It’s 10 years since this book by New York Times journalist Charles Duhigg was published. At its core it’s a book about the science of habits and how we can apply this understanding to help us establish good habits or change habits that are not serving us well.

The book is split into three parts:

  • Part One – The habits of individuals
  • Part Two – The habits of successful organisations
  • Part Three – The Habits of Societies

He quotes a Duke University study which suggests that 40% of decision we make are really just habits.

Habits are defined as the choices we all make at some point, and then stop thinking about but continue doing, often every day.

How habits work

In chapter 1 we are introduced to a fascinating long term research study which showed that even when a person can’t remember their age, or almost anything else, they can develop habits that seem incredibly complex. And they can do so because a part of the brain called the basal ganglia is able to store habits even when other parts of the brain are not functioning as they should.

Habits are one of the ways our brain tries to save effort. It is constantly looking for ways to save effort and will readily make any routine into a habit, without us really being aware of it.

Every habit has three components:

  • Cue – a trigger that tells the brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use
  • Routine – a physical, mental or emotional reaction to the cue
  • Reward – which helps the brain remember if this particular sequence is worth remembering

Habits stick because they create a craving – a powerful sense of anticipation of getting the reward. And when a habit emerges our brain basically stops participating and it just happens automatically. We might not remember the experiences that create out habits, but once they are set our brains influence how we react, mostly without us realising. The thing is that our brain doesn’t know the difference between a good habit and a bad habit!

How to create new habits

In chapter 2 we learn about the history of tooth paste and air freshener in the USA and the advertising executive who had a significant part in their success. That executive, Claude Hopkins, demonstrated that new habits can be cultivated and grown but to do so requires a craving. It is that craving that powers the three step habit loop described above. As we begin to associate certain cues with certain rewards a subconscious craving emerges in our brains and powers the habit loop. So new habits are created by putting together a cue, a routine and reward and cultivating the craving that drives the loop.

The golden rule of habit change

In chapter 3 Duhigg goes to the world of American Football and the NFL to introduce us to what he calls the golden rule of habit change: You can’t extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it. You use the same cue and reward but substitute a new routine. He shares some great stories about coaching success before shifting to the world of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) founded by a bloke called Bill Wilson. Apparently it is now clear that AA works because if forces people to identify the cues and rewards that drive their alcoholic habits and then helps them find new routines to substitute for the drinking.

The NFL and AA examples are also used to highlight that that for some habits an additional ingredient is needed for change to occur, and that is belief. And when that belief comes from a group it is really powerful. People might be skeptical about their ability to change on their own, but a group can convince them otherwise. Duhigg says that for a habit to stay changed we must believe change is possible and most often that belief emerges with the help of a group (or community) even if it is a group of just two people.

Keystone habits

In chapter 4 we are introduced to the corporate world and the fascinating and quite amazing story about how Paul O’Neill as the new CEO transformed Alcoa in the USA. He did so by disrupting the habits of people in respect of safety. It was an unconventional approach focusing solely on safety but yielded amazing results and Duhigg uses the story to highlight the concept of keystone habits. These are the habits that matter more than some others and can start a process that over time can pretty much transform anything and everything. Keystone habits are those that when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns.

At Alcoa O’Neill focused on one habit as follows:

  • Cue – an employee injury
  • Routine – unit head must report the injury directly to the CEO within 24 hours, including a plan to ensure the injury never happened again
  • Reward – the only people who got promoted were those who had this habit

This one habit had a flow on effect to pretty much all aspects of the business. It was a keystone habit. Identifying keystone habits can be hard but Duhigg references research pointing to a few for individuals:

  • Exercise
  • Making your bed each day
  • Families eating dinner together

I had been previously told that making your bed was a contributor to success but now I have a better idea as to why that is!

Duhigg shares stories about the legendary American swimmer Michael Phelps and some of his habits and introduces the idea that “small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach”.

Starbucks and the habit of success (willpower)

In chapter 5 Duhigg delves into how Starbucks can take often uneducated and often challenged people and turn them into brilliant deliverers of customer service. Starbucks found they could train unskilled people to do great customer service through building habits in each team member. The key to it was build willpower or self discipline. Duhigg says there are plenty of studies to suggest this is the most important keystone habit and that willpower is a learnable skill. Willpower changes how you think and helps your brain get practiced at helping you focus on a goal. Having kids do things like music lessons or sports is an example of this – the discipline required helps build self regulatory strength.

I’ll leave you to read the other chapters in the book which contain some very compelling stories and further learnings. I think it’s a great book, easy to read, most fascinating and I strongly recommend it.

See more here: The Power of Habit – Charles Duhigg