Book Review: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

What if you could increase your productivity? Give up a bad habit like smoking, chewing your fingernails or overeating? Be more organized? Would your business benefit? Of course it would. There are lots of business and self-help books out there that promise to make you a better, more successful person. And they often say the same thing: suck it up. Get some discipline. Stop eating crappy food. All you have to do to be a better person is… be a better person. If we could all just garner the moral fortitude to be perfect, these books would be obsolete. But we’re human, not perfect, so we keep buying them in the hopes that they’ll tell us something different so that we can actually achieve perfection.

Charles Duhigg’s new book, The Power of Habit just might be game-changing, both personally and professionally. Duhigg recognizes that people are fallible, creatures of habit. Instead of a rah-rah “you can do it if you just try hard enough” strategy, Duhigg focuses on how and why people behave, and how they can actually institute long-term, effective change.

Duhigg starts out with a personal example. He was going to the cafeteria every to get a chocolate chip cookie and chat with his colleagues. After a snarky comment from his wife, he realized that he had gained eight pounds. Something had to change. He tried putting post-it notes on his computer that said, “NO MORE COOKIES!” That didn’t work – he’d lose willpower, go get the cookie, then feel crappy and guilty later. He liked the cookies. He wanted the cookies (or so he thought). He needed more than just a post-it note. So, he went about figuring out the mechanics behind his bad habit.

Habit, Duhigg argues, is a three-part loop. First comes the cue, followed by the routine, which provides the reward. The way to change a habit is to identify its properties, which requires a little bit of self reflection and some sleuthing.

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Duhigg first had to recognize that his cookie-eating was part of a habit loop. He began writing down details every time he craved a cookie. He quickly found that he was thinking about cookies around 3:30 every afternoon. So, his cue was happening at 3:30 pm. Was it because he was hungry? He tried bringing an apple to work and eating it at his desk every afternoon and found that he didn’t really want to eat anything. Maybe it was a sugar dependency? He tried bringing a cookie from home and eating it at his desk. Surprisingly, that was unsatisfying and he found that he didn’t tend to even finish the cookie. He thought about the routine… get up from his desk, go up to the cafeteria, buy a cookie, find some colleagues and chat with them while he ate. Aha! Duhigg found that what he really wanted was to get up from his desk and talk to his colleagues. The reward he actually craved was not a cookie… it was  human interaction. Once he identified the components of his habit loop, Duhigg began simply taking a little break and talking to colleagues every afternoon for a few minutes. He lost the eight pounds, and still felt satisfied. Charles Duhigg says, “Change might not be fast and it isn’t always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped.”

The basic gist of how it works:

Use the same cue. Provide the same reward. Change the routine.

Duhigg presents many different research studies that have proven that, by changing just one part of the habit loop, people can make lasting changes. A study with smokers found that they smoked for one of several reasons: they loved nicotine, they needed a burst of stimulation, or they smoked for social reasons. Once the smokers were able to identify the reward they got from smoking, they were able to find an alternate routine. For instance, those who craved nicotine found that nicotine gum was effective. However, the gum wasn’t as effective for those whose smoking routine involved socialization. Those smokers found that chatting with friends or co-workers provided the same reward, without the smoking. Those who enjoyed the burst of stimulation were able to get satisfaction from a cup of strong coffee instead. Of course, some smokers wanted more than one reward, so they had to combine several. They might drink a strong cup of coffee with some friends and follow it up with a piece of nicotine gum.

The other important component to making lasting changes to habit is the desire to change. Duhigg points out that, “to modify a habit, you must decide to change it. You must consciously accept the hard work of identifying the cues and rewards that drive the habit’s routines, and find alternatives.”

The Power of Habit also discusses the chain reaction that can occur when one habit is changed. Alcoa, one of the world’s largest aluminum manufacturers, was failing in 1987. The employee injury rate was sky-high, profits were down and morale was low. Paul O’Neill was brought in as the new CEO and the shareholders were hopeful that he could institute change and save the company. To their chagrin, Paul chose one topic on which to focus immediately: workplace safety. This idea seemed counterintuitive to saving a struggling company. But Paul knew that if he could change just one bad habit for the better, that the resulting domino effect would make all the difference.

Paul O’Neill instituted a new safety policy. From hence forward, all Alcoa employees were to immediately report anything dangerous. They were given license to shut down the production line without supervisor approval if anything was amiss. Employees were instructed to write reports that detailed the problem and offered suggestions for positive change. For their efforts, they would be rewarded with raises and promotions.

In the past, a dangerous situation (the cue), led to the routine of going through a long chain of command and worrying that being a whistle-blower would get you reprimanded. The reward for looking the other way was job security. O’Neill changed that. The cue was the same (a dangerous situation). But the routine was changed (immediately address the problem, write a report). The reward was similar, but a little better (job security and additional money). The workplace safety record improved dramatically and within a few years, Alcoa had one of the lowest rates of workplace injury of any company.

In addition to lowering the workplace injury rate, changing the safety habits of workers led to other positive things. The new safety routine involved asking employees for input about safety topics. Once they were accustomed to habitually offering input on one topic, they began to offer more input. Managers began focusing on other ways to increase productivity and change other negative habits into positive ones. The domino effect was felt company-wide as improvements across the board accumulated, leading Alcoa back into a profitable status.

As a business owner, you can change habits that affect your success. In addition to looking at personal habits that might be destructive, look for habits that exist in your organization. Follow Charles Duhigg’s methods, and reap the rewards.