The Power of Habit: A Book That Breaks Through The Noise
I read a lot of books. One of the hazards of majoring in English is that I became addicted to reading and analyzing text. For years after I graduated, I was unable to read even a safety warning without recombining the words and mentally editing.
To this day, it’s still difficult for me to read a book without just analyzing it, rather than taking in its content and lessons. A few books over the years have broken through the haze and captured my attention. Enders Game, the Game of Thrones series, and a few classic sci-fi from Isaac Asimov and Ursula LeGuin. But not matter how interesting a nonfiction book might be while I’m reading it, I forget most of them within a week. Reading The Power of Habit, however, may very well have changed my life.
Understanding Human Nature
The book begins with a story of an unfortunate elderly man named Eugene Pauly who contracts spinal meningitis. The disease destroys portions of his memory center, making it impossible for him to form new memories. Months after physicians had eliminated the disease but were unable to repair the damage, Eugene begins going for walks by himself and making his way back home. If someone were to ask him, while he’s walking up the steps, where he lives, he would answer that he doesn’t know and then walk through his own front door.
This story is used to illustrate that habits and memory are two different things. We don’t have to constantly remember habits – we just do them. This is the general style of the book – using a single case study to illustrate a larger point. The author, Charles Duhigg, also uses scientific data, but generally will single out one or two people from a larger study to help illustrate what their study means for habits. And what scientists have discovered about habits is nothing short of amazing.
From the Individual to the World
One of the book’s smartest features is its organization. Its scope stretches from small and narrow to large and near unfathomable. Part One covers the habits of individuals, including how people have changed their habits. Part Two shows us the habits involved in some of the world’s most successful organizations. Part Three casts the net yet wider and reveals the habits of societies. Each of these parts is explained in a well-researched way that constantly maintains relevance with the power of story.
When looking at the habits of individuals, The Power of Habit reveals the habit loop. Throughout the book, it is displayed as a circular diagram with three named elements: Cue, Routine, Reward. From the moment of its introduction, every habit described in the book, whether individual or collective, is diagrammed using the habit loop. This is an incredibly effective method of breaking down often complex routines into simple, digestible visual aids.
The Habits of Starbucks and Alcoa?
When you think of Starbucks, you probably don’t think of habits unless you’re describing a caffeine addiction. The funny thing about Starbucks’ habits is that they focus on cultivating positive habits among their staff. The main habit they try to imbue is an ability to deal with difficult customers with poise, self-control, and a smile.
I spend a lot of time in Starbucks, writing articles and expanding my freelance business. Only when I read The Power of Habit did it occur to me that, while I’ve seen several incidents where customers have been abusive toward their baristas, I’ve never seen a Starbucks worker shout back, break down and cry, or rudely walk away. They are obviously upset by the customer’s hostility, but their training seems to work. They remain calm and polite, and are even able to smile at the next customer who comes to the register.
Alcoa, one of the largest producers of Aluminum products in the world, is another organization that gets its own chapter. Back in the 70’s, the company was in trouble. Their sales were flagging, the union was hostile and had already organized a successful strike, and investors were beginning to worry. Then they hired Paul O’ Neill, a relatively unknown former public servant who had provided leadership for the Department of Health and Human Services. And what did he say was going to be Alcoa’s top priority in the coming years under his CEO-ship? Safety. Amid all of the troubles plaguing the organization, their new CEO pledged to make Alcoa the safest company in the world.
As O’ Neill saw it, Alcoa’s problem was that it was stuck pursuing all the wrong habits. If he could refocus the company on one single, universally appreciated value, then everything else would fall into place. So he choses something that everyone, both managers and union workers, could agree on as a focal point: keeping workers from getting injured and thereby losing worktime and drawing on the company’s workman’s compensation. Duhigg calls this a “Keystone Habit,” which is a habit that, when changed, results in a cascade of change among several related habits. Did O’ Neill’s plan work? If you really want to know, read the book.
The Horrific Side of Habits
The Power of Habit is not shy about revealing the dark underbelly and dreadful consequences of negative habits. Chapter 6, The Power of a Crisis, devotes much space to exposing the dysfunctional habits that led to a fire in The London Underground that killed 31 people. He also covers Rhode Island Hospital, which suffered numerous surgical and medical errors over the course of a year because of a dysfunctional balance of power among the staff and a culture of tyranny.
Chapter 7 covers how corporations use advanced statistics to an insane degree to sharpen their targeted advertising. Be warned: this chapter will make you want to cut up all of your rewards cards, pay for everything in cash, and refuse to give your zip code to anyone for any reason. You may think I’m joking. Let me put it to you this way: Target has figured out how to tell, based solely on customer information and purchasing habits, when a woman is pregnant before she’s told anyone herself. Let that sink in, and you’ll get just a taste of the rather icky (but informed!) feeling that Chapter 7 has in store for you.
The Habits of Societies and Movements
As a lover of history, I absolutely devoured Part Three. It examines the habit-side of social and political movements. Duhigg also gives forms some hypothoses as to why the Civil Rights movement exploded under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, and why the Rosa Parks incident led to a successful boycott of public buses in Montgomery (Parks was far from the first person to suffer such public abuse from a white bus driver).
Part Three also looks at the habit-side of why Saddleback Church experienced such explosive exponential growth. While he takes a very clinical approach, I never felt like he was disrespecting the impressive work that Rick Warren and other leaders have done there. He’s merely acknowledging how their use of habit encouragement helped their church to become one of the largest in the US.
Everything in Part Three is practical and applicable, especially for all of you leaders out there.
Does This Mean We’re Not Responsible?
Not content to simply expose the humanity of habits, Duhigg goes even further to explore how habit research informs our ethics. This is the part of the book I think I was the most nervous about reading. After all, if we’re merely a product of our habits, then does that mean we’re not responsible for our actions? Could it be that the self-control that everyone of us believes we possess is really just an illusion? And if so, what does that mean for the way we form and organize society, meet out justice, and pursue happiness?
While I won’t reveal the book’s conclusions, I will say that the last chapter of the book blew my mind. I was impressed with the author’s willingness to ask the tough questions, again framed in true stories. The two people featured in the last chapter are both suffering from the consequences of automated, habit response. Both are portrayed sympathetically, and we are given an unflinchingly honest look at how their habit loops ruined both of their lives. It’s not for the faint of heart.
Something for Everyone
This book can be enjoyed and its principles applied by everyone who reads it. Leaders can apply its sociological aspects to their organizations and try to discover their own keystone habits. People interested in learning more about human nature in general will find it useful for understanding the patterns and behaviors of people around them. And if you are just looking to change a bad habit that you’ve struggled with all your life, this book will give you hope. And more than abstract hope, it will provide you with some ideas for changing those habit loops and gaining a greater measure of control over your life.
I am not exaggerating when I write that this book will change my life. Now that I know more about how my barin works, and especially how habits are formed and upkept, I can begin the process of changing them, one at a time.