The Power of Habits
Part One — The Habits of Individuals
I. The Habit Loop
Our medial temporal lobe houses a collection of organs that collectively make up our “limbic system” in our brain. The limbic system, among other critical “human” functions, is the main driver behind our short & long-term memory. In 1956, an epilepsy patient by the name Henry Molasion (known famously as “HM”), gave permission to have his limbic system removed. While HM’s seizures stopped, he unfortunately was never the same. He not only lost all core limbic system functions, but he also lost control of his motor skills. Yet his contributions to the field of neuroscience cannot be understated. The lobotomy of HM led to researchers discovering the area of brain that is in charge of our memory & emotions.
Flash forward to 1993 — a bright family man by the name of Eugene Pauly falls victim to a rare type of bacteria that devours his medial temporal lobe. It leaves him functioning, but with little memory of his life up to that point. He also struggles to hold information for longer than two minutes. In short, complete memory loss. Yet in sharp contrast to HM, Eugene’s motor skills stayed completely intact. After a two week coma, Eugene was able to coordinate himself — standing up, walking around & heading home with his wife.
Cue Dr. Larry Squire, a leading neuroscience researcher at UCSD. The similarities in the brain anatomy of HM & Eugene intrigued Dr. Squire. He put Eugene through a series of tests, one which tested his ability to correctly remember pairs of objects on overturned cards. While always polite & charismatic, Eugene never remembered the reason he was in Dr. Squire’s research laboratory & would always need the rules of the pairing game rehearsed. Not surprisingly he struggled to match a single pair of overturned cards & would sometimes forget mid-game what it was he was supposed to be doing. But after months & months of playing the same game, something curious happened: Eugene would enter the research lab, sit down, & without being told, begin pairing the overturned cards correctly. Improving his time & accuracy with every visit. The third time that this phenomenon happened, instead of observing from a distance, Dr.Squire approached Eugene & asked him what he was doing; Eugene looked at his hands, dropped the cards he was currently matching & answered Dr.Squire with a bewildered look on his face: “I don’t know. I have no idea what I’m doing or how I got here, my hands just started moving automatically.”
Dr. Squire’s team had a hunch. They spent time working with Eugene in his house. While in the kitchen one day, Dr.Squire asked Eugene if he could draw a map of the house they were in, his house. Eugene looked around & said he had no idea where anything was. While patiently waiting for Dr. Squire to finish scribbling his note & ask the next question, he stood up, walked to bathroom, did his business, washed his hands, & sat back down across the table. Dr.Squire, with an eyebrow arched analyzing what he had just witnessed, asked Eugene if he knew where the peanut butter was in his kitchen. Eugene shrugged & said he had no idea. Dr.Squire then asked Eugene what he does when he’s hungry. Eugene stood up, prepared himself a peanut butter & jelly sandwich, & sat back down with Dr. Squire.
Human habits are evolutionary — they’re formed as mental shortcuts with the purpose of cutting back on mental cost. The process in which our brain subconsciously converts a repeated sequence of actions into an automatic routine is known chunking, & it’s at the root of how habits are formed. Observing Eugene ultimately led to the follow realization:
It’s possible to learn & make unconscious decisions without remembering anything about the lesson or decision making — we might not remember the experiences that create our habits, but once they are lodged within our brains they influence how we act.
Focusing on Eugene’s life-sustaining habits eventually yielded a simple three step framework that could summarize any subconscious habit:
- Cue — a trigger that tells someone’s brain to go into automatic mode
- Routine — a physical, emotional, or mental action performed
- Reward — an effect from taken “Routine” that reinforces the habit
Cue, routine, reward. Cue, routine, reward. These three steps are the basis of any habits we form. The problem comes when our brain fails to realize whether a habit is innately “good” or “bad.” Habits are often as much a curse as a benefit — so the question now becomes how do we override bad habits & consciously create good ones?
II. The Craving Brain
When Pepsodent, the precursor to today’s modern toothpaste hit the consumer market, it was considered anything but a success. In fact, just under 7% of Americans tried the new product despite proven medicinal benefits. So how did famed marketer Claude Hopkins increase that number from 7% to 65% in a short few years?
By finding a simple, yet universal cue, defining a clear reward, & creating a craving to drive the habit
Cues, routines & rewards make up the three steps of any habit, but it’s cultivating a craving that leads to the creation of any habit. As we go through a habit loop & repeatedly associate a certain positive outcome with a reward, we begin to crave that reward more & more. Cravings essentially drive habits; yet coincidentally, Hopkins didn’t know this last component.
He brilliantly decided to create a cue around the film behind our teeth: “Use your tongue & run it along the back of your teeth. You feel that? That’s film that protects that beautiful smile. That’s the sign of healthy teeth, & you know what protects film best?” You guessed it, the routine, Peposdent toothpaste, which in turn led to the reward the “Pepsodent smile.”
