Monday, January 12, 2015

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

 This book contains three sections dealing with the power of habit as it affects individuals, businesses, and societies. If you're seeking to break a bad habit or to create a good habit, Duhigg provides some valuable insights and strategies, based on multiple studies, which may help.

MIT researchers discovered in the 90s that habits are actually built deep inside the brain, close to the brain stem, in our older, primitive structure called the basal ganglia. They discovered that animals with injured basal ganglia had problems learning and remembering tasks. When they began to learn tasks, most of the electrical activity took place widely distributed through their brains, but after they had mastered the tasks, repeated running of the tasks, succeeding by their developed habits of always turning left, or always pressing a lever in a certain location, the electrical activity shrank, and moved to the basal ganglia. "The basal ganglia, in other words, stored habits even while the rest of the brain went to sleep."

"Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort."

We all have lazy brains, that's funny.

But the good thing about that is that we don't have to think constantly about repetitive behaviors. Have you ever noticed that, while thinking about something else, or carrying on a lively conversation, you drove most of the way to work or church without thinking about it?

All habits are composed of a Cue, a Routine, and a Reward - the cue is a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use (for we all have many of them), the routine is a set of physical, mental, or emotional actions, and the reward is something which helps your brain decide whether this is a habit is worth remembering for the future.

The importance of reward in this cycle, however odd the reward may seem, is key.

Early marketers of Febreze, a chemical compound which completely neutralized bad odors, were stumped when buyers didn't use and re-purchase the product. They found that after they added a pleasant scent, rather than simply eliminating odors, consumers began to habitually use it, as their brains associated the "reward" of pleasant scent with having a clean and odor-free home. A similar situation occurred with early marketing of toothpaste. After many public campaigns to educate people about the health value of brushing with a cleansing toothpaste, people still weren't brushing, until some genius made toothpaste that left their mouths tasting of mint, and people's brains then associated the "reward" of a minty fresh feeling with having a healthy mouth, and Pepsodent's sales skyrocketed.

I read Tony Dungy's book Quiet Strength a number of years ago, so i was interested in what this book had to say about how he created a winning football team in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"Champions don't do extraordinary things," Dungy would explain. "They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they've learned."

The key to changing a habit from bad to good is to keep the old cue, deliver the old reward, but change the routine in the middle.

Football players rely on "keys" to determine what action they should take in a given situation. The placement of the opposing player's feet, the positioning of their shoulders, and the spacing between linemen are all keys. If the keys are properly read, and the reaction is correct, it is highly likely that the opponent will be thwarted. The team whose players react the most quickly, instinctively, habitually, in the correct manner, to those keys, will win more often than not. If a player has to think about what he's going to do next, his actions will probably be wrong.

Duhigg tells the story of how a new CEO at Alcoa, Paul O'Neill, turned things around and made the company profitable, increasing the stock price by a factor of five in a few short years. He did it by introducing one key new corporate habit, which became ingrained in the culture. The habit he introduced didn't seem to anyone, at first, related at all to increasing profits; the change he introduced was the intention to make Alcoa the safest company in America. "I intend to go for zero injuries."

The cue - worker injury
The new routine - any time someone was injured the unit president had to report it to the CEO within 24 hours, along with a plan to make sure it never happened again
The reward - only those who embraced the system would get promoted (and those who didn't were fired)

"O'Neill never promised that his focus on worker safety would increase Alcoa's profits. However, as his new routines moved through the organization, costs came down, quality went up, and productivity skyrocketed. If molten metal was injuring workers when it splashed, then the pouring system was redesigned, which led to fewer injuries. It also saved money because Alcoa lost less raw materials in spills. If a machine kept breaking down, it was replaced, which meant there was less chance of a broken gear snagging an employee's arm. It also meant higher quality products because, as Alcoa discovered, equipment malfunctions were a chief cause of subpar aluminum."

Starbucks also achieves success through building good employee habits with its LATTE method.

"We Listen to the customer, Acknowledge their complaint, Take action by solving the problem, Thank them, and then Explain why the problem occurred."

What a great customer service model!

Where I think Duhigg's model breaks down just a bit is when he gets into applying the principles to social movements.

He writes,

"A movement starts because of the social habits of friendship and the strong ties between close acquaintances.

It grows because of the habits of a community, and the weak ties that hold neighborhoods and clans together.

And it endures because a movement's leaders give participants new habits that create a fresh sense of identity and a feeling of ownership."

He applies this to two very diverse situations, the civil rights movement in the 50s in America, and the growth of Rick Warren's Saddleback ministry.

He mentions an interesting fact,

In 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama "Every adult, it seemed - particularly every black adult - belonged to some kind of club, church, social group, community center, or neighborhood organization, and often more than one."

Is this still true today? I suspect that much of the breakdown of the social fabric in the inner cities can be tied to the disappearance of community ties and the feeling of responsibility and interdependence of those within the communities.

This is a really good book, though I suggest skipping section three, and going directly to the appendix, where you'll find the methodology for changing a habit:

  • Identify the routine
  • Experiment with rewards
  • Isolate the cue
  • Have a plan

If you're interesting in changing a habit, you can usually either change the routine, which may be a bad one, or the reward for the routine, which may also be bad. For example the routine may be slumping on the couch in front of the tv, instead of going for a walk or run. The reward may be grabbing that extra latte at Starbucks on the way home from work, when you're trying to stay on budget. In one case you want to change the routine, the other you want to change the reward that results from the routine.

Good stuff. Food for thought.

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