Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Power of Habit

The book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business was written by journalist Charles Duhigg who became interested in habits while covering the Iraq war after observing US troops quickly and calmly respond to attacks. He learned that most military training is teaching soldiers habits so they know what to do without thinking. The author explains how habits allow us to do complex tasks without thinking, like driving a car, cooking breakfast, and walking in a familiar place.

Much of the new understanding about habits is from Eugene Pauly who had significant brain damage caused by a viral infection at age 70. Though much of his brain was destroyed by the virus including his ability to make new memories, he was able to perform complex tasks that had been established as existing habits and create new habits. By studying Pauly, scientists discovered that habits are stored in the basal ganglia, the small primitive part of the brain. Habits make up over 40% of our daily activities, which makes us very dependent on this small part of our brain. If we had to think (in our cerebral cortex) through every action we take during the day we would quickly become exhausted and unable to function. Habits are instantaneous responses to stimuli; if a child jumps in front of your car you slam on the brakes without thinking.

Habits are described as behavior loops that start with a cue like being hungry, followed by a behavior, like cooking breakfast, and ending with a reward like feeling full.  All habits start out with a craving of some kind, like a craving for food, or a craving for stimulation or socialization. Habits effectively satisfy a craving by an automatic behavior.  This seems a bit simplistic of an explanation to me considering that habits can be formed without a craving through external pressures, like a job or by your own initiative.

Although habits are powerful and never really go away, they are also fragile and can be altered by small changes to the cue. An example given was the loss of customers to a McDonalds that moved just a block away; the cue at the specific place where drivers saw the McDonalds sign was disrupted and that stopped their behavior of driving in for food.

The author states that to gain control over a habit we must understand what craving is being satisfied by the behavior. To uncover the unconscious craving  we must experiment by giving ourselves different rewards. The author gives a personal example of his cookie craving in the afternoon at work. His routine was to go to the cafeteria, buy a cookie, and talk to people while he ate it. He didn’t know if the craving was for food, stimulation, or socialization. To test out food, he brought an apple to work and ate at his desk. This did not stop his afternoon cookie craving. The next day he went for a walk around the block and that didn’t stop his craving either. Finally, he tried leaving his desk to talk to people and that stopped his craving. So he set an alarm 30 minutes before he normally went to get a cookie in the afternoon and instead talked to coworkers for ten minutes and no longer craved his afternoon cookie.

I found the description of keystone habits very useful. Keystone habits are good habits that lead to developing other good habits. One example of a keystone habit is daily exercise. Once daily exercise becomes a habit, it can lead to a habit of controlling spending, drinking less alcohol, and eating less. For weight loss, keystone habits are keeping a daily food journal and recording your weight every day.  Studies have found people who exhibit these two habits lose more weight than people who don’t have these habits. I am trying to develop these keystone habits to see if they will help me take off the ten pounds I have put on since moving to Oahu.

Another keystone habit is keeping a “conflict planning journal”, which leads to preparation for difficult circumstances. By writing down ahead of time how you are going to deal with a conflict, for instance how will you deal with a really hostile customer, you will be less upset and emotional when it happens. Being less upset leads to other positive things.

The author described successful organizations that teach their employees habits to make their businesses more effective and profitable. Alco Aluminum increased their profits by 500% by developing safety habits in their employees. Starbucks teaches their employees communication habits to deal with hostile customers. A low ranked NFL team became top ranked by teaching their players better football habits.


Although some of the author’s claims in this book are thin and there is minimal discussion about how to create habits, I found the book worth reading and recommend it.  Five stars.

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