one go, throw on your jacket, put on your SCBA, your self-contained breathing apparatus. It’s kind of like a scuba tank. You’re going to put on your flame hood, which goes over top of your mask. You’re going to put your helmet on top of that, you’re going to put your gloves on, and you’ll be ready to go. So that’s a fair amount of stuff you need to put on for going into a fire.
In fire academy, getting dressed in your full turnout gear and your breathing apparatus would be a drill because they’re trying to make that as fast as possible and as smooth as possible so that if you get dressed 10 times, you’re going to get dressed the same way 10 times. You’re not going to forget about the glove, forget about the left boot, forget about the flame hood. That’s all just going to be essentially instinctive.
Katy Milkman: Every second counts for firefighters in an emergency situation. Tasks like donning gear are drilled over and over again so that the skill becomes second nature.
One of the reasons firefighters run drills is to help them function on instinct in chaotic situations.
Stephan Kesting: You’d be not human if you didn’t feel some level of stress, but by having the individual tasks be almost automatic, it is not quite another day at the office, but what you’re doing is you’re saving the cognitive energy for the bigger picture, right? You’re not panicking about the little things. You’re not panicking, how do I turn on the motor that drives these cutters and spreaders? You’re spending that energy on the bigger picture, where exactly do I cut this post on this car so that I don’t cut the patient who’s inside? It allows you to focus on the bigger picture because the smaller parts of the picture are automatic.
Katy Milkman: The skills that Stephan worked on in drills as a new recruit were put to the test early in his career.
Stephan Kesting: One of the biggest calls I ever went to started on a totally normal morning. We were literally out in the yard drilling, and I was a new guy at the hall. So most of this drilling was for me. “OK, Kesting, get out there, put that ladder up against the wall. OK, take this hose up the ladder. OK.” And then the alarms went off.
We jump in the truck and start heading down the road, and we’re going into assist another hall. So it’s a bit of a drive, and we’re going down the highway. The officer and the driver at the front of the truck are going, “Holy crap! Look at that!” And I’m kind of peering out between them from the back, and I don’t see anything. I see a blue sky, I see some clouds. And then I realized that one of those very large clouds is actually sitting on the ground and is a giant plume of smoke already, looking like a thunderhead.
It’s humongous. It’s coming from an industrial area where there are a whole bunch of warehouses. We head up over the bridge that takes us there, and we can see that there are already flames coming through parts of the roof of that warehouse, which is a pretty dangerous situation. So we pull up, and I get tasked out along with another firefighter to be what’s called the RIT team, which is Rapid Intervention Team.
The idea is if you send firefighters into a building, you need at least two guys outside the building essentially ready to go in and act as a rescue team with all the equipment that they need.
The warehouse that was on fire was a five-acre paper storage warehouse. People could see the smoke from 40 miles away, and people were picking up burned paper out of their backyards for many miles all around because it would just go up here like a tornado almost and then get blown outside. It was gigantic.
So we pull up to this and it’s pretty exciting. I mean this is the biggest fire I’ve ever been at up to that point. There’s smoke everywhere. There’s a ton of people because everyone’s now evacuated that building and all the people from the neighborhood around have come to watch.
We started accumulating the various tools that we would need for a building like this and staging just outside the warehouse doors, where a team of three firefighters had gone in. While we’re setting this up, there’s a loud whoompf, and through the dark smoke, all of a sudden a bunch of debris comes flying out. All of the shelving units and all the stuff that was stored in it had fallen over. Basically everything inside that warehouse had fallen down like a row of dominoes.
We knew that three of our guys were in there, including the one guy I had gotten hired with. At that point, the adrenaline went through the roof. It went from “Hey, this is pretty cool” to “Oh my God, our friends are trapped.”
We knew those guys were in danger because they had gone in through that set of bay doors that we were setting up in front of, and then a whole bunch of debris came flying out through that door, so they were in there somewhere. We knew there had been some kind of collapse. And that is one of the worst-case firefighting scenarios, so firefighters in a building with a building or parts of the building collapsing.
We were initially unsure as to how bad the situation was until one of those guys, the captain of that three-man crew came out through a side door. He’d been a little bit separated from the guys, came out and let us know that the other two guys were trapped. He’d gotten injured, but he still managed to get out.
Katy Milkman: This is where the rubber hits the road in terms of training. If you didn’t have training, you’d have one response. But if you’ve honed the right habits, you won’t blow it.
