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The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business

Tuesday, December 9, 2014  
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By Charles Duhigg

Reviewed by Sarah Stewart
{Headlines} May 2014 

Habits have been an important topic among philosophers, doctors, psychologists, scientists, and experts since time began. This is because at the core of habits lie questions integral to human life. Why do I do what I do? How can I improve my life? What motivates me? Are we the sum of our actions? Are our actions our destiny? A 2006 study from Duke University found that more than 40 percent of the actions people perform daily were not because of actual decisions but because of habits. Habits are powerful. In 1892, Dr. William James, known as the “Father of American Psychology” summed it up this way, “All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits.” 

It is this important topic that is dissected, discussed, and addressed in Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Duhigg is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for The New York Times, a graduate from Yale University and Harvard Business School, and a frequent guest on National Public Radio’s “This American Life,” “The News Hour with Jim Lehrer,” and other programs. Drawing on hundreds of academic studies and interviews, Duhigg unwraps how habits are made and remade, as well as how habits impact our lives and our world, and finally, how we can harness the power of habits for good.

Duhigg spends the first third of his book discussing the role of habits in the individual. He begins with a case study, the story of man who, after suffering from severe viral encephalitis lost his recent memory and the ability to make new memories, so in effect, the ability to learn. Despite these limitations the man continued to function in many capacities. He could make small talk with strangers, and when asked things he didn’t know, he would politely deflect. He couldn’t tell you where he lived, but he could go for a walk and find his way home. He couldn’t tell you where the bread was in his kitchen, but he could make himself a sandwich. The researchers discovered how even though the patient’s memory was gone and he could not “learn,” he functioned by relying on his habits. 

Experts say that habits are the brain’s way of conserving energy. Habits form so the body can take care of everyday tasks such as driving to work, taking a shower, or cleaning the house, while your brain spends its time contemplating what’s for dinner, where you should go on vacation, or your schedule for the next day. This is why you sometimes drive to work and after arriving can’t remember many details from the trip. 

Habits are formed through the creation of “a habit loop.” A habit loop includes a cue, a routine, and a reward. Duhigg gives numerous examples of habit loops throughout the book. In one experiment, a mouse sees a blinking light, the cue, runs a maze, the routine, and finds a piece of cheese, the reward. However the process does not become a habit until it is done repeatedly, and the mouse develops a craving for the reward. The craving for the reward cements the habit. Once the mouse develops the craving, after the red light goes off, it runs through the maze, as it did before, but brain scans show that its brain activity drops while it is performing the routine. It is no longer making new decisions, but at the cue of the red light runs on autopilot in pursuit of the reward. Habits include an initial choice, but then become automatic, a process that can obviously be helpful or harmful. Duhigg gives examples of both possibilities. An athlete whose habits allow him to train harder, maintain discipline, visualize winning, and beat his competitor. Or a gambler who after the initial decision to play gets sucked in to losing thousands of dollars before he realizes what he’s done. 

Once formed, habits cannot be extinguished, but they can be replaced. The former habit can be replaced with a new habit, and the best way to accomplish this is to replace the routine, while keeping the same cue and reward. This is called “The Golden Rule” of Habit Formation. To demonstrate this rule Duhigg discusses at length how organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous help alcoholics stay sober. Alcoholics experience stress, a cue, which leads to consuming alcohol, a routine, which rewards them by alleviating their stress. AA meetings seek to simulate that process. Upon the cue of stress, alcoholics attend a meeting or reach out to a sponsor, a new routine, and hopefully walk away with less stress, a reward.

However there’s another piece to this process, something else required in changing a habit. Along with learning the new habit, the person must believe they can change. If they do not believe it, the new habit will fall apart under stress. AA helps alcoholics believe in two ways. First, belief is advocated in AA’s 12-step program. Steps 1 and 2 are: belief in a higher power that could save the person; and submission to that power. AA states it doesn’t matter what your higher power is, but you must believe in a higher power for those times when you don’t think you can keep going. Second, alcoholics begin to believe they can stay sober when they hear the success stories of others at the meetings. Duhigg adds, “When people join groups where change seems possible, the potential for that change to occur becomes real.” Another source, Dr. Todd Headerton, says, “Change occurs among people. It seems real when we can see it through other people’s eyes,” Headerton is the co-author of “Personal Accounts of Successful Versus Failed Attempts at Life Change,” published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in 1994.   

The importance of belief when changing a habit follows long held theories in pedagogy such as the role of a student’s self-efficacy. Only the child who believes they can succeed, and who experiences increasing levels of success will gain confidence and persevere in their work. Which leads to another topic Duhigg says is essential to changing habits: “keystone habits” and “the small win.”

Keystone habits are those habits that affect other habits or behaviors by starting a positive trickle down effect. Keystone habits influence how we work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate, and they are habits, that overtime start a process of transformation. Keystone habits can be hard to identify, but they are the types of things that create a sense of a “small win” in a person. Small wins are exactly what they sound like, small victories or positive decisions that snowball. Small wins are the sense of accomplishment from making one’s bed, which leads to leaving the kitchen clean, and being on time to work, and being prepared in the meeting, that together lead to a better outcome. Small wins are why people who quit smoking or start an exercise plan generally make other healthy decisions in their lives. Duhigg says, “Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach.” In short, each small victory bolsters people’s confidence, and sets them up and inspires them to do the next “right” thing.

