The Power of Habit Notes

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Busines by Charles Duhigg covers the science and application of habit formation and alteration. Habits are formed in the oldest parts of brains and are responsible for our everyday activities, as well as, powering social movements.

Part I: Habits of Individuals

When Eugene had viral encephalitis, the part of his brain affecting forming long-term memory was destroyed. Yet he was able to find the bathroom and walk around the block without being able to explain how to get to either. Researchers believe that those actions aren’t something we do consciously and thus don’t come out of our long-term memory. Instead, they become habits, stored and acted upon in our basal ganglia.

Habit loops are how are brain chunks habits into a cue, routine, and reward. Cues are what remind our brain of routines and rewards. You get hungry, the cue, you find food eat, the routine, then you feel full, the reward.

How to create new Habits?

The first step of forming any habit is to identify a simple cue. If a cue is too complex you risk it not kicking of the habit loop. For toothpaste, the cue identified was the film you feel on your teeth when you wake up. Once you have a cue, you need a clear reward. Many toothpaste manufacturers had identified the right cues but struggled on creating the right rewards. Many talked about clean, or white teeth, but Pepsodent added irritants like mint that make your mouth tingle. The mouth tingling is an instant reward that your mind now associates with brushing your teeth. Many toothpaste manufactures followed suit.

Craving is the final step in creating lasting habits. When people start anticipating the reward, their brains start reacting positively to the cue. You will even get disappointed or angry when you miss your reward. This is the evidence that habit has formed. Your brain has internalized this habit loop and expects positive results. It can also be dangerous because powerful cravings are hard to ignore. Think of smokers who smell cigarette smoke and crave cigarettes.

A simple example of a Habit Loop:

  • Cue: email notification
  • Routine: check email
  • Reward: distraction
  • Craving: sitting in a boring meeting craving a distraction

You can see how an email notification when you are bored would kick off a powerful craving to check your email. This is an example of where you might try and limit your exposure to a cue, like silencing your phone, turning off notifications, or shutting down your laptop.

Some rewards are feeling good/clean/sore, accomplishment, praise, rest, and many more. Anything that releases endorphins is a strong candidate for a reward.

Changing old habits

The trick to changing an old habit is to keep everything the same, but the routine. For example, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), accidentally identified that for many addicts, the reward they were seeking wasn’t getting drunk. Turns out getting drunk was the worst part for them, but instead, they were seeking relief. In AA you have a sponsor to call when you are struggling. Many people find the relief they are looking for from talking to their sponsors instead of going to drink. In this case, the cue is the same, stress your are seeking relief from, and the reward remains the same, relief, but the routine change from drinking to calling your sponsor.

In addition to identifying cues to routines that generate rewards, what helps habits change is belief. AA has a focus on a “higher power”, generating the culture of belief helps people believe in themselves. The meetings create community and provide examples of success in breaking their addiction to encourage belief.

Tony Dungy’s coaching strategy was changing his team’s habits. Many of the players already had developed strong habits playing football for many years. He just needed to alter some of their routines. Allowing them to trust their habits and think instinctively to increase the speed of their decision making. His strategy worked, until the team played the Patriots, the team lost their belief in the power of their new habits. It wasn’t until the tragedy of Tony losing his son, that the team rallied around him and believed fully in his strategy.

Belief is often why people make life changes following a personal tragedy, or when they join new groups. They may have a new belief in themselves to make a change. To create lasting change, it helps to join groups that increase your sense of belief in your change. Being around others who have similarly changed, or exemplify the benefits of the changes you plan to make, generates belief.

Part II: The Habits of Successful Companies

Keystone habits are habits that when changed change a series of other habits. We can take advantage of these types of habits to make major changes in organizations and individuals. These habits might not be the habits that people want to change.

Paul O’Neal identified that safety was a keystone habit in his organization. Changes to the safety habits of his company lead to increase efficiency by streamlining processes, improving quality assurance, and communication. It worked for two reasons: everybody could get behind improving safety and to improve safety you had to improve all the other elements of production.

Michael Phelp’s coach identified keystone habits that created “small wins” to be part of Michael Phelps routine. By the time he was on the starting block, a series of habits generated “small wins” that generated more “small wins”. Those habits created the right mental environment for him to win.

Will Power Becomes Automatic

Researchers have found that when looking at good grades, IQ only accounts for part of the difference between students. Willpower had a stronger effect on grades. Willpower is also a learnable skill. Case Western researcher proved that willpower was more like a muscle and could be exhausted. Participants had to resist eating cookies or radishes and then perform a mental test. The participants who had to resist the cookies had far less mental energy.