Stephan Kesting: Your instinct is of course to run in, right? These are your friends. And I think that’s a pretty common trait among firefighters is to want to go into an emergency to help. At the same time, depending on what’s going on, your best play might not to be go in. It might be to go somewhere else and fight the fire and create a defensible space for them. If everybody just drops everything that they’re doing and runs in, it could actually mean disaster because maybe nobody’s keeping the fire under control or nobody’s doing the other things that need to happen.
So after a very short powwow, the RIT team, which was the two people initially got upgraded to four, and the four of us got sent in to go look for our brothers.
When we first got in, it was pretty daunting. There’s still a ton of smoke. It’s a giant warehouse environment, and there’s just boxes and shelving debris everywhere. And so somewhere under that giant field of debris are at least two of our friends, two other firefighters. And it took a second to figure out what to do. But what we did was we followed the hose line.
Katy Milkman: Again, the training drills paid off.
Stephan Kesting: When we’re in training, one super common drill is you’re in a simulated burn environment or in a burned building, and they say, “OK, you’re lost. You’re completely lost. What do you do?” If you can find a hose, then you can get out. There’s a way to tell which way the hose goes, whether you’re going further into the building or out of the building, and you can then follow the hose back out of the building. This is something that’s taught pretty much from day one because everybody wants to make sure you have a way of getting out of a dangerous situation.
So we were turning an old habit on its head, right? You follow the hose line out to get out of a dangerous situation. We just flip that around. We were following the hose line in to get those guys out of the dangerous situation.
So we put on our masks and went in through those bay doors. It was pretty horrifying really, because it was just boxes and shelving as far as you could see in every direction. And then eventually the smoke would make it impossible to see any further. So it’s this giant field of debris in a building that’s on fire. There’s clearly more than enough heat here to compromise that roof. And of course, in addition to worrying about the roof coming down on top of everybody, there’s just the anxiety of our co-workers being in there. And if they don’t get out, they’re going to run out of air.
As we were digging our way in, one of the guys, Dave, he’d gotten crushed to the floor by all the debris. His mask had been knocked off of his face slightly, which will make you go through your air much, much quicker. And when he ran out of air, he basically decided, “I don’t want to die” and got all his strength together and managed to push his way up through that debris, mostly to the top. He was pretty easy to find. Three of us essentially dragged him out across the debris to the front door.
Katy Milkman: They’d managed to rescue Dave, but Stephan’s other colleague, Rob, was still nowhere to be seen. This is a crucial moment. The firefighters had to rely on their training in order to make a key strategic choice that could save a life of their missing colleague.
Stephan Kesting: One of the things they actually teach people is to call out.
Speaker 4: Hello, hello, fire department, is anyone here?
Stephan Kesting: That’s pretty easy. The hard part is to teach them to shut up afterwards and create a moment of silence where you can actually hear maybe a weak voice calling back to you. You’re so amped up by the action of searching and by yelling and by doing this physical thing that it’s kind of counterintuitive to stop, be quiet, and listen when you’re in action mode. So while we were in there, that training kicked in as well. We’re going to yell, and then we’re going to stop, and we’re going to stop digging because you don’t want any additional noise. It’s already a noisy enough environment. And we’re just going to look and listen and hopefully see something or hear something.
That was done a couple of times, and I tell you it’s very counterintuitive, especially when it’s firefighters on the line, when it’s people that you work with that you know, that are your friends, that’s not your instinct at all. So that’s a habit that came in very useful.
Katy Milkman: And while Stephan and his rescue team didn’t hear any signs of life during those pauses, the break did allow them to see something.
Stephan Kesting: During one of those times that we stopped to listen and to look around, we noticed that there was a little bit of a firefighter glove sticking up through the debris, and that was Rob. His back had actually been broken by the falling debris, and so he was right at the bottom and a lot harder to find. I guess his hand was caught semi-vertically as he got smashed to the floor, and this was a huge relief. “Oh, we found him. Oh, thank God.” Now that gives us a direction to work in as opposed to digging endlessly through the debris.
So we remove all the boxes and shelving that are around Rob, and he’s a big guy, probably 240 pounds. You add onto that at least 50 pounds of turnout gear and SCBA. He’s mostly unconscious, just vaguely moaning, and he does have a broken back, so we’re just dragging him as best we can. It’s a life-over-limb situation. Perhaps he’s injured, perhaps he’s not, but if we stay in there and tend to the injuries and do the full medical protocol, it doesn’t matter if the roof comes in because we’re all dead. So we just dragged him out en masse. Basically everybody grabbed a limb to get him back out the door to fresh air and then handed him off to the ambulance service.