Yet Pepsodent & Hopkins were far from the only team aware of the cue-routine-reward marketing structure in the toothpaste space. It was actually by pure accident, that Pepsodent became the tremendous success that's usually attributed to Hopkins. You see, the Pepsodent engineering team had randomly decided to test out a supplementary new cleaning ingredient in the toothpaste: citric acid. The new batches of Pepsodent surprised the divisions team with two recorded facts:
- The majority of consumers were commenting (though not strictly complaining) about a now-famous “minty & clean” numbing aftertaste
- Sales from Peposdent immediately shot up
The Peposdent division revered Hopkins for his marketing genius in creating the mentioned cue-routine-reward campaign — yet it wasn’t until this batch of toothpaste, with it’s tingy aftertaste, that the campaign really took hold. This is because the aftertaste became the training mechanism for the craving. Consumers began associating the reward, the “Pepsodent smile” with the aftertaste; not long after, they began craving that aftertaste. A habit was now formed.
Did you know that shampoo doesn’t naturally foam? That Cinnabons are almost never located in the actual food court? And that Febreeze originally intended customers to use the spray at the beginning of cleaning? Cravings are the secret sauce to creating habits; and we can best see that by analyzing extremely successful consumer products. All of these products had marketing plans that were designed to create cravings, & ultimately, create habits: consumers need some signal that the product is working.
III. The Golden Rule of Habit Change
Almost any behavior can be transformed if the cue & reward stay the same.
It’s near impossible to completely eradicate an existing habit; but as it turns out, it’s very possible to alter existing habits by keeping the same cue & reward. The key is in rewiring the routine. The inertia of changing an entire habit is drastically higher than the effort required to address a single step in the habit.
First things first though. Our habits are deeply ingrained in our subconscious, which means that it’s not always obvious what triggers a cue — this means that we really begin to alter a habit when we engage in something called awareness training. You need to observe yourself, what action, emotion, or thought is triggering the habit? Is it anxiety? Is it a certain time of the day?
Next, once you’ve identified a cue, pay particular attention to how your reward makes you feels, if it triggers a reoccurring thought, and if it changes your physiology. Only once you’ve both identified the cue & expect a specific response, can you begin to alter the habit.
You change a habit by introducing a competing response;ideally, that can be performed at anytime it’s cued & that can lead you to the same reward as the routine you’re trying to override. Pick a competing response. Test it out. Measure how many times you perform that response & increase it overtime. Iterate on the competing response as you collect feedback. And certainly not least, believe that you can adapt that response all the time.
Part Two — Habits of Organizations
IV. Keystone Habits, Or the Ballad of Paul O’Neil
Routines are the organization analogue of habits.
If companies are fundamentally vehicles of people; then it logically follows that they, as well, consciously or subconsciously, are driven by habits. As we’ve now learned, habits, or routines in groups, can be altered with the same framework with some fine-tuning. As a rule of thumb, it’s imperative that the leader and/or leader of a group, focuses on a single routine change. The more drastic the change in our environment, the less likely we are to adapt to it; this holds exponentially true in groups.
First, take a week to observe your team & pay particular attention to communal “small wins.” Moments when the group is happier (or some other positive reward) than usual . Why are we searching for moments when the team is happy again? Because we’re only aiming to alter a routine but leverage old cues & rewards.
Next, using the Pareto Principle, identify which routines will provide the highest return (or whatever your criteria for improvement may be) if altered. Again, it’s critical here that who’s ever in charge focuses on a single change.
Certainly different from altering a single habit for an individual; to alter a routine for an entire organization, the group must essentially adapt a new culture around that routine. And it’s the leaders job to both set very specific expectations & religiously stick to them. Whether leaders are aware of them or not, cultures grow out of keystone habits in every organization.
V. Starbucks & The Habit of Success
Willpower is a muscle not a skill.
Starbucks mission, to become your “third space”, calls for peculiar attention to employee culture; but how is it possible to scale that to the 20K+ Starbucks stores? By institutionalizing habits through employee training.
Starbucks specifically trains future employees by identifying possible inflection points that an employee may have with a customer. This leads to Starbucks constructing & implementing carefully curated routines that every employee learns by heart before ever working the floor. The inflection points serve as the cues for these routines; praises from customers and managers serve as the rewards.
VI. The Power of A Crises
Never let a good crises go to waste.
There is no such thing as a community of people completely void of habits; there are only communities that consciously design their habits ahead of time, and those that don’t. If you’re at the very beginning of an organization, pay particular attention to the routines established early on. Don’t create a rule book, more importantly create routines that reflect the ideal values. But what if you’re attempting to implement change in an established place that’s naturally resistant to change? Remember, the more drastic the change, the more effort required to overcome existing behaviors.
Absolutely nothing else forces human to adapt faster than the realization that their livelihood is at stake — its evolutionary. Nothing triggers this malleability in organizations quite like an existential crises. So the next time a cash flow(or similar) crises rears its ugly head, make sure it’s appropriately countered, then immediately after leverage the opportune timing to maximize routine changes that likely led to that crises in the first place.
VII. How Target Knows What You Want Before You Do
Managing a playlist is all about risk mitigation.
First-time mothers are the golden egg customers of corporate department retailers. If they become habitual buyers, they’ll likely stay loyal for the next 18 years. It’s also common marketing knowledge that a prospects buying habits are more malleable during a big life event — and what’s more life changing than a baby?