Starbucks realized that they could teach their employees willpower to deal with difficult customers. Since willpower is like a muscle, strengthening willpower in one area will improve it in other areas. One way to strengthen willpower is to prepare for difficulty in advance. Patients recovering from surgery were asked to prepare for difficulties they might face becoming active. Doing so they were more likely to complete their PT sooner than those who didn’t.

This is why companies like Deloitte, The Container Store, and Starbucks spend so much time training their employees. This prepares them with what do during “moments that matter” where it might be easier to take the wrong course of action.

There are lots of ways to deplete willpower. It was observed that students who were more kindly treated showed more willpower. Given that willpower is so easily depleted we should be frequently identifying ways to build willpower or protect it from depletion.

Power of Crisis

When bad habits have formed sometimes it takes a crisis for people to make the necessary changes to change those bad habits. A hospital had bad habits that led to doctors performing the wrong surgeries ending in fatalities. Habits in organizations create rules and reduce uncertainty. They guide behavior far more than rational thinking.

Crises create opportunities to unsettle these “truces” that develop for better or worse. The same hospital was in crises from the continued bad practices they had turned into routines. One of the new habits they formed was having doctors presenting to the hospital staff about failures or near misses that happened. It created a culture that made it more acceptable to be wrong, and thus easier for others to identify mistakes before they become dangerous.

It’s said, “never write off a crisis” since they create these opportunities. Sometimes all that’s necessary is the perception of crises to make a change.

Manipulating Exisiting Habits

We can dress new habits in the cloaks of old habits. There are algorithms that can predict hit songs and pregnant women, but if those algorithms create jarring experiences for people they will reject the new habits.

For example, when cuts of meat were limited during the war efforts, the UK government wanted to create a new habit for mainlanders to eat organ meats. They started marketing organ meats in more traditional meals that would usually have more commonly eaten a cut of meat, like “liver pie” instead of “steak pie”. This worked since people already had a habit of eating steak pie.

For the music industry they will take “new” hit songs and sandwich them between songs that are already familiar, these songs are considered “sticky”. Target, won’t send a pregnant woman flyer with only ads targeted at her, they will also include ads that feel more familiar. This allows Target to subtlely change that woman’s habits without her knowing.

The YMCA found that it wasn’t fancy exercise machines that kept people exercising but creating an opportunity for community. They prioritized exercise classes and leagues, that led to these friendships. The habit of exercising was wrapped in the familiar habit of making and maintaining friendships.

Part 3: How Movements Happen

He highlights three ways how social habits generate movements: Social Habits: The habits of friendship Habits of Communities: Generating and maintaining status Leaders Create New Habits

He lays out how habits helped create the Civil Rights movements. Many people before Rosa Parks had been arrested for refusing to give up their seats on buses. Of course, the climate was changing, but Rosa had a diverse set of social connections and was well respected in her community. Those social connections kicked into action while she was waiting to post bail.

Her friendships caused action when otherwise inertia had taken over in the past. The habits of communities kicked in when the “power of weak ties” started getting other people involved who didn’t know Rosa, but who knew people who did. Additionally, peer pressure kicked in. You would lose respect in your community if you didn’t participate in the boycott.

Freedom Summer were busses of northern students who went down south to help register black voters. It was dangerous and there was violence that ended in the death of volunteers. When researchers looked into why some volunteers went and others did not they found that the most powerful predictor was if friends were going.

They hypothesized that those who didn’t have friends going in their community would suffer no loss of social standing for not going. The “peer pressure” of maintaining social standing kicked in for those with ties to Freedom Summer.

Rick Warren pastor of Mega-Church identified that creating the habit of “small-groups” would help create christ based habits. If he could create groups that used the habits of friendship and community to also create Christian habits, he could expand the reach of his church without his direct involvement.

What causes social movements to become self-perpetuating is when leaders create new habits. Martin Luther King created a new habit of non-violence when presented with violence and hate. He demonstrated this when a bomb blew up on his porch. Had his wife and kids had been in the front rooms they would have died. The community was outside his home ready to riot, but he told them to not “return violence with violence”. He taught the movement this new powerful habit of non-violence. This spread from city to city.

Are we responsible for our habits?

Some people experience sleep terrors that can lead to injuries even death. A person in a sleep terror is experiencing a habit with no consciousness of it happening. The court system has created the precedent that when our habits are happening and we are unconscious of them we can’t be held responsible.

Whereas gambling addict can be held responsible, even when the actions they are taking can be proven to the result of habits. Researchers have shown that gambling addicts brains experience the same positive response that they get from winning as when they almost win. Whereas non-addicts haven a negative response since they still lose when they almost win. A pathological gambler overtime becomes aware of their habits, and the court, for now, has ruled that they are responsible for trying to change those habits.

Written on October 24, 2018