The Power of Habit

This book came recommended by a couple of our customers & only took a couple days to read. It has a rich narrative to it which helps reinforce the concepts, but these are my personal notes I saved to help remember key points of Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit. 🙂

What are habits?

  • Habits are formed out of our brain’s quest for efficiency. To some degree we do them automatically & without requiring thought or significant mental effort. As they become stronger the brain works less while going through the process, relying on shortcuts coded in the basal ganglia.
  • Habits consist of a cue, a routine & a reward mechanism and are reinforced  we come to crave a reward mechanism.
  • Once we understand habits that lead to rewards, we often light up as though we have received the reward just by seeing the cue. “eg: ring a bell & I’ll salivate.”

Reprogramming habits

  • Belief (in literally anything) makes it easier to believe in being able to stick to change.
  • We never really forget (or eradicate) habits. Though they can be replaced/reprogrammed if we have a deep understanding of the craving & reward.
  • If you want to reprogram a habit, you can change the process so long as you keep the cue & feed into the same reward mechanism & believe the change is possible.
  • To get rid of bad habits make them require more effort to do.
  • Groups make it easier to establish belief & keep change in place.
  • With diet people like to eat what is familiar & prepared in familiar ways.
    • In the 1940s US consumers began eating animal organs (because much of the meat was shipped off in the war effort). People would not eat animal organs often until they became familiar.
    • If you put vegetables in other dishes & cook them in ways that have a familiar presentation you are more likely to eat them.

Stress & Belief

  •  We never really forget (or eradicate) habits.
  • Many good habits fall apart (or bad habits reemerge) when we are under heavy stress.
  • To keep habits in place make them easy to do & create concrete rewards to focus on.

Keystone Habits

  • Forcing too much change at once is almost certain to lead to failure, as there are too many different things to focus on to create habits & if we fall short on any of them then we have an excuse to justify messing up the others.
  • Keystone habits start with small wins that allow change in one place to have cascading effects elsewhere in life. Most people who exercise also eat healthier. Small wins allow us to believe that bigger wins are possible.
  • One way to lower stress & allow habit to take over in a stressful situation is to create routine around it, such that the actual event is just one more step in a successful routine.
  • Simply by writing down behaviors we become more aware of them, which makes it easier to fix problem habits we may have been unaware of.
  • Self-discipline is typically far more important than IQ. Willpower & the ability to deny cravings can be turned into a habit. However willpower is still a finite resource like strength, which once expended makes it harder to have willpower during a subsequent test. Thus it makes sense to put in place good habits earlier in the day to get started on the right foot. Strengthening willpower in one aspect of your life can carry over into other unrelated aspects.
  • Writing specific goals makes it easier to see them through & recover from injuries, in part due to anticipating pain points & planning on how to respond to them. The same is true for issues at work or in other environments.

Reprogramming Organizational Routines

  • In large organizations momentum makes routines hard to change unless you can find a parallel goal which mimics desired outcomes.
    • At ALCOA Paul O’Neil was able to get unions and management to agree on concessions by creating a strong safety goal. The focus on safety allowed more precise measurement of employee efficiency, improvement of machines & processes that were causing issues, and created a better bottom’s up feedback network from employees to executives. Safety was such an effective keystone habit because anyone who argued against it sounded idiotic & the focus on safety led to other operational efficiency gains.
    • By using keystone habits it makes it easier to make tough choices as the shared culture dictates them.
    • Many issues are symptoms, but by consistently asking why you can dig deeper on the issues.
    • Organizations can also keep individuals more engaged & build their willpower, make them more efficient, lift spirits & give them a greater sense of purpose by giving a greater sense of autonomy & control. Statements like “if I wanted your damn opinion I will give it to you” do the opposite. 😉
    • Once an open channel of communication exists for one issue, people will use it for other issues as well, driving additional efficiency.
  • Fear, rivalries & momentum
    • Unless institutional habits are deliberately designed they will emerge from internal politics, fear & rivalries.
    • Rather than being driven by deliberate decisions, many sustained routines are heavily informed by past momentum within an organization & a collecting of supportive evidence. These allow organizations to maintain some level of efficiency & truce to achieve longterm goals in spite of internal politics & short term opportunism.
  • Crisis & opportunity
    • Organizational truces which prevent the cross-pollination of knowledge & define responsibilities too strictly become fragile & set themselves up for large catastrophes due to poor communications. This risk is only further enhanced if there are not priorities established in advance for handling catastrophes.
    • When such failures do occur they make the organizational habits more malleable. People are more receptive to a re-balancing of power after such issues. If internal people are still not receptive to change, one can create a media circus as a further forcing function.
    • Describing nearly adverted issues internally can help prevent the problems from re-emerging.

