Every so often, life feels a bit hectic. It can seem like there are forces beyond us that control our actions and reactions, our thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
We are controlled by our habits. If we weren’t, and we had to consciously do everything ourselves, we would be overwhelmed. Our brains would be overloaded by stimuli, and our willpower caches would be mined raw by noon. Luckily for us, we have habits. Charles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit, shows us how to harness their power and change these habits to work for our benefit.
The Habit Loop
"Once you break a habit into its components, you can fiddle with the gears."
It often takes willpower to do things. Yet Aristotle so famously said that excellence is a habit. Does that mean that we can accomplish more than we think? Can we build beneficial habits, and then leave them on autopilot while we focus on building other habits or creative work? Can we swap our unwanted habits for more valuable ones?
The answer to all the above is a resounding yes.
The key to building and breaking habits is to understand what Duhigg calls the habit loop. It’s a cycle:
Cues initiate the habit. Routines basically are the habit. Rewards are the positive things that happen after you execute the routine.
The habit loop has been applied towards more than just personal development. In the past, Unilever exploited the habit loop: “Pepsodent created a craving” (page 57). The toothpaste left a tingling sensation in the mouth that marketers mentally tied to a “feeling of clean” (reward). Without that tingle, your mouth just didn’t feel clean.
So to recap, a cue would be something like noticing your breath wasn’t fresh, or recognizing that it was close to bedtime. The routine would be to then take your toothbrush, layer some Pepsodent on, and brush your teeth. The rewardwould be the polished feeling you get after cleaning your teeth, and the cool, refreshing flavour of the minty toothpaste.
Creating Belief and Conviction
"Once people learned how to believe in something, that skill started spilling over to other parts of their lives, until they started believing they could change. Belief was the ingredient that made a reworked habit loop into a permanent behavior."
Scoff as you may: genuine belief has consistently been the difference between successfully creating a good habit or crushing a bad one, and failure to do so. Belief can be created through many vehicles, and The Power of Habit highlights some that have worked in the past.
Tragedy: This is the story of how the Indianapolis Colts began to adopt their coach Tony Dungy’s style and strategies. It began with the death of his son.
“Dungy has always said that nothing is more important to him than his family. But in the wake of Jamie’s passing, as the Colts started preparing for the next season, something shifted, his players say. The team gave in to Dungy’s vision of how football should be played in a way they hadn’t before. They started to believe” (page 87). Instead of worrying about contracts or salaries, players were compelled to play according to coach’s strategy. The Colts won the Super Bowl that year.
Religion: Similarly, a spiritual or supernatural experience can create the belief or conviction required to endure through tough times. “Bill Wilson stopped drinking when he found religion and cried out to God (and apparently received a vision). Then he went on to found Alcoholics Anonymous and didn’t have another drink.”
Bill Wilson is not the only person who has succeeded as a result of religion: “However, those alcoholics who believed, like John in Brooklyn, that some higher power had entered their lives were more likely to make it through the stressful periods with their sobriety intact” (page 84).
Changing beliefs often don’t require tragedy or religion. Even changing social groups (page 88) and environment can have their own effect on belief and conviction. Belief is the element that will hold you to building your habit when things seem darkest.
"Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach."
When a new leader took over aluminum company ALCOA’s reigns, he chose to focus purely on workplace safety. (Shareholders freaked.) “O’Neill never promised that his focus on worker safety would increase Alcoa’s profits. However, as his new routines moved through the organization, costs came down, quality went up, and productivity skyrocketed” (page 108).
As O’Neill started making ALCOA safer, he also made it more productive, less wasteful, and more profitable. Each safety measure ended up helping the bottom line in some way. Safety was a habit that bled over to every other habit; a ton of tactics used to increase safety (like shorter feedback loops, safer machinery, and an employee suggestion system) eventually helped ALCOA rise to the top of their industry.
This phenomenon expands beyond the corporation. Physical exercise spills over into our lives. Once we start exercising, we start eating healthier and become more productive at work — two benefits we don’t usually correlate with going to the gym.
Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit is an invaluable tome if you’re interested in breaking the habits that are holding you back.
“Once you understand that habits can be rebuilt, the power of habit becomes easier to grasp, and the only option left is to get to work” (page 271). Start getting to work, and look for those small wins. What can you do today that will help you build a habit to get you closer to your goals? It’s time to harness the power of habit to your advantage.