Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg

Why do we do what we do, and can we change it?  That is what Charles Duhigg asks in The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.  Duhigg, a New York Times business reporter, discusses the habit loop: our brains receive a cue, we follow a routine, and we receive a reward.  Advertiser Claude Hopkins mastered this in the first half of the 20th century in his promotion of Pepsodent toothpaste.  Cue: film on your teeth.  Routine: brush with Pepsodent.  Reward: minty fresh feeling in your mouth.  Hopkins was able to create the habit of tooth brushing.

This same cycle applies to many areas of life.  The key to changing habits is to change the routine.  You identify and "keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.  That's the rule: If you use the same cue, and provide the same reward, you can shift the routine and change the habit.  Almost any behavior can be transformed if the cue and reward stay the same."  It's so simple, but as anyone who has tried to kick a habit can tell you, it's not so easy.

Among his many examples and illustrations, Duhigg discusses the way Hopkins's methods are used in the consumer industry.  The food we eat, the products we buy, the music we listen, all of it is being manipulated by businesses who want to change our habits to their benefit.  It's startling and humbling to hear these strategies described and realize how much even the most independent-minded among us are influenced by marketing and advertising.

From the perspective of business, Duhigg got me thinking about building productive habits at work.  We don't naturally have habits in place when we start a new job; we are applying skills or seeking outcomes that may have been previously unfamiliar.  So we have new cues and outcomes, and we have to shape the routine to respond to the cues and achieve the desired outcome.

Duhigg's thesis is sound and compelling, and his examples clearly show the path to changing habits.  At some points in his exposition, as interesting as some of his anecdotes were, he strayed away from the fine point of the first couple of chapters.  The chapters that deal with changing habits across an organization are probably the most important, but could use more development.  All in all, The Power of Habit is an interesting read that will force to you think about your own routines, and inspire leaders and managers to evaluate the motivations and systems they implement.

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about productivity

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