Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business
Life gets busy. Has The Power of Habit been gathering dust on your bookshelf? Instead, pick up the key ideas now.
The Power of Habit recounts numerous helpful illustrations of the role of habits in individuals, organizations, and societies. After illustrating the role of habits, Duhigg identifies practical techniques to harness the power of habits for your own benefit. The power of habit is the ability to automate willpower by turning a painfully scarce resource into an infinite one.
About Charles Duhigg
Charles Duhigg is an investigative reporter for The New York Times. He is a winner of the National Academies of Sciences, National Journalism, and George Polk Awards, and was a 2009 Pulitzer Prize finalist. He is a frequent contributor to This American Life, NPR, PBS NewsHour, and Frontline. A graduate of Harvard Business School and Yale College, he lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two kids.
Shot #1 – Habits Aren’t Built on Memory
The book begins with the story of Eugene Pauly, a 71-year-old man who lost the medial temporal lobe of his brain to viral encephalitis. The rest of Eugene’s brain remained perfectly intact. So, he had no problem remembering anything that occurred before 1960 but suffered from total short-term memory loss. Eugene was unable to retain the knowledge of any new event for more than a minute. To make sure Eugene got some exercise, his wife had begun taking him on a walk around the block each day. One day, she became frantic when he disappeared. He showed up 15 minutes later after taking a walk by himself. He couldn’t draw a simple map of his block or even tell you where his house was. But Eugene had demonstrated what scientists had suspected. Habits are formed and operate entirely separately from the part of the brain responsible for memory.
Shot #2 – The Three Steps of Developing a Habit
The habit process consists of a three-step loop:
1. Cue – A trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which routine to use.
2. Routine – Physical, mental, or emotional behavior that follows the cue.
3. Reward – A positive stimulus that tells your brain that the routine works well and is worth remembering.
Simply understanding how habits work makes them much easier to control. By learning to observe the cues and rewards, we can change the routines.
Shot #3 – Using Habits for Marketing
In early 20th century America, hardly anyone brushed their teeth. During World War I, so many recruits had rotting teeth that government officials declared poor dental hygiene a national security risk. That all changed when a marketing genius, Claude Hopkins, was convinced by an old friend to apply his skills to toothpaste.
Claude was the man responsible for taking unknown products like Goodyear and Quaker Oats and turning them into household names. His signature tactic was to tap into the habit loop by anchoring the product to a specific trigger, regardless of how preposterous the connection. For example, Quaker Oats owes its success to Claude convincing America that it provided 24-hour energy if you ate it daily.
P&G learned that a habit is only formed when the brain begins to anticipate and crave the reward when the cue is introduced. P&G’s Febreze couldn’t sell a product that provides scentlessness because there is no cue available for the brain to anticipate. Febreze sales went through the roof once P&G began marketing the product as an air freshener. Febreze became a product used as the final step of a cleaning routine. Once people tried the product, they craved the clean smell from that finishing spritz of Febreze.
Shot #4 – Utilize Habits by Keeping Things Simple
Tony Dungy changed American football with a counterintuitive coaching approach. Instead of trying to outmatch his opponents with thicker playbooks and complex schemes, Tony drilled his team on only a few key plays. He did everything he could to get his team to stop thinking and react based on habit.
Tony knew that habits can’t usually be overcome. Instead, a habit can only be changed if a new routine is successfully inserted into the process. The new habit must have the same cue and the same reward. He trained his team to automatically link the cues they already knew to different on-field routines. These alternative routines involved less complexity, fewer choices, and more subconscious reactions. Tony managed to turn two abysmal teams into championship contenders.
Shot #5 – Develop Keystone Habits
In October 1987, Paul O’Neill became the new CEO of Fortune 500 manufacturer Alcoa. Paul understood you can’t order people to change. So, he decided to start by focusing on one thing. By disrupting one habit, he allowed it to spread throughout the company. This is what Duhigg calls a keystone habit. Paul’s keystone habit loop was that an injury (cue) had to be met by the unit president with an injury report and action plan within 24 hours (routine). Compliance with this habit would be met with promotions (reward). For a unit president to meet the 24-hour deadline, he needed to hear about the injury from his VP as soon as it happened. The VP had to be in constant communication with the floor managers. The floor managers had to rely on the workers for safety suggestions. As these patterns shifted to meet the safety requirements, other aspects of the company also began to change. Better safety quickly translated into increased quality and efficiency. Alcoa’s income had risen 500%, and its market capitalization had increased by $27 billion.
