Habits: Obama, Starbucks and How to Successfully Rewire

Charles Duhigg, Habits and the Theory of Behavior Change


“The harder I work, the luckier I get” is conventional wisdom for many, inspiring us to get to work, shaping our future selves. Even so, life’s distractions often stand in the way of good intentions. Perhaps more ominously, advancements in behavioral science have empowered retail enterprises. Consumers are being asked to purchase, consume and promote in ways Don Draper could only have dreamed. Conscious or not, influence over your time — your behavior — is increasingly being ceded to those who know how habits are formed. This is not a conspiracy theory, just modern marketing.

Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business” provides an excellent primer for those looking to understand habits, offering insight to anyone seeking to improve areas of their life through behavior change. Even for those not currently in the market of self-improvement, Duhigg quotes William James, an influential 19th century American philosopher who wrote, “all our life…is but a mass of habits.” Understanding your own “mass of habits” may be more valuable than you think.

Duhigg introduces the reader to an action-reward sequence, one nearly universal in its application:

The mind hardwires this relationship. The more repeated, the more locked in the cycle. Nevertheless, researchers have uncovered tricks to unlocking, or, more correctly, replacing. As you introduce a new pathway for a given trigger your habit will change, and so will you. Your brain will rewire.

The key is automation. Automation, or “chunking,” is how we function, day in and day out. We go through life with most decisions and processes — subroutines –executed subconsciously on our behalf. Whether making toast or driving to work, repeated activities require significantly less brain activity over time. As Kahneman wrote in “Thinking, Fast and Slow” there is a limit to how much activity the brain wants to engage in — usually not much — and therefore actively seeks to automate as much of the familiar as possible. The mind selfishly, and efficiently, reserves its computing power for the unfamiliar.

And no less than the President of the United States knows this. In a famous Vanity Fair interview by Michael Lewis, President Obama says, “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits…I’m trying to pair down my decisions.” Lewis writes that the President goes on to reference research that “shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions.” In the President’s words, “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself…[and not] be distracted by trivia.”

It is this decision energy that Duhigg cites as key to changing habits. Instead of relying on willpower — a losing strategy over longer periods of time — recognize “habits never really disappear.” Rather one needs to focus on the “inflection points” of a habit.

Duhigg describes Starbuck’s approach to training employees to respond to specific customer cues, such as a “screaming customer or long line at a cash register.” By scripting the response to these scenarios — the inflection points — the brain can execute the desired subroutine without sacrificing decision-making energy. Starbuck’s rewards for these training efforts include not only an improved customer experience, but also reduced employee turnover (CFO translation — financial profits). Baristas are simply less “drained” at the end of each shift.

I experienced a similar set of rules governing inflection points while a nuclear engineer in the Navy. We continuously trained on the “immediate actions” of engineering casualties — examples included loss of reactor pressure, main steam line rupture, etc — such that the critical 5–10 steps could be performed reflexively. While real accidents were almost unheard of, by design the engineering staff developed the necessary “habits” for emergency situations. And while we practiced recovering the ship’s power source, the weapons department drilled on missile launches. When seconds matter, they tend to matter.

Dughigg writes that habits create “neurological cravings” we cannot easily ignore. These are real responses, conditioning to our environment evolved not simply over our lifetime, but that of our ancestors and the rest of the animal kingdom. With the latest research scientists have provided insight to “hack” this conditioning.

So don’t fight that feeling. Instead, channel it elsewhere.

Thanks for reading. Comments and suggestions on this and for other topics welcome.

Within the behavior genre, my review of Mischel’s book, The Marshmallow Test, here.

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