The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
A STUDY by Duke University researchers in 2006 found that
more than 40% of the actions people performed each day weren't actual
decisions, but habits.
In the past decade, our understanding of the neurology and
psychology of habits and the way patterns work in our lives, societies, and
organizations has expanded in ways we couldn't have imagined 50 years ago.
know why habits emerge, how they change, and the science behind their
mechanics. Duhigg applies these insights in three contexts – the individual,
the organiSational, and societal.
Habit replacement or eradication is virtually impossible
without an understanding of the three-step loop of habit formation. First, there
is a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to
Then there is the routine, which can be physical, mental or
emotional. Finally, there is a reward,
which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering
for the future.
With time, this loop – cue, routine, reward; cue, routine,
reward – becomes more and more automatic. When a habit emerges, the brain stops
fully participating in decision making which is a good thing because without
the loops, our brains would shut down, overwhelmed by the minutia of daily
Simply understanding how habits work makes them easier to
In the early 1900s the health of Americans' teeth was in
steep decline as the nation had become wealthier, and people started buying
larger amounts of sugary, processed foods.
When the government started drafting
men for World War I, so many recruits had rotting teeth that officials declared
dental hygiene a national security risk. At the time only 7% of Americans had a
tube of toothpaste in their medicine chests.
A decade later that number jumped
The change was caused by advertising produced by Claude
Hopkins. He had been approached by a friend who had discovered a new
toothpaste, a minty, frothy concoction he called Pepsodent.
The success story,
as told by Hopkins, required educating the nation on the importance of
toothbrushing and then to have them choose Pepsodent continuously. Hopkins
projected the mucin plaque that forms on teeth as a “cloudy film” that obscures
the whiteness of your teeth and the beauty of your smile.
The cue was the
feeling of film on one’s teeth, the routine was brushing, and the reward was a
beautiful Pepsodent smile, just like Shirley Temple and Clark Gable. (More careful
investigation identified the fresh sensation after brushing as the reward
rather the promise of a beautiful smile.)
It became one of the world’s
best-selling consumer goods and remained so for more than 30 years.
The golden rule of habit change that emerges from a plethora
of research is that if you use the same cue, and provide the same reward, you
need only insert a new routine. You cannot extinguish a bad habit; you can only
Duhigg describes how the golden rule has influenced the treatment
for alcoholism, obesity, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and hundreds of other
destructive behaviours, and how an understanding the loop can help anyone
change their own habits.
OrganiSations have been effectively transformed through the
understanding of habits. Duhigg sites Alcoa and Starbucks as examples of how leaders identified
keystone habits and built them into their organisations with profound impact on
the bottom line.
enjoying decades of success Alcoa, the giant American aluminium manufacturer, was beginning to make misstep after misstep. There
was some relief among shareholders when the board announced the appointment of
a former government bureaucrat named Paul O'Neill as CEO, and scheduled an
opportunity for investors to meet him.
Investor relief turned to horror as
O'Neill announced that he intended to make Alcoa the safest place to work in
America – no mention of boosting profits, lowering costs, new “synergies”,
“rightsizing”, “co-opetition” or other buzz words that are the standard in a
new CEOs speech.
He even pointed out the safety exists in the hall in which
they were gathered.
Many thought he would kill the company and immediately sold
their holdings, only to deeply regret it when within a year profits hit a
record high. When O’Neill left the company its net income was five times larger
than when he arrived.
O'Neill had identified a keystone habit which he drove
relentlessly through the organisation.
He told staff, unions and managers that
he was happy to negotiate with them about anything, but that there was one
thing he would never negotiate with them and that was worker safety in Alcoa’s
very dangerous environment.
“If you want to argue with me about that, you are
going to lose.” He demanded weekly reports on safety issues, participated in
safety investigations, and fired very senior executive jeopardising a
joint-venture safety violation.
The obsession with safety created an environment committed
to excellence and discipline. The genius of choosing this keystone habit was
that no one would raise objection, not staff, not unions and not management.
When Starbucks founder, Howard Schultz, returned to take
control of his faltering 17 000 store enterprise, he put in place to keystone
habit very similar to that of O'Neill.
Among other changes, he placed great
emphasis on the courteous manner in which baristas served every cup of coffee
to every customer, every time.
The training processes utilised the best
insights into habit formation and focused on the development of self-discipline
under the trying conditions of a quick service coffee shop.
“We're in the people business serving coffee. The entire
business model is based on fantastic customer service. Without that, we're
The solution for Starbucks was to turn the self-discipline required to
exhibit nothing but courteous service into an organisational habit. Their
financial results are testimony to the efficacy of the approach.
The implications of this book are wide-ranging and powerful.
Of the many books that have come out recently dealing with behavioural
psychology and sociology, The Power of Habit is one of the most accessible and
Readability: Light -+--- Serious
*Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership