The Power of Habit

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

“All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits” -William James

Many of the decisions we make are due to our habits. The Power of Habit explores what habits are and how they have been used or changed in organizations and societies. The book argues that habits can be changed if we understand how they work.

Understanding Habits
Habits are formed in a three-step process consisting of a cue, routine, and reward. The cue triggers your brain to take an action. The routine can be physical, mental, or emotional. The reward tells your brain whether this loop is worth remembering. Over time this loop becomes more automatic and the cue and reward become intertwined. Habits are formed when this occurs. You start anticipating the reward at the cue, which causes cravings for the routine. This becomes a self-sustaining behavior that is very difficult to change.

Changing Habits
According to the golden rule of habit change, you must keep the old cue, provide the same reward, but change the routine. This requires thought and experimentation. For certain behaviors, the reward may not be clear. You can experiment with different routines to see if it satisfies that particular craving. Alcoholics Anonymous is an organization that strives to create a system of meetings and companionship with the goal of providing escape, distraction, or catharsis. In many instances, drinking was way to gain relief. Participating in AA provides the same relief, but with a different routine. While understanding this dynamic is clearly important, researchers discovered another important ingredient. Change was more likely when the participants believed they could change. AA works well because it surrounds participants with other people who had overcome the same issues leading them to believe that they can change too. Belief tends to grow out of a communal experience (even two people), so trying to change with other people is more effective.

Keystone Habits
Keystone habits are major habits that can have a cascading effect on your life or organization. If you change this, other behaviors will follow. When Paul O’Neil became the new CEO of Alcoa, his priority was on worker safety. This emphasis cascaded throughout the organization and resulted in significant benefits. He welcomed safety ideas from workers and this transformed into workers generating new ideas in other areas for the company. They used e-mail for safety reports and that transformed into a tool the company used to transmit business intelligence data years before their competitors started using e-mail.

Willpower is a limited resource, but when you strengthen it, it can spillover into other areas of your life. You can strengthen willpower by anticipating inflection points, or times when your willpower will be tested. Have a plan and know how you will behave in these instances. Finally, researchers have discovered that individuals use less willpower when they feel a sense of control vs. when they are treated like cogs.

Power of Crisis
An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change, published in 1982, was hailed as one of the most important business texts of the century. The authors observed that organizations were not necessarily making rational choices based on deliberate decision making. Decisions were actually made by long-held organizational habits that arose from thousands of employees’ independent decisions. These typically resulted in departmental truces that allowed for work to get done. While these routines are immensely important, sometimes they are insufficient and can have disastrous results. When this happens good leaders should take the opportunity to reform organizational habits.

A major fire occurred at King’s Cross in 1987 claiming 31 lives. There were strict informal guidelines and territorial behaviors. No one had full responsibility for patient safety. During a special investigation following the event, it was discovered that fire safety hazards had been known about for years. Afterwards, leadership and the culture of the Underground was overhauled. New habits were put in place so every employee now had an obligation to communicate at the smallest hint of risk.

Dress New Habits in Old Clothes
One method of instituting new habits is by dressing it in something that people are familiar with. Target identified pregnant women based on purchasing behaviors. Instead of making the customers uncomfortable by sending blatant baby item ads, they included targeted ads in normal ad booklets. “Hey Ya!” by Outcast wasn’t initially popular because it was a different sound than what listeners were used to. DJs sandwiched the song between two popular songs. The song went on to win a Grammy and sell more than 5.5 million albums.

How Movements Happen
Social movements start because of close relationships. They are able to grow due to weak ties that hold a community together. They last when a leader gives the participants a new sense of identity and ownership.

An interesting comparison was made between a man who killed his wife in his sleep and a gambling addict who was sued for money she had borrowed. Both sides argued they had no control over their behaviors, but the man was let go while the addict was held accountable. The book makes the distinction that the man never knew of the patterns that drove him to kill while the woman was aware of her habits. We are aware of our habits and have the responsibility and freedom to change them.


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