Katy Milkman: They got out just in time.
Stephan Kesting: Our training chief at the time was talking to a reporter, and then not 30 seconds later the roof collapsed, and a giant cloud of black smoke came out in all directions, and it looked like Mordor. It went from day to night instantaneously, and that was the start of the collapse of the building. It eventually ended up flat. That whole building was … I think it was a five-acre building, and four acres of it burned to the ground.
Katy Milkman: Thankfully, all three rescued firefighters survived that harrowing experience, and they largely recovered from their injuries.
Stephan and the rest of the Rapid Intervention Team were recognized with several awards for their heroic efforts. They even made a trip to the Capitol to receive National Medals of Bravery.
Stephan Kesting: Really, we were just doing our job. Had it been us under that debris, or had it been a random other four guys and girls, the same thing would’ve happened, I’d like to think. People would have gone in, people would have tried to get us. It really is just, it was our job that day, and I’m super glad it worked out.
Katy Milkman: Stephan Kesting is an officer at the Delta Fire Department in British Columbia, Canada. He’s also a well-known Brazilian jujitsu expert, so if you’re into that sort of thing, I’ve got links in the show notes and at schwab.com/podcast.
As you’ve probably gathered by now, we’re focusing on the power of habits in this episode. Firefighters like Stephan Kesting have a systematic approach to developing habits to help them function in chaotic and dangerous situations. They train and drill until certain behaviors become automatic in emergencies. Of course, habits can also prevent you from functioning well—biting your nails, checking your phone too often, eating junk food, staying up too late. There’s an endless list of habits, big and small, good and bad, that have the potential to affect your goals and your quality of life. But what exactly is a habit?
To answer that question, I’ve invited Wendy Wood on the show. Wendy is a professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California, and I’d argue she’s the world’s foremost expert on habits: how they’re formed, why they’re formed, and how to break bad ones or kick-start good ones.
Hi, Wendy, thanks so much for joining us.
Wendy Wood: Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thank you for inviting me, Katy.
Katy Milkman: I want to start by just asking you a really basic question, which is what is a habit?
Wendy Wood: Yeah, that’s actually a very good question to start with because it’s not something that we intuitively understand. Over time, through repetition, what happens is that your mind learns to associate what you did in a specific context—so the response you’re giving—with cues in that context. So the cues could be other people, it could be the physical environment that you’re in, it could even be the time of day or something that you just did before a particular response. All those cues get tied with your response in your mind. So that, for example, you show up in the kitchen in the morning, and if you make coffee, you probably just go to your kitchen counter and do whatever you’ve done before without really thinking a whole lot about it. And that’s the definition of habits is you’re responding to cues as you did in the past in order to get a reward. In this case it’s you’ve made coffee, you get to drink it, and you don’t really have to think a whole lot about it.
Katy Milkman: The way you describe it makes it sound like it’s a very useful trick that humans have for making life easier. Is that the way you think about habits and why we have them?
Wendy Wood: Yes, and it’s interesting because it’s a useful trick that humans have and dogs have and whales have. All mammals seem to form habits in sort of the same way. We have comparable neural structures in our brain that supports this kind of learning. So that’s why you can train your dog using similar principles to the kinds of shortcuts that we all use when we repeat behavior over and over.
Katy Milkman: And one of the things we talk a lot about on this show is when we develop shortcuts or heuristics, and they can lead us to make mistakes. When do you think that can be an issue with habit?
Wendy Wood: Well, that definitely happens with habit. Most of us are probably more aware of our bad habits than our good ones. And bad habits are simply ones that aren’t consistent with our current goals. It’s our mind’s way of simplifying repetition so that we do what got us rewards in the past, not necessarily what’s going to get us something we value now.
Katy Milkman: Since you mentioned that most of us are more aware of our bad habits than our good ones, it seems like a good question to ask is, how can we break those bad habits? What does research tell us about habit breaking when we want to get out of a bad cycle?
