The Power of Habit

Pulitzer prize winner and a business reporter with New York Times, Charles Duhigg is the man behind the book that became a phenomenon. In the Power of Habit, he not only reveals the science behind how habits are created but also reviews the more pertinent question of how to change them. Published in 2012, the book sold over 2 million copies worldwide and spent 90 weeks on New York Times’ best seller lists. But a lot of people have spoken about habits before and we have already become bored with the sermons on ‘Change your habit’, starting from parents in childhood, to teachers in schools, to professors in colleges, to bosses in companies and finally to wives after marriage. If we haven’t changed after so many years of advice, why would a book have an impact on us? Seems like a very pertinent question. Let me attempt to answer it.

Charles Duhigg

The Importance of 'Why'

Have you ever wondered what propels you to make a particular choice? Have you ever analyzed why did a particular advertisement let’s say from Apple influences you to buy the latest iPhone whereas the advertisement from Nokia is not that appealing. The best answer to that has been given by Simon Sinek in his TEDx Talk on “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” that went on to become the 3rd most watched video on TED.

Ted Talk by Simon Sinek - Start with the Why

If you still haven’t watched this video, I am not sure if you are living on this planet. (However, no issues if you are reading this article on Mars.) Basically, according to his research one should begin with the ‘Why’ and then comes the ‘How’ and at the end the ‘What’. This is just opposite to the cycle, in which we are usually compelled to carry out things. People will tell you to ‘buy phone’ which is the ‘What’. Then they tell you ’12 megapixel camera, 2GB quad core processor, 16 GB memory ’, the ‘How’. And finally they don’t even come down to ‘Why’.

Now look at Apple, how they pitch with, “In everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo and thinking differently. We do this by making our products beautifully designed and simple to use. We just happen to make great computers – wanna buy one?” That pitch is worth its weight in gold and no doubt it has led Apple to become the company with the highest valuation on Dow Jones. It seems we are digressing from the topic at hand, but even if by going to all that extent if you are convinced about the ‘Why’ power, Charles Duhigg will make it worthwhile. He will help you explore the ‘Why’ for habits through cutting edge scientific research and phenomenal anecdotes from top CEOs on how they successfully brought about a habit change which enabled their company to take the next leap.

P&G used the Power of Habit for Febreze

Why should you read 'The Power of Habit'

There are various anecdotes in the book about the effective use of the knowledge of formation of habits. One of the experiences is about the marketers at Procter & Gamble, one of the “World’s Most Admired Companies”. They were desperate in trying to sell a new product called Febreze which was well on its way to be the worst product ever in the entire history of the company in terms of sales. So they decided to watch videos of people cleaning their house to study the process in detail. And suddenly they spotted a barely noticeable practice. This habit was then targeted by changing the advertisement a bit, and Febreze became a roaring success with more than a billion dollar in sales.

But perhaps the most interesting anecdote is about a new CEO taking over one of the largest aluminum producers in the world, Alcoa. At his first meeting with the investors – where the expectation is to promise stronger sales and better financials – he emphasized about the significance of safety at production companies. Next day the stock nose-dived. But what others didn’t know was the fact, that the new CEO had spotted a ‘keystone habit’ and soon the firm Alcoa became the top performer on Dow Jones. Thus, to increase sales, create innovative companies and to be more productive, understand about habits.

Habit forming loop

How Habits are Created?

Now, we have addressed the ‘Why’ part let’s move to the ‘How’ part. Habits are created by brain to conserve mental energy so that every time in doing the routine tasks energy is not consumed and be used for more complex and new issues. The author then talks of how habits are created. The ‘habit loop’ consists of a cue – a signal, a routine – a repeated activity and a reward – the prize. Take the instance of checking email. As soon as new mail comes, the blackberry starts vibrating – the ‘cue’, the brain starts craving the brief disturbance – the ‘reward’, that checking the mail – the ‘routine’, would provide. That suspense, when left unchecked, can shoot up until every employee in a meeting is busy in scanning their blackberry under the table, even though it might be the latest cricket score.

The Golden Rule of Habit Change

Now after knowing how we create habit, we need to know how we eliminate a bad habit. Here comes the Golden rule of Habit Change – “A bad habit can’t be eliminated, it can be only be changed.” And how does it work? Use the same cue, provide the same reward but change the routine. In the case of P&G, the odor-remover product Febreze was turning to a failure as no one wanted to admit their house stinks. However, they spotted a habit whenever a person cleaned the room or made bed they felt a sense of accomplishment which can be further enriched by adding a nice smell on top of that. And the sales of Febreze grew rapidly not as an odor remover, but as a nice feel at the end of the cleaning routine.

Change habit

Similarly, in the case of the aluminium company, the new CEO picked up a keystone habit – a little practice that if adopted would bring about massive transformation. In this case, the habit of workplace safety aligned the interests of employees (who didn’t want to get injured), management (who hated to have to deal with missing staff and the paperwork around injury claims), and investors (who paid for injury claims and downtime). Within a few years Alcoa – a company dealing with molten metal – became a safer place to work in as compared to a graphic design company. Also, the efficiency gained by making Alcoa a safer place to work and the productivity increase from less downtime had driven up profits significantly. This conveys the power of a keystone habit. However, spotting the right keystone habit is the trick and if you keep trying eventually it would become a habit to spot the right one in the first instance.

The book also takes you through a ride to visit laboratories where neuroscientists explore how habits work. You discover how the right habits were crucial for the triumph of the most decorated Olympic gold medalist of all times - Michael Phelps, the man who took a simple activity like drinking coffee and made it a nationwide sensation – Howard Schultz, the man behind Starbucks and the man knows for his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, Martin Luther King. It also gives you a ride through locker rooms at NFL and Target superstores to show keystone habits that have made billions. Thus is here the final marketing line for The Power of Habit that will compel you to read the book. “The key to weight-loss, creating innovative companies and social movements, and achieving success, is the understanding of how habits work. We have just written a book on it with cutting edge scientific research. Wanna buy one?”

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business
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(price as of Oct 27, 2016)