Shot #6 – Use Small Wins to Apply Keystone Habits
There is a vast chasm between understanding this principle and applying it. Identification of a relevant keystone habit requires a trial-and-error approach. The authors suggest you aim to find a “small win.” Small wins are minor advantages that set into motion patterns that have a much larger impact. For example, a 2009 weight loss study found one such “small win.” The researchers instructed one group of participants to make no lifestyle changes other than keeping a daily food log about what they ate. The participants naturally began to identify patterns, which made them want to do a better job of planning ahead for their meals. This planning was associated with healthier eating. The group that kept the food log lost twice as much weight as the other study participants.
Shot #7 – Willpower Is Essential for Success but Is Limited
Scientists have known for many years that willpower is an essential ingredient for success. Willpower is even more crucial than intelligence. In one famous Stanford study from the 1960s, researchers sat down four-year-olds at a table with a single marshmallow. The researchers told them that they could either eat it immediately or wait until the researcher returned 15 minutes later. If they waited, they would earn an extra marshmallow. The researchers later tracked down the kids when they were in high school. They found that those who could maintain their self-control as four-year-olds had better grades, SAT scores, and social success.
We all have a limited supply of willpower. In a Case Western study from the 1990s, researchers instructed a group of undergraduate students to skip a meal. They were then sat down together, each in front of two bowls. One bowl contained chocolate chip cookies, while the other held somewhat less appetizing radishes. Half were told to eat only the cookies, and the others were told to only eat the radishes. The researchers then gave the students an impossible puzzle to complete.
None of the students knew that the puzzle was impossible. Despite this, the students who had just consumed the radishes gave up far sooner than the students who had just eaten the cookies. Specifically, they averaged eight minutes compared to 19 minutes for the cookie group. This 60% disparity was caused by the depletion of the radish eaters’ willpower. So, you don’t want to waste your willpower in the morning on tedious, unimportant tasks like writing emails.
Shot #8 – Use Habits to Increase Willpower
Many studies have shown that by exercising willpower in one area, you will increase your willpower reserve. That said, the most effective approach to improve willpower is by utilizing habits. Specifically, methodical planning of a routine for inflection points (cues) where pain and temptation are the strongest. Starbucks’ training systems guide employees by identifying inflection points and matching them to one of the company’s dozens of routines. By choosing a specific behavior ahead of time, willpower becomes a habit. Employees can then provide a high level of service.
Finally, it is clear that people perform better, and have much greater willpower, when they feel like what they are doing is a personal choice. When people are merely following orders, willpower diminishes.
Shot #9 – Remember People Have Unique Habits
Habits are unique to each person. If you want to take advantage of this knowledge about how people buy products, you can’t use one-size-fits-all sales or marketing techniques.
As a solution, companies like Target have been collecting individualized shopping data for the past decade or so. They can accomplish this by using credit, loyalty, rewards, and frequent shopper cards. The algorithms then observe behaviors like buying cereal but not milk. After identifying these behaviors, the algorithm will calculate you must be purchasing your milk elsewhere. Subsequently, you will then receive coupons for milk.
Companies that use these advanced data mining techniques have also learned that significant life events impact purchasing habits. As a result, these corporations are extremely interested in identifying when you experience a job change, relationship change, or birth of a child. When Target deduces that you’re pregnant, you’ll get coupons for diapers and maternity clothes.
The lesson here is not merely to be suspicious of the industry’s manipulation of your habits. Instead, realize it is a supremely powerful tool to sandwich a new habit you wish to nurture between your already existing routines.
Shot #10 – Our Brains Determine Our Habits
In 2010, a cognitive neuroscience researcher compared the brains of pathological gamblers against merely social gamblers. The social gamblers correctly registered the near misses as losses, while pathological gamblers registered them as wins. This is a crucial difference in the habit loop. After the cue of the near-miss, the pathological gambler’s mind provides a reward. This reward encourages a habit loop that leads to more gambling. The same cue in a social gambler’s mind only leads to a reward when he or she stops gambling. This subtle difference in habit loop is responsible for the gambling industry’s profitability.
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