Are Habits Malleable?

Understanding how and why people and businesses forms habits can better prepare anyone working with them for the challenges they will face, and it will provide tremendous aid to those seeking to change those personal and institutional habits.

The cognitive processes in the brain are fascinating for me, more for what they handle without us being aware of it than for the things we are aware we do.  How often have you arrived at a destination, only to realize you don’t really remember driving there?  Or had your spouse ask you how your day went, only to not remember much of what you did.  You could call these habits, things that you do almost on autopilot.  The route you drive to work, or routine tasks you perform on a daily basis.  It’s sort of like the classic thinking experiment in education where you are asked to write down instructions for how to tie your shoe…most people struggle with it because it’s not something you think about on a daily basis.

A few weeks ago I finished a book called The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg which gets into the surprisingly complex, and yet surprisingly simple power of the habit.  This New York Times Best Seller is divided into several sections.  The first section examines the cognition behind how and why habits are created, the next sections explore the importance and impact of habits in business (and in particular in sales/marketing).  The book also includes an Appendix which sums up many of the key themes in the book and attempts to answer the all important question of how a person can change their habits.

In the first section, Duhigg points out that habits are formed as a result of the brain’s penchant for efficiency; the brain is always looking for ways to save energy.  As a result of this, the brain converts sequences of events we do frequently (for example, the steps involved in brushing your teeth) into chunks.  These chunks of activities become the basis of the habit. Coincidentally for those in the adult education sector, the process of chunking courses into smaller pieces for greater understanding by the student has been shown to be more efficient than more traditional, long-form courses.  This is the basis for the current emphasis on Micro-Learning.

How are these chunks of information and activities processed into a habit?  Via the Habit Loop, which is Duhigg’s visual for understanding why habits are so strong, and thus can be so hard to break.

The Habit Loop from Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit

The Habit Loop from Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit

The habit begins with a cue of some kind, something that starts the process.  Using the example of brushing your teeth before bedtime, your cue might be a certain time, or maybe the act of putting on your PJ’s.  Once the cue is received, the basal ganglia in the brain executes the sequence of actions (the chunk) in order.  This is the routine.  Once the routine is finished there is a reward, in our case the feeling of clean teeth.  Because the basal ganglia is one of the oldest parts of the brain, it operates almost without our awareness.  This is what makes habits powerful, but also makes them hard to change.

Pepsodent ad from 1929Just how powerful are habits?  Duhigg gives several examples of the power that habits can have on a person or on society in general by showcasing a range of industries.  In particular, he points out that if a company can create a habit loop that previously hadn’t existed, they can generate almost perpetual demand for their products.  The example he uses in the book is the development of toothpaste.  The makers of Pepsodent were able harness this by selling the clean feeling you get after brushing with their toothpaste as the reward in the habit loop.  They did this by telling people that there was a film on your teeth…a film that was dangerous and made your smile dull.  But you could use their toothpaste to remove the film and brighten your smile!  Because people wanted the reward, they bought the toothpaste and used it.  It created a nation-wide habit of tooth brushing and rates of tooth decay dropped precipitously, as Pepsodent began racking in the money.  How many ads do you see today that try to induce this same kind of habit loop?

So how does one change a habit?  If you have a habit you would like to start (such as going to the gym on a daily basis) or a habit you would like to stop, they can be changed only once they are recognized.  The first step is to identify the routine you wish to change or to add.  The second step is to experiment with different rewards until you can isolate it.  In the book, Duhigg speaks about how he had put on a few pounds, and he had traced it to a habit he had developed every afternoon of going to the cafeteria to get a cookie.  In order to change the habit so that he would not need the cookie and could lose the excess weight he had put on, he had to figure out what reward was driving the behavior in the first place.  So for a few days he tried going for walks outside and recording his feelings afterward to see if fatigue was the cause of the habit; if it was then going for a walk outside would have stopped the habit loop because he had obtained the reward.  Then he tried conversing with office friends to see if it was boredom.  Eventually, he was able to isolate the reward the habit was giving him.

Through isolating the reward, Duhigg now knew what his cue was.  As we saw above in the habit loop, the cue is the first step which sets the loop in motion.  So when the cue arrived, Duhigg could recognize it for what is was and replace the routine with an alternate activity which still gave him a reward but didn’t do so much damage to his waistline.  It seems simple when it is written out like this, but it does take a lot of cognitive effort and self honesty.

One of the more fascinating parts of the book for me was where Duhigg took his findings on habits and translated them into the world of business.  He speaks about Paul O’Neill and his experiences as CEO of Alcoa (also profiled in the book), where habits had created an environment that was dangerous to workers.  This was hurting the company’s bottom line, but no one connected the dots before O’Neill saw what effect the habits were having.  The author points out that at times of crisis, habits are much more malleable than in good times, simply because the impending doom makes everyone willing to change.  It’s the “Never let a good crisis go to waste” theory of management.  I find it a shame that it often takes a crisis before change comes, but that is true more often than not.

The Power of HabitThe Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business is a wonderful read.  I would recommend it to anyone seeking to influence or change habits, or for anyone who deals with businesses in the middle of change.  In my job I work with people who are in the middle of radical changes to their habits and their daily work, and that means I get to experience working with all of the stages of grief, as I explained in this previous post examining learning’s impact on change management.  Understanding how and why people and businesses forms habits can better prepare anyone working with them for the challenges they will face, and it will provide tremendous aid to those seeking to change those personal and institutional habits.

  1. […] The toughest part about implementing this, as the article states, is that it requires a culture shift within the institution.  It cannot investigate the issue on the patient’s behalf if the nurses or aids are afraid to point out mistakes in the system which might have contributed.  This is what is referred to as a Culture of Safety, and it’s a hard thing to implement within healthcare.  Charles Duhigg gives one powerful example of why this changes is needed in his book The Power of Habit, which I read and reviewed. […]

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  2. […] Interested in learning more about how incremental changes have the power to reap huge changes?  Pick up a copy of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg.  It’s an amazing look at some of the best scholarship around changing habits and achieving goals…see my review here! […]

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