“A change in bad habits leads to a change in life.” — Jenny Craig

“My problem lies in reconciling my gross habits with my net income.” — Errol Flynn

The Power of Habit by Charles DuhiggI’m writing this as I puff and wheeze a little. I’m trying to get back into the habit of going to the gym, a place with which I’ve had a longstanding off-again, on-again relationship. It’s funny, I can break myself of the good habits much more easily than the bad ones.

This might be a good time to talk about a book called The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. Duhigg is a New York Times business reporter, and has a fascination with how habits work. Business theorists have been obsessed with the concept of habit for years. The most famous exploration of this topic to this point was Stephen Covey‘s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Trainers and HR specialists have realized for years that the key to higher performance lies not in intellect or powerful concentration, but in doing simple, constructive activities everyday.

Sounds simple, and yet we all struggle with forming good habits and breaking bad ones. We’ve all been jealous, at one point or another, of someone else’s willpower. Could there be, we wonder, a better way to understand how habits work psychologically and use that knowledge to live better lives?

This is where Duhigg begins, and he does an admirable job of describing the neurology of habits: where the habit constructs exist physically in the brain, and how they’re triggered. Unlike higher-order functions like musical performance, the mechanisms that control how habitual behavior are localized to one specific area of the brain. You could point to exactly where it is. It’s part of our more primal systems near the brain stem. This is why many of our thousands of daily habits are unconscious.

Habits work by way of a cue, a routine, and a reward. Something occurs: a time of day, a sensation, a phone call. If we subsequently experience a reward, we will associate the cue and our resulting behavior with reward-receipt. The reward could be (and often is) as simple as the taste of a cookie or its subsequent sugar rush. It could be the momentary alleviation of boredom. It could be the self-esteem boost from someone’s validation. Once we sense a reward, we will keep repeating that behavior whenever similarly triggered.

An interesting note here: if someone acts in a habitual manner and does not receive the expected reward, it creates craving. Craving is very, very powerful.

Duhigg’s conclusions suggest that if you want to change a habit, the best way to go about it is by first understanding the exact cue (which takes study and experimentation because it isn’t always obvious). You then need to substitute a more desirable behavior while (and this is the key) making sure that you experience a reward. This isn’t exact science, and some habits are obviously very, very hard to break. The hope is that having some knowledge of how they work will allow us to get a little leverage on ourselves.

The most interesting concept to come from Duhigg’s exploration is the concept of the keystone habit. He tells the story of one young woman who was part of a scientific study on habit formation. In two years, she had transformed nearly every aspect of her life: she had quit smoking, lost substantial weight, gotten promoted, and run a marathon. The researchers found that all this change came about because the woman had decided to change one single habit: she quit smoking. After hitting bottom in her life, she created for herself a single, simple goal of going on a trek across the desert. She knew that she could probably accomplish this goal but for the fact that she smoked, and so she found the power to quit.

What happened next was fascinating. The act of breaking her smoking habit enforced a framework of discipline on her life that made it possible for other areas to improve. These other improvements came with relative ease – almost unconsciously. Neurological examination revealed that the very synaptic connections in her brain had changed. She became a differently-thinking and differently-operating person through this process.

The anecdote suggests (although unfortunately no supporting quantitative evidence is given) that if one were to concentrate on changing one central habit – a habit like smoking that connected with many other behaviors and activities – one would experience additional improvements in other areas of life. Such central habits are called keystone habits.

Duhigg illustrates the concept further by telling of Paul O’Neill’s tenure at Alcoa. At the time, Alcoa had been through a rapid succession of CEOs, but had not shown significant performance improvement. O’Neill – to the general stunning of both management and labor – chose to focus on one single area: worker safety. He saw how central that area was to productivity, lost time, morale, and ultimately performance. At first, he was met with incredulity and resistance; every new CEO wants to talk about some big change, and to think that management would pay more than lip service to a middling labor concern was laughable.

O’Neill eventually changed the culture by rewarding management on worker safety metrics. Incidents of worker injury fell to previously unheard-of lows. Then other changes started showing. Labor morale improved, both from the lack of injuries and the seriousness with which their concerns were taken by management. Unsafe processes and machines were redesigned, and new designs were not only safer, but more efficient. Designs ideas came from the workers themselves. And profitability, even though it wasn’t the primary concern, quintupled.

Somehow it’s easier knowing that, if you have a dozen things in your life that you want to improve, focusing on one central habit will make improving the rest easier. I’ll let you know how it goes…

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  • Learn what makes a business fragile, so you can avoid pitfalls that sink most founders.
  • Discover how to set up your business to use setback and stressors as fuel for growth.
  • Build an unstoppable business that uses resistance to grow like muscle!