How to Overcome Cravings: Change Your Rewards

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Power of Habit" by Charles Duhigg. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you want to know how to overcome cravings? Why is getting past cravings so hard?

Most people have cravings at one point or another, and they can be powerful. Learning how to overcome cravings can help you establish good habits and break the bad ones.

Keep reading to find out how to overcome cravings.

How to Overcome Cravings

The good news is, by becoming conscious of your habits and cravings, you can learn how to overcome cravings. Recognize which cues and cravings are driving your habit. You can avoid the craving by removing the cue. If you silence your phone, you won’t get the cue to pick up your phone, and you won’t get the craving to find out what Becky’s saying to you. Instead, you can focus on reading this summary.

And if you want to start a new habit, set up a clear cue and reward. Then, when you encounter the cue, actively mentally crave the reward that follows.

For example, if you want to start exercising:

  • Set up a simple cue (like putting on your running shoes after you get back from work). 
  • Set up a reward (like a snack at the end of your run, a feeling of pride at extending your run time, the endorphins you get after running, or a picture of yourself in your summer swimsuit). 
  • When you encounter the cue, actively think about the reward and anticipate it. This will make you more likely to drive through the routine to get the reward.

Finally, if you’re trying to sell a product or drive behavior in other people, think about how to attach a craving to that behavior. For instance, healthy behaviors like putting on sunscreen isn’t nearly as universal a habit as taking a shower. So manufacturers are now trying to attach a sensation to putting on sunscreen, like a cool tingling sensation, to inspire a craving for that feeling. This is how to overcome cravings.

Example 1: Tingly Toothpaste

In the early 1900s, American rarely brushed their teeth. It just wasn’t ingrained as a daily habit. Combined with processed foods, the lack of dental hygiene led to an epidemic of rotten teeth.Enter Claude Hopkins, a master advertiser who had made Palmolive and Quaker Oats into household names. Taking up the case of new toothpaste Pepsodent, he focused on building a new habit:

  • Cue: run your tongue over your teeth. You’ll feel a film that discolors and decays your teeth.
  • Routine: brush your teeth with Pepsodent
  • Reward: end up with a beautiful smile

Pepsodent rocketed in demand. Before Pepsodent, only 7% of Americans owned toothpaste; 10 years after the ad campaign, the number jumped to 65%.

But it turns out this wasn’t the first time the cue had been used in advertising. Other brands had tried and failed with similar marketing.

The secret, it turns out, was the aftertaste of Pepsodent. With mint oil and citric acid, Pepsodent left a cool, tingling feeling after brushing teeth.

Customers of Pepsodent revealed that if they forgot to brush their teeth, they missed the tingling sensation. They craved this feeling. This drove the growth of Pepsodent over other toothpastes; and when other companies introduced mint to their toothpaste, Pepsodent’s market share dropped. This offers an example of how to overcome cravings.

Example 2: Febreze and Cues of Bad Smells

When invented in the 1990s, Febreze was a magical product – it could remove bad smells from fabric, not just cover it up like other products. It seemed like a sure-fire win, an alternative to dry cleaning and laundry. The team designed ads with cues and rewards, focusing on the cue of bad smells. The reward was clothing that no longer smelled like cigarettes, or sofas that no longer smelled like dog. But what can this teach us about how to overcome cravings?

But the ads failed. Sales didn’t bump at all, and they coasted along at low levels.

They discovered that the cue failed – people perpetually around bad smells couldn’t actually detect the cue any longer. If you’re a long time smoker, your nose just becomes less sensitive to smoke smells. This meant the habit couldn’t fully form.

So the Febreze team tried a different strategy. Instead of attacking the smell problem, they repositioned the product as the proper reward to a cleaning routine. They added more perfume to Febreze, and they encouraged customers to spray Febreze after freshly making a bed or vacuuming. Over time, customers associated cleanliness with the smell of Febreze.

Then the smell became a craving. If it didn’t smell nice like Febreze, it didn’t really seem clean.

This habit change catapulted the use of Febreze – it wasn’t just used when bad smells happened, it was used habitually after every cleaning.

Example 3: Cinnabon

In malls, Cinnabon locates its stores away from other restaurants. They want the smell alone wafting through the hallways to act as a cue, then trigger a craving for the cinnamon roll. Once the customer finally sees the Cinnabon store, the routine to buy a cinnamon roll activates and they get their sweet reward.

These examples offer examples not only on how to overcome cravings, but how they are created. Learning how to overcome cravings is an important part of learning how to understand your own habits.

How to Overcome Cravings: Change Your Rewards

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  • The 3 steps to change your habits
  • Why habits are at the root of success in football
  • How social movements are just an expansion of habits from individuals to communities

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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