Habits, bad and good: ‘The Power of Habit’ by Charles Duhigg
Although we may not be aware of it, we spend most of our lives doing routine things that have been programmed into our brains so definitely that we barely have to think about them. We call them habits..
Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, opens this black box of our psychology to examine its circuits and how they can be used — both by others and, astonishingly, by ourselves.
Easy to read and deceptively simple in structure, The Power of Habit begins with the remarkable story of a woman who, after breaking a bad habit, goes on to break a whole mess of habits. It’s like she’s found some sort of miraculous key or something.
The book is divided into three parts: The Habits of Individuals, The Habits of Successful Organizations, and The Habits of Societies.Using a fascinating palette of true stories, Duhigg illustrates various aspects of habits and how they function in our personal lives, as well as in the workplace.
We learn about the deep-seated nature of habits via the bizarre case of Eugene Pauly, a man of about 60 who, after being stricken with encephalitis, could not remember the most recent half of his life, not even things which happened minutes ago. Yet he could still form and follow habits.
We also learn about the brain’s basal ganglia, as well as the habitual behaviors of lab rats in a maze and a monkey drinking juice — and how similar those are to us running to McDonald’s or Burger King for dinner.
There’s the story of the advertising pioneer Claude C. Hopkins, whom Duhigg describes as virtually inventing a new habit — tooth brushing. Using a very simple trick, Hopkins hooked Americans and the rest of the world on a new habit, and sold a lot of Pepsodent as a result.
Decades later, a Procter & Gamble marketing team refined these methods to turn their odor-eliminating Febreeze from a flop into a spectacular success.
Not everyone is aware of it, but NFL football coach Tony Dungy relied heavily on habit modification in turing the miserable Tampa Bay Buccaneers into repeat contenders, and then in winning the Super Bowl as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts.
Chronic alcoholic Bill W. finally quit drinking himself, then went on to found Alcoholics Anonymous on fundamental habit-changing principles plus a secret ingredient, helping as many as 10 million other alcoholics achieve sobriety.
In the second part of the book, The Habits of Successful Organizations, Duhigg looks at how Alcoa CEO Paul O’Neill increased that company’s profits fivefold over his tenure by focusing like a laser on one particular metric — a “keystone habit,” as Duhigg terms it.
Habit development was also used by swimming coach Bob Bowman in designing the routines that guided American swimmer Michael Phelps on the road to becoming the the most decorated Olympian of all time. Part of Bowman’s plan involved building on “small wins,” and the same kind of momentum can also be built in accomplishing social and political change, such as the gains made by gay rights organizations.
Starbucks, as Duhigg describes it, is a company deeply invested in developing excellent habits, willpower, and self-discipline among its employees, and the dramatic turnaround Starbucks training programs made in the life of one drug addict’s son is one of several very moving stories in this book.
A counterpoint is the tale of Rhode Island Hospital, where, according to Duhigg, a toxic culture of arrogance among some of the surgeons left the nursing staff so hamstrung that it was unable to stop appalling and fatal mistakes from happening before their eyes.
In emphasizing how organizations behave habitually just as individuals do, Duhigg cites the findings in An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change, the landmark 1982 book by Richard R. Nelson and Sidney G. Winter, “hailed as one of the most important texts of the century.”
The organizational habits of the London Underground are implicated in the horrific King’s Cross fire of 1987 which killed 31 people. Duhigg gives a chilling account of that catastrophe, as well as Desmond Fennell’s subsequent investigation and report, which changed a number of bad habits at the London Underground.
To show how these highly predictable forces of habit can be used to drive retail sales, the author takes a long, amazing look at the data analysis used by Target stores in predicting which customers are pregnant, thereby enabling Target to prompt related purchases into childbirth and beyond through the use of targeted coupons and flyers.
Habits are also reinforced through familiarity, and Duhigg reveals how a certain sequencing trick helped turn the oddball OutKast song “Hey Ya!” into a huge hit.
In the final part of the book, The Habits of Societies, we learn how pastor Rick Warren built his Saddleback Church by leveraging the power of social ties and new habits among his congregation, and how the Montgomery Bus Boycott sparked by Rosa Parks was able to sustain its pressure thanks to the habits of social networks in that community.
Finally, in examining just how much control and free fill we have over our habits, Duhigg gives us the heartbreaking saga of Angie Bachmann, a bored housewife who gradually slips into the most nightmarish casino gambling addiction imaginable. She is coaxed and cajoled every step of the way by the casinos, who use insidiously clever machines, free tickets and hotel accommodations, easy loans, and every other trick to fleece her out of enormous sums of money. This case is contrasted against that of a man who killed his wife as a result of “sleep terrors,” an extreme state beyond typical sleepwalking.
All of this, though, is groundwork for a closing epiphany.
The Power of Habit concludes with the story of William James, who struggled with life right up to the brink of suicide before changing his life and becoming an illustrious philosopher who introduced psychology to the United States.
After reading all that comes before it, this final kicker has the effect of handing the reader a magic key — much like the key apparently discovered by the woman at the book’s very beginning.
The Power of Habit is a well-presented, entertaining and informative read that ends with a powerful jolt of revelation.
Nicely done, Mr. Duhigg.