Tracking Consumers

  • Old school consumer psychology relied on general patterns to increase revenues.
    • Even people who shop with a list buy over 50% of their purchases out of habit rather than based on what’s on the list.
    • The reason grocery stores put fruits & vegetables near the entrance is they figure we will feel good about buying them & be more willing to load up on junk food.
    • Grocery stores put some of the most profitable items near the right-front of a store because many people turn right when entering.
    • Cereal isles are intentionally not tightly organized so that you linger longer & buy more varieties.
    • Febreze nearly failed as a product when it was marketed as a solution to bad odors (many people do not realize their own odors & it is hard to remind them of them), but succeeded wildly when scent was added to it & it was pushed as a reward at the end of the process of cleaning.
  • Now companies have far more specific individual tracking capabilities.
    • They can use email address, past purchases (& periodicity of purchase), items you put in your cart but didn’t buy, other web analytics data like the pages you view, retargeting ads, IP address, cookies, mailing address, wish lists, & baby shower registries online.
    • Offline they can use what you buy, how you respond to coupons, credit cards (with zip code) & loyalty/rewards cards to track user behavior.
    • There was a popular article about Target on this front in the NYT. Target can look at what you purchase & predict what is going on in your life (eg: certain items might be associated with a new home & other items a pregnancy.)
    • Harrah’s Casino was also quite aggressive on this front & would even offer various perks for big losers.
    • Offline & online data can be tied together as well, & this data is tied together with demographics data purchased from third party firms like InfiniGraph, RapLeaf, Axciom or Blue Kai (offering data points like age, ethnicity, education level, marriage status, where they lived, how much they made, what other websites they visit, what credit cards they have, home ownership, bankruptcy declaration, etc.)
    • There is also a conference
  • Consumers are more likely to change their brand preferences & buying patterns when they are going through a major life change (eg: marriage, moving, having kids, changing jobs, etc.)
    • Having a child is the most profitable life change to target.
    • Rather than making it obvious that they were targeting pregnant women with ads specifically for them, they also mixed in other random items in coupon mailers to camouflage the specific offers and make the selection feel more random.
  • Music has the same sort of profiling.
    • Companies like Polyphonic HMI attempt to estimate the likelihood that a song would become a hit.
    • Companies like Arbitron try to figure out how many people listen to a radio station at a particular moment.
    •  On the radio people tend to like bland/vanilla music that sounds familiar (like nondescript bath rock & the horror that is Celine Dion), rather than anything that sounds distinctive/different/new/unique.
    • If you play something new on the radio it helps to sandwich the new song with trusted hits on either side in order to provide the payoff to make people less likely to switch.
  • “To market a new habit – be it groceries or aerobics – you must understand how to make the novel seem familiar.”

Social Movements

  • Insignificant seeming groundwork is often laid in advance of mass movements, which later proves to become a key driver of future momentum (either by establishing small wins that build hope, or by reframing an issue in a way that provides another angle of attack).
  • Most successful social movements are defined by the habit loop. They start because of strong ties between friends, they spread due to weak ties in neighborhoods & endure because leaders give new habits that create & instill a sense of identity & ownership.
  • Rosa Parks was deeply respected & had a large, diverse group of friends. That led to the existence of a strong initial support & many weak ties.
  • To spread religious movements & get people to participate it helps to speak more directly as it relates to the problems people face each day, target groups of people rather than individuals, create self-reinforcing clusters within the larger group & install habits related to the desired outcomes.
  • Rick Warren’s the Purpose-Driven Life has sold thirty million copies & he grew Saddleback from nothing to a size that could drive that many book sales.

Free Will

  •  A more scary version of sleepwalking is called sleep terrors. During sleep terrors the most primitive bits of the brain responding to anxiety in a fight or flight response, with the prefrontal cortex deactivated. “The parts of your brain that monitors your behavior are asleep, but the parts capable of very complex activities are awake” – Mark Mahowald.
  • Those who understand our flaws & develop them into habits can target them.
    • Harrah’s (now Caesars Entertainment) assigns customers a predicted lifetime customer value based on a Target-like tracking service.
    •  Angie Bachmann developed a blackjack addiction/habit in part out of wanting to be good at something. It drove her to bankruptcy & she stayed away from casinos for years. After her parents died she had a panic attack & went to a casino, where they figured out she had money to burn & started offering her free trips and chips to suck her back in. Once she began to slow down again one person called her & even stated that they would get fired if she didn’t come in. They ended up helping drive her to bankruptcy again.
    • Slot machines are not only designed so that you have a good chance of hitting the wrong button & bidding more than intended, but psychologists also discovered that on near misses gambling addicts minds would light up similarly to as if they had won, whereas in social gamblers a loss would still be seen as a loss. Since this discovery, slot machines were altered to show more near hits to provide more of a rush to gambling addicts. The near miss behavior has been added to other forms of gambling, like state lotto scratch off tickets.
  • Some pharmaceutical drugs that are tied to managing Parkinson’s disease target the basal ganglia and the brain stem. Some of these drugs have turned otherwise normal people into gambling addicts.
  • “Once you know habits exist you have the responsibility to change it.” Though one must decide to & put forth significant effort.
    • The book suggests a 4-step framework for fixing bad habits & implementing new ones: identify the routine, experiment with the rewards, isolate the cue & have a plan.
      • When experimenting with the reward, consider it a scientific expedition & add substitutions into the routine. Write down what you were thinking right after the routine (or routine replacement) has ended & then set an alarm for 15 minutes to track the status of the reward mechanism’s solution or if a craving still remains.
      • When trying to discover the cue, if you can’t easily figure it out, consider in advance limiting yourself to consciously analyzing a limited number of variables at a time (location, time, other people, emotional state, immediately preceding action) to see if that helps you figure it out.


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