Wendy Wood: What most people think of when they think of breaking a bad habit is they have to somehow get enough willpower, make a strong enough decision, form a clear intention to change their behavior, and they rely on willpower to do it. But willpower is a really tough thing to rely on. What does work, it seems, is changing the environments that we’re in. So actually disrupting those cues. I could, for example, bring apples into the office so that I have something ready to snack on when it gets to be before lunchtime and I might be thinking about, “Oh, maybe I should go get some donuts from the vending machine.” If I have something else at the ready that will compete with that particular choice, then I’ll be better off.
Katy Milkman: Could you talk a little bit about some of the research studies that have helped explain the way habits are formed?
Wendy Wood: Probably my favorite study was one that we did in a local cinema where we showed people a bunch of short movies and they rated how interested they were in the movies, and supposedly as compensation, we gave them boxes of popcorn. And unbeknownst to them, some of the boxes were fresh and others had stale popcorn. And this was really stale popcorn. We had popped it a week earlier and kept it in plastic bags in our lab and then served it to these people. We also asked them at the end of this show how often they ate popcorn in the cinema. And then at the end, we weighed how much they ate.
What we found is that people who didn’t have habits to eat popcorn in the cinema, they did just what you’d expect. They ate more of the fresh popcorn. They tended to leave the stale popcorn. They didn’t eat much of it. That makes sense. I mean, that’s the rational behavior. That’s what we’d all expect. People though, who had habits to eat popcorn in the cinema, who said they did it often, they didn’t respond in a very rational way. What they did is they ate the same amount of popcorn, whether it was fresh or stale. And the really surprising thing about these data are that at the end of the study, when we asked people how much they liked the popcorn, people who had strong habits could tell us they hated the stale popcorn just like people who had weak habits did. Everyone hated it. It was awful. But they still ate it.
People with strong habits ate the popcorn, even though they’re telling us they hated it, and that’s the power of habit cueing. Once you formed a habit, the cues are so strong that we tend to repeat the behavior even if right now it’s not the thing we want to do. So those people with strong habits continued to eat the popcorn, even though the popcorn wasn’t very pleasant.
We could take people out of that setting and we did and we tested them in a very similar sort of a video context. They were watching music videos in a lab room. No one had a habit to eat popcorn while doing that. And in that setting, people with strong habits to eat popcorn in the cinema didn't act any differently than people with weak habits. It's really the cues in the situation that we're responding to that we learn to respond to when we have formed habits.
Katy Milkman: One thing that I was thinking might be fun would be to ask you a little bit about some myths about habits that are out there. One of the ones that I hear a lot is 21 days to form a habit, and I’m curious: What are the myths about habits that you find most irritating and most need correction?
Wendy Wood: Well, I do think that the 21-day thing is pretty ridiculous. From what I can tell, that comes from a self-help book, an early one in the 1960s, and it actually referred to how long it takes to get used to changes in your appearance after plastic surgery. It wasn’t even about habits. And it was not based on any data that we can tell. And it doesn’t make logical sense that there’s a set number of days or repetitions until you form a habit. Because some habits are easy to learn, right? They’re just simple. They are things like remembering to take your keys with you. You set your keys by the door, you pick them up when you leave. It’s very simple. Others are much more complex. Things like going to the gym, driving a car, typing on your key pad. All of those things are more complex, and you can think of the behavior as having multiple steps, right? You initiate and then you actually perform it.
Those kinds of complex behaviors are going to just take much longer to learn, and they’re going to take much longer to become habitual. Fascinating study by Pippa Lally, who was a postdoc in my lab. She assessed how long it actually does take people to learn a habit, and what she found is that for things like drinking a glass of water before a meal or after a meal, it takes about 60-some days. Something more complicated like going to the gym can take anything over 200-300 days. Depends on how consistent you are in repeating the behavior and how strong the cueing is and how strong the rewards are. All of those are important components to learning a habit.
I think the other thing that people misunderstand about habits is they overlook the power of the context that we’re in. People, as I said before, they tend to overvalue willpower and underestimate the power of context.
There was a fascinating study done with cell phones. One study looked at how far cell phones, or the people carrying them, traveled to go to the gym. If you travel five miles to go to your gym, you’re likely to go once a month. If you travel three and a half miles, you’re likely to go five times a month. So the simple proximity, being closer to your gym, makes the difference between having a gym habit and one that is not so effective.
Most of us wouldn’t imagine that that could be the case. We think we go to the gym when we’re motivated, when we have the energy to do so, when we feel like working out, but instead the context around us and whether the behavior is easy or difficult, something I think of as friction. The friction on the behavior is very important in whether we will repeat it and whether it will form into a habit or not. When there’s a lot of friction, when something is more difficult, we have to think about it hard and we might decide, not today. It just doesn’t sound fun today and we won’t do it.
