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It is often said that we are creatures of habit, in that many of our daily activities end up being a matter of routine rather than direct deliberation (just think of your morning run-through). While this is no doubt true, author Charles Duhigg insists that this is but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the impact that habits have on our daily lives. Indeed, in his new book ‘The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business’ Duhigg argues that habits pervade not only our personal lives, but that they have an integral role to play in the businesses and other organizations of which we are a part, and that they are also at the heart of social movements and societies at large.
Given that this is the case, and given that there is a world of difference between good habits and bad, getting our habits right can mean the difference between success and failure not only in our personal lives, but in our professional lives, and in the communities in which we live. Now, while our habits may be deeply ingrained, most of us recognize that they can be changed, and indeed Duhigg argues that a proper understanding of our habits reveals not only that they can be changed, but also the most effective ways to change them. It remains only for us to use these lessons to help improve ourselves as well as the organizations and communities of which we are a part.
The first part of the book focuses on the role that habits play in our personal lives. Here we learn about the habit loop consisting of cue, routine, and reward, and how the elements in this loop can be manipulated to help modify our habits (say from crashing on the couch with a bag of chips, to heading out for a run). We also learn about the power of particular habits called keystone habits (which include exercise, as well as eating together as a family) that help initiate a domino effect that touches all of the other aspects of our lives. Also, we learn about the power of belief—and the importance of social groups in helping create this belief—that stands behind successful habit transformation programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous.
The second part of the book concentrates on how habits help shape businesses and organizations. Here we learn that the formation of habits and routines within organizations is unavoidable; what’s more, that it is always best for the leadership of a group to make a deliberate effort to shape the habits of their organizations, and in a way that ensures a high degree of equality and fairness for its various members, while nonetheless making it clear who is ultimately in charge of each particular aspect of the operation. Second, we learn that keystone habits—which are at the center of our personal lives—are also pivotal when it comes to larger organizations (and how a particular keystone habit was applied to resurrect the once great but flailing American aluminum company Alcoa). We also learn about the greatest keystone habit of all: willpower, and how this habit can best be cultivated (and how companies such as Starbucks are employing these lessons to help train employees successfully). Finally, we learn about how companies such as Proctor & Gamble and Target instill habits in their customers.
The third and final part of the book examines the importance of habits in social movements, such as the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. Here we learn that movements tend to follow a three-part process. To start with, a movement tends to begin with a group of close acquaintances and friends. The movement tends to grow when these people spread it to the broader communities of which they are a part. Finally, in order to really take hold and spread, the movement must be guided forward by an effective leader who lays down new habits for the movement’s adherents in a way that allows them to gain a sense of identity.
What follows is a full executive summary of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg.
1. The Importance of Habits
While we may agree with the statement that we humans are creatures of habit, it is easy to underestimate how much this is truly the case. Just consider the following list of questions about your daily routine, and how often your answers to these questions reveal deep-seated habits: “when you woke up this morning, what did you do first? Did you hop in the shower, check your email, or grab a doughnut from the kitchen counter? Did you brush your teeth before or after you toweled off? Tie the left or right shoe first? What did you say to your kids on your way out the door? Which route did you drive to work? When you got to your desk, did you deal with email, chat with a colleague, or jump into writing a memo? Salad or hamburger for lunch? When you got home, did you put on your sneakers and go for a run, or pour yourself a drink and eat dinner in front of the TV” (loc. 126). These questions could easily continue on through your evening routine up until the time that you tuck your children in and go to sleep yourself, but you get the picture: for most of us, the answers to these questions betray deeply ingrained daily habits. Given that this is the case, it comes as no surprise that a study in 2006 out of Duke University found that “more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits (loc. 133).
Of course, there was a time when each of us did make a conscious decision about how we would handle any one of the alternatives mentioned above. However, once these decisions were made, our deliberative minds stepped out of the picture, and our behaviours were reduced to habit. As Duhigg explains it, “at one point, we all consciously decided how much to eat and what to focus on when we got to the office, how often to have a drink or when to go for a jog. Then we stopped making a choice, and the behaviour became automatic” (loc. 157).
When it comes to our habits, some of them are extremely simple, such as applying the toothpaste to the toothbrush before sticking it into our mouths (loc. 420). However, other habits are extremely complex, such as backing the car out of the driveway: “it involves opening the garage, unlocking the car door, adjusting the seat, inserting the key in the ignition, turning it clockwise, moving the rearview and side mirrors and checking for obstacles, putting your foot on the brake, moving the gearshift into reverse, removing your foot from the brake, mentally estimating the distance between the garage and the street while keeping the wheels aligned and monitoring for oncoming traffic, calculating how reflected images in the mirrors translate into actual distances between the bumper, the garbage cans, and the hedges, all while applying slight pressure to the gas pedal and brake, and, most likely, telling your passenger to please stop fiddling with the radio” (loc. 429).
There is a very good reason, of course, for our tendency to form habits around out daily activities, simple and complex alike. For any behaviour that can be reduced to a routine is one less behaviour that we must spend time and energy consciously thinking about and deciding upon. This frees up time and energy for other matters. Indeed, as Duhigg points out, “once that habit starts unfolding, our gray matter is free to quiet itself or chase other thoughts, which is why we have enough mental capacity to realize that Jimmy forgot his lunchbox inside” (loc. 432).
Conserving mental energy where possible has enormous adaptive value, of course, and therefore, it is quite likely that the tendency to form habits evolved in our species, as well as in other species, for just this reason. As Duhigg puts it, “this effort-saving instinct is a huge advantage… [for] an efficient brain… allows us to stop thinking constantly about basic behaviours, such as walking and choosing what to eat, so we can devote mental energy to inventing spears, irrigation systems, and, eventually, airplanes and video games” (loc. 438).
So how does it work? How do our brains fall into habits? According to Duhigg, it comes down to a simple, three part loop: cue, routine and reward. In the author’s own words, “first, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future” (loc. 454).
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