Book Review: The Power of Habit

Have you ever asked yourself how you accomplish most things without actually ever thinking about them. When you brush your teeth, tie your shoe laces, drive to work.

I bet 99% of the time you do the same thing. Move your head in the same way, tie your right shoe laces before your left and take the same journey to work every time, maybe even park in the same spot. This is habit; when the unconscious mind kicks in without us even realising it.

What is “habit” and how does it manifest itself? Charles Duhigg investigates the origins of habit and what makes a “habit” truly a habit.

Duhigg begins with a patient, Eugene Pauly, who exhibits short-term memory problems. As a consequence of his short-term memory issues, Eugene would become frustrated with remaining in the house. Unable to perform most simple tasks he would resort to making the same food for lunch, watch the same familiar TV shows. However, he would become angry and let frustration get the better of him.

One afternoon, upon arriving home, Eugene's wife found the keys gone and Eugene nowhere to be seen. Fearful that he had gone for a walk and would have trouble finding his way home, since he was incapable of remembering even simple directions, she notified the police. To her relief Eugene returned.

How did a man, who could not make any short-term memories remember his way home after long walk?

Grey Matter

Prior to his death, Eugene Pauly undertook studies of his brain to determine how he was able to take walks and make his way back despite not being able to recall the route.

The answer lies deep in the recesses of our own mind. A piece of round grey matter called the Basal Ganglia. Many studies have led us to believe that the Basal Ganglia is closely involved in “Action Selection.” In other words, it helps us choose which action to take next based on certain factors.

In particular, it helps us to choose, based on particular dopamine levels in the brain, which habits provide the most reward allowing us to decide between two or more actions with relatively little effort.

Over time, as a behaviour becomes habitual, scientists noticed that the basal ganglia experiences less activity. This strongly suggests that behaviours become hard-wired into our neural pathways, almost as if we can rewire our behaviour through habit.

What Is a Habit?

Our traditional belief is that a habit is behaviour that is formed by repetitive similar actions. By this we mean either the surroundings and/or things around us are similar when we carry out the act.

Duhigg distills this concept yet further into three distinct parts:

  • Habits start with a Cue - This is a trigger that tells the brain to enter into automatic mode. A cue can be internal, such as a feeling or thought. External, such as a time of day or the company of particular people.
  • The second and probably the main part is the routine. This is the actual behaviour we carry out when we are being habitual. This can be physical (eating something we like), cognitive (“revision for a test”), or emotional (a ”thought”).
  • Lastly we have the reward. This must be something that makes the habit and behaviour worth remembering. Whether that be through something physical or pleasurable (“sugar”!), cognitive (thinking that something is “interesting” or “entertaining”) or emotional (such as just feeling “relaxed”).

In the book, lab scientists demonstrate this theory using lab rats placed in a T-shaped maze with a piece of chocolate placed in one of the corners. Each rat in the maze initially be penned in by a gate that would open with a “click” (“the cue”). The rats would then meander the maze up and down the central aisle, presumably smelling the chocolate but not recognising how to get to it.

Eventually the rats would find their way to the chocolate but not without much exertion. Probes monitoring their brain activity confirmed whilst scratching and sniffing in the corners their brains appeared to show spikes of activity with their brains working furiously throughout.

However, an interesting thing happened. With repeated experiments the rats would traverse the maze more and more quickly (the “routine”) but their brain activity actually decreased. As traversing the maze became more of a habit it took less and less effort.

Humans form habits every day. From brushing our teeth, to making breakfast for our kids, to backing our car out of our drive.

Changing a Cue can Change a Habit

If we can understand how habits are formed we put ourself in a powerful position of being able to control them.

In a small Iraqi town called Kufa, an Army Major analysed many videotapes of riots that occurred near the local town plaza. Over the course of a few hours each night, crowds would swell. Citizens would chant and shout, food vendors would show up, someone would throw something like a rock or a bottle and riots would break out.

The next time the Major met Kufa's mayor, he made an odd request to ban food vendors from the Plaza. The mayor agreed and several days afterwards, sure enough crowds gathered. Some people chanted angry slogans. After a few hours they became restless and hungry. They looked for the traditional vendors filling the Plaza but they were nowhere to be seen.

Spectators, growing increasingly hungry, decided to head home and the crows dissipated. By 8pm everyone was gone.

We can change behaviour if we need to. By leaving the same cue in place and changing the routine on which we practise, we can reward ourselves in different ways.

Habits in the World of Business

Whilst altering habits can be a great way to drive positive behavioural change in people, such as in the case of Alcoholics Anonymous, where people focus on habits rather than any changes on a scientific basis, it can also be a fantastic way in which to drive your business and commercial decisions.