Next, Duhigg discusses the role of willpower in habits, and how organizations can in fact teach their employees, students, or members to have more willpower and better habits. Dozens of studies show that willpower is the single most important keystone habit for individual success. In a 2005 University of Pennsylvania study, researchers looked at 164 eighth grade students, measuring their IQs and other factors that correlated with willpower. They found that, “Students who exerted high levels of willpower were more likely to earn higher grades in their classes and gain admission into more selective schools.” The best way to give students a leg up in school is to help them develop willpower, Duhigg writes. So how do schools or teachers teach willpower? 

In the 1980s, researchers thought willpower was a skill that could be taught such as math, science, or writing. However, another group of researchers in the 1990s questioned that assertion: if willpower is a skill, why does its strength fluctuate day-to-day? At Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH, a group of researchers including Dr. Mark Muraven decided to test students’ willpower. They separated a group of students into three groups. The first group took a simple computer test. The second group were placed in a room for 15 minutes with fresh cookies, and were asked politely not to eat the cookies, and then given the test. The third group were placed in the room with the cookies, and told rudely not to eat the cookies, and then took the test. Students who exerted energy avoiding the cookies had lower scores on the test than students who simply took the test. Also students who were treated rudely, scored worse than students who were treated politely. The findings left Muraven with this conclusion: that willpower is more of a muscle than a skill, and that it can grow tired. 

However, Muraven found that exercising one’s willpower can make it stronger, which explains why keystone habits impact other habits. To test the theory, researchers registered students for a four-month financial management program, and meanwhile monitored other aspects of their lives. As students’ finances improved during the course of the study, they also reported smoking fewer cigarettes, drinking less alcohol and caffeine, eating less junk food, and being more productive at work and school. When you exert greater self-control in one area of your life, you begin to exhibit more self-control in other areas of your life. 

Heatherton, a researcher from Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH, said, “When you learn to force yourself to go to the gym or start your homework or eat a salad instead of a hamburger, part of what’s happening is that you’re changing how you think,” he said. “People get better at regulating their impulses. They learn how to distract themselves from temptations. And once you’ve gotten into that willpower groove, your brain is practiced at helping you focus on a goal.” It’s also one reason that experts recommend young children participate in a team sport. In practice and on the field young children learn to focus their attention and pursue a goal despite how they feel or what else they might like to be doing at that moment. “A five-year-old who can follow the ball for ten minutes becomes a sixth grader who can start his homework on time,” Duhigg writes.

Another key factor that improved people’s willpower was giving them greater control. People with a sense of control over their circumstances are happier and work harder. Starbucks Coffee has been successful for many reasons, and one is allowing its employees to be involved with the design and operations of the coffee shop where they work. The same is true in many organizations, including schools. As demonstrated by the popular program, “The Independent Project,” where students choose what they will study and how they will demonstrate mastery, students given more input into their education work harder and are more engaged.

In order to safeguard new habits, it is also important to plan for the unexpected by creating an action plan or rehearsing what you will do when faced with different situations. In effect a habit to revert to when the original habit is interrupted. At Starbucks employees rehearse possible coffee shop mishaps, and how they will respond when faced with an angry customer, a broken machine, or other stressful situations. In those circumstances, the employee relies on the LATTE method: listen to the customer, acknowledge the problem, take action to solve the problem, thank them for bringing the problem to your attention, and explain why the problem occurred. This planning allows entry level, inexperienced employees to keep their cool and maintain a high level of customer service when faced with a crisis. 

The latter part of The Power of Habit focuses on organization and societal habits, offering insight that is useful to anyone who wants to see positive change in their workplace, and in particular those in leadership positions. While people can have habits, organizations can have dysfunctional or outdated routines. With the transformation going on in today’s schools, that statement probably resonates with many educators trying to create environments that will equip students for their futures. Duhigg uses many examples of organizations that had floundered and rebounded. Common problems were losing the connection with their workers, losing the connection with customers, or allowing dysfunctional or outdated routines to continue. On the upside organizations in crisis are more open to change, says Duhigg. The businesses that turned things around had leaders who introduced new keystone habits that over time impacted all operations. In one instance, a new CEO revived a massive aluminum manufacturing company, Alcoa Inc., by standing firmly by the keystone habit: “our facilities will be the safest in the world.” That commitment led to multiple improvements in communication, quality control, operations, best practices, etc., that eventually not only saved the company, but made it an example other companies such as IBM and Goldman Sachs would emulate.   

The Power of Habit is a great addition to the wealth of modern psychology books about improving the way we live and work. At many times it felt much like reading one of Malcolm Gladwell’s books, but Duhigg offers more than Gladwell with its lengthy Afterward and Appendix sections. In these, he provides a framework for the reader to tackle their own habits: identify the routine, experiment with rewards, isolate the cue, have a plan. He then walks through using this process and how, in his case, he overcame his afternoon cookie habit. Duhigg also includes letters from people who have successfully changed their habits. In one instance a college teacher had students practice changing one habit to test the keystone habit effect, and many of the students maintained the change, and saw a positive effect in other areas of their lives. The fact that they learned how to change a habit, and successfully did so, empowered them to try other changes.

In closing the book, Duhigg circles back to some wise words from renowned psychologist William James on the power of habits. “People grow to the way in which they have been exercised, just as a sheet of paper or a coat, once creased or folded tends, to fall forever afterward into the same identical folds…If you believe you can change – if you make it a habit – the change becomes real. This is the power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be.” And by choosing good habits you can choose a good life as well.  

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