Of course in today’s increasingly connected world, it’s easier than ever to observe a customers habits. About fifteen years ago, Andrew Pole, a data scientist turned marketer, thought that Target was collecting enough information on a customer (through online behavior, in-store purchases history, loyalty programs etc…) that he’d be able to spot habitual changes in customers. He therefore set out to build one of the very first corporate cross-functional data teams — every single touch point that a customer had with the Target brand was relayed to the data team, that in turn began predicting buying behaviors & analyzing when “big life events” were occurring. If Target could identify pregnant mothers early on, they could effectively channel their marketing resources towards them.
How well did Target manage to do this? Well in 2010, the father of a nineteen year old daughter began receiving targeted mail coupons that focused on baby supplies. The father, understandably furious, reached out to Target complaining that the company was encouraging his daughter to get pregnant. He brought the issue up with his daughter the same day, turns out she had tested positive for a take-home pregnancy test just two weeks ago. Whoops.
Marketers take advantage of our programmable habits much more often than we think. In another instance, there exists a paradoxical theory in music marketing that was discovered in the 90s: the mainstream craves something new, but it also craves something familiar. Like alternating routines but maintaining cues & routines. Outkast’s “Hey Ya” haphazardly launched to universal hate the first time around. The second time though, radio stations were strictly ordered to “sandwich” it between two other extremely popular songs at the time. The result? One of the best selling records of the 90s & a revolutionary change in music marketing through playlists.
Part Three — The Habits of Societies
VIII. Saddleback Church & The Montgomery Bus Boycott
Our weak-tie acquaintances are often as influential than our close-tie friends.
Communal expectation is a very powerful cultural phenomenon. It’s consistently one of the core reasons that activist efforts work; yet it also gives ground to terrible decision-making through “peer pressure.”
Movements begin with the social habits between a close community, a tight-knit group of friends. They then spread through the weak ties that bands communities such as neighborhoods or universities. Finally, if curated correctly, they bring lasting change by giving participants a way to instill slightly new habits that create a sense of identify & ownership. Many successful activist efforts use this template, the Montgomery Bus Boycott is only but a single example.
Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of the bus in 1955 marked an inflection point in the Civil Rights Movement, yet no one knew it at that very moment. Two big factors came into play here. One, Rosa Park was a popular woman within her immediate community & outside as well. Two, prior to 1955, almost all activist efforts were not carried out by the average citizen, but by legislators. One wasn’t expected to be active.
IX. The Neurology of Free Will
Some thinkers hold that its by nature that people become good, others that it is by habits, and others that it is by instruction — Artistotle
The behaviors that we act on without a single moment of consideration are evidences of our truest self. But what if you literally lost the ability to make decisions regarding specific behaviors? In a way isn’t that like losing your free will? Should one be held responsible for losing the cognitive ability to suppress primitive habits? Historically, in neuroscience, people with physical brain damage are said to have lost some of their free will.
Brian Thomas thought that for the majority of his life he was a common sleepwalker. Until the night he strangled his wife to sleep during an undiagnosed sleep terror episode. The jury found zero evidence of any sort of negativity in their marriage prior to the incidence. Thomas, again a documented sleepwalker, was very clearly stricken with grief as he failed to understand how he could do such a thing. In a deep sleep, our primal habits take over; if a sleepwalker going through a sleep terror episode perceives that his/her life is at stake, he/she will do whatever it takes to subdue the threat. All charges against him were dropped.
Angie Bachmann had no documented history of any addiction. She was as normal as any other suburban mother of two, including the same struggles. One day she headed to the Harrahs casino just to learn about the different types of games. Less than a year later she had lost every single penny in her account, was hiding her daily blackjack games from her husband, & borrowing money from her well-off parents to make rent. Eventually she cracked, declared bankrupt & didn’t step in a casino a single time for two years. Until both of her parents died within a 6 month period & left her a hefty inheritance of a million dollars. In less than 3 months she gambled it all ways and owed Harrahs $325K. Harrahs sued. Bachmann’s lawyer counter-sued stipulating that Harrahs was at fault for aggressively(daily) marketing towards her with high-value incentives knowing full-well that she had a clear problem. In a sense, Bachmanns lawyer argued that since she had zero control of her decision-making when Harrahs offered incentives, she was not at fault. Harrahs was acquitted & Bachmann lost on all accounts.
It’s much easier to sympathize with the Thomas’ account, but why? It’s interesting that as a society we’re creating a law structure where acting on subconscious habits is a criminal offense depends on the result. Yet in the examples above, one resulted in a dead body & no charges. One in significant monetary loss but both criminal charges & social ostracizing. How we as a society deal with these unfortunate cases in the near future will be a fascinating development to watch.
But these are very extreme cases. The majority of us have multiple habits that we’ve been aiming to establish or alter that we know are within our grasp; hopefully you now have a better idea of how exactly we can go about doing that.
The way we habitually think of our surroundings & ourselves create the worlds that each of us inhibit.