Our next story starts with a well known product by Procter & Gamble (P&G), Febreze. In today's world Febreze is a well-known household brand used in many houses the world over, however, this wasn't always the way.

When Febreze was tested in markets in 1993 it was marketed as a product that eliminated unpleasant odours. Ads were frequently run with a clear message: a woman who regularly eats in the smoking section of a restaurant complains. After she eats their her jacket stinks of cigarette smoke - the cue.
She eliminates the odour by spraying her jacket with Febreze where a fresh smelling jacket is her reward.

However, Febreze bombed. P&G were ready to pull the product following slow sales that declined.

Panicked marketers struggling to figure out why their hit product wasn't selling, went out in force to consumers homes to canvass them about their ailing product. They visited a woman's house in Phoenix, owner of nine cats, and walked into her living room. One P&G. scientist found the pungent smell so strong they gagged.

“What do you do about the cat smell?” asks one researcher.

“It's usually not a problem,” she said.

“Do you smell it now?”

“No,” she said. “Isn't it wonderful? They hardly smell at all!”

Our problem is as humans, our senses become desensitised to bad smells we regularly smell. Even strong odours fade over time. Febreze was a failure for this very reason.

Changing our Behaviour

So, P&G decided to hire a Harvard Business School professor to analyse their adverts. They ended up collecting and analysing hours of footage of customers cleaning their homes trying to find clues that would allow them to tie Febreze to their daily habits.

One customer in particular that they visited during this research period, a woman from a suburb near Scottsdale Arizona, in her 40s with four children.

She ran a clean house with no odour problems in particular; no pets or smokers but was an obsessive user of Febreze.

“I use it every day,” the woman noted.

The research asks, “What smells are you trying to get rid of?”

“I don't really use it for specific smells,” she says. “I use it for normal cleaning -- a couple of sprays when I'm done in a room.”

“Spray feels like a little mini-celebration when I'm done with a room.”

Watching scene after scene from the footage highlighted their error. They weren't using Febreze to eliminate odours during the clean. They were using it at the end as part of a ritual rather than during the cleaning routine. The company filmed a new ad with this in mind. A woman standing in a clean room (cue), finishing off with a few quick sprays of the Febreze (routine) and smiles with satisfaction that the job is done (reward).

Over the next two years, Febreze made sales of $230 million.

Duhigg explains many other examples where corporations have used habit to form positive behavioural change.

From Rags to Riches

Howard Schultz was born in 1953 into an incredibly poor family from the Bay View housing project in Brooklyn, New York. His mother was a receptionist and his father was a blu-collar worker taking any job that could help his family get by including a truck driver, factory worker and a cab driver.

Whilst working as a truck driver (Schultz was the age of 7 at the time), his father broke his ankle whilst on a delivery. Neither his mother nor his father had health insurance or compensation, leaving his family with next to no income.

Schultz claims it was memories of how his father lay on the sofa with his leg in the cast, completely stripped of dignity and meaning in his life, that drove him to create one of world's most successful and well known brands, Starbucks.

Schultz believed that the only reason why they can sell a latté for £3.50 is because customer service is at the heart of what they do.

The year is 1990, and Schultz, interested in incorporating the company, began trying to establish a set of rules for Starbucks employees. Schultz really cared about the team spirit of Starbucks employees, and set about trying to establish a level of service that Starbucks customers could expect.

Any employees who were employed for at least 20 hours per week were given medical insurance. He also introduced a reward system through the form of stock options and awarded the best employees shares.

Two year's later Starbucks would float on the stock exchange and in it's first day the share price would rise from $14 per share to an astonishing $33.

By building a company culture from the top down, Schultz built a level of service that all customers could expect and customers just kept coming back for more.

Habit Breeds Success

The above examples all show different kinds of ways we can establish habitual patterns. Ultimately, the point is doing things as part of a habit frees us up to have more energy to tackle the harder problems in life. If we can automate processes and effectively put ourselves more on auto-pilot we can ensure we consistently perform our duties with relative ease.

So if you have a habit in your life you'd like to break, use the same cue, change the routine and substitute the reward (or even better keep the same reward). It is possible to change, we just need to know what signs to look for and understand, by taking a conscious action, why we're doing what we do.

If you haven't read it, I highly recommend picking up a copy of The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do and how to change by Charles Duhigg.

James Murphy

Java dev by day, entrepreneur by night. James has 10+ years experience working with some of the largest UK businesses ranging from the BBC, to The Hut Group finally finding a home at Rentalcars.

Manchester, UK
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