Katy Milkman: Wendy, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.
Wendy Wood: Oh, my pleasure.
Katy Milkman: Wendy Wood is the provost professor of psychology and business at Dornsife College at the University of Southern California. She’s also the author of a brand new book, Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick. I’ve got a link in the show notes and at schwab.com/podcast.
Sticking to good financial habits can be challenging, especially because the rewards tend to accrue over the long term. That’s why our sister podcast, Financial Decoder, often explores ways to simplify financial decision-making. Check out the recent episode entitled “How Do You Get Started on Your Financial To-Do List,” which shows how the digital revolution in financial services is making it easier to implement good investing habits. You can find it at schwab.com/financialdecoder or wherever you listen to podcasts.
There’s a quote that’s often attributed to Warren Buffett, though it might have originated with Samuel Johnson in the mid-1700s. It goes something like this: “The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.”
Habits are powerful. Small repeated behaviors can have an outsize impact on your success, health, and happiness. They’re worth paying attention to. As Wendy Wood mentioned, it’s important to look at the context around the habits we’d like to break and look for ways to disrupt cues that trigger unhelpful behavior. For habits we’d like to form, it’s all about repetition and reward. I know that sounds like dog training, but as Wendy Wood noted, we’ve got a lot in common with other mammals. Often, our habits are connected to our ability to exercise self-control. Habits can help us stay on task and avoid temptation, but they can also lead us to make less-than-ideal choices.
My colleague Angela Duckworth has been studying self-control and what she calls grit for her entire professional life. And when we chatted recently, she noted that success in self-control has a lot to do with habits.
Angela Duckworth: When I first started studying self-control, I thought, well, self-controlled people, they’re really good at suppressing impulses, and that’s the magic of self-control. And then what I found is that, actually, really self-controlled people have an armory of strategies, very clever hacks. You know, “Oh, I never keep the Halloween candy in the house after October 31st.” Or you know, “I always turn my cell phone off, and I hide it in a drawer before I get to work.” Lots of hacks that are very clever and are not the same thing as simply suppressing impulses.
But finally, what I discovered most recently is that what really self-controlled people do is they take those strategies and they put them on autopilot—they make them into habits that they don’t even have to think about. And that automaticity, that effortlessness of doing what is good for you in the long run, despite momentary temptations, is a lot of the reason why self-controlled people are healthier, they’re more successful, they enjoy richer social lives and so forth.
So in a way, the place that I began, which is self-control, being able to delay gratification, et cetera. It’s almost a paradox that really when you look at these highly self-controlled people, they’re doing a lot of these things without effortful, volitional suppression of impulses in the moment.
I think that if we don’t develop habits, say you want to go to the gym more, and you don’t develop a routine of going generally at the same time and in the same setting. I guess for a gym it’s one setting, but for many other habits, say writing, getting work done on a book you’re writing. Unless you develop a routine where there is a repetition of the same context cues, the same time, the same place, you know, “I always have my cup of coffee, and then I sit down.” Then I’m pessimistic that you’re ever going to get a lot of behavior change, a lot of productive work done.
Katy Milkman: The ability to leverage the power of good habits is important to avoiding tempting but counterproductive behavior. Good habits put good choices on autopilot so you don’t have to exert willpower to do the right thing. And while bad habits are hard to break, the latest research shows us that by changing your environment to eliminate whatever triggers those bad habits, you can make lots of progress.
For instance, try taking a new route to work that doesn’t pass by your favorite fast food shop, so you won’t be tempted to stop for a sausage biscuit, or try charging your phone overnight in the kitchen and not on your nightstand so you won’t mindlessly check it before bed and when you wake up. You get the picture.
You’ve been listening to Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. If you’ve enjoyed the show, we’d be really grateful if you’d leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. It helps other people find the show. You can also subscribe for free in your favorite podcasting apps. That way you won’t miss an episode.
Next time, we’ll explore some other ways to help you stick to your challenging goals and avoid temptation. Whether that’s avoiding junk food to lose a few pounds, setting aside more money for retirement, or beating procrastination so you can finish a home renovation project. I’m Katy Milkman. Talk to you next time.
Speaker 7: For important disclosures, see the show notes or visit schwab.com/podcast.