How To Harness The Power Of Habit

Philip Delvecchio
Sep 30, 2018 · 5 min read

When you go to brush your teeth each day, how many times have you put the brush in your mouth before putting on toothpaste?

When you put your pants on, do you put the right or the left leg in first?

What about when you go to work? How much of your commute do you need to give your full attention to? You grab the door handle, turn the knob, open the door, put one foot in front of the other, turn right or left, go down into the subway, swipe your card, get on the subway car, get out, enter the building, hit the elevator button, go to your desk, get up get coffee, return to your desk, start your day. And so on. If you are like most people, you probably did all of these things relatively unaware of your surroundings with your nose buried in your phone, reading a book, or thinking through the day ahead.

The truth is our brain takes care of these processes is for us. You don’t have to think about putting toothpaste on your brush, you don’t have to think about which leg to insert first, and you don’t have to think about all the physical activities you do to make it into work, or ride a bike, or drive a car. All of these actions have been turned into routines or habits by our brain’s autopilot, the Basal Ganglia. One study found that the Basal Ganglia is responsible for about 40% of our daily activities.

How much of that 40% is what you buy?

Have you considered why you choose one brand of milk over another? Or why you go to the same coffee shop to order the same kind of coffee each day? We might think it’s because of our choice and preference. But, of course, these brands know better. While we believe we are in rational control of our daily life, companies have been working tirelessly for years to appeal to our habit brains and, before we even know it, enter into the 40% of our lives that we don’t even realize is being guided by routine.

Some may find the way companies harness our habits to be creepy or disconcerting but, in the world of business, companies can’t afford to ignore these tactics. If you are building a consumer-facing business (or any business for that matter), then you’re better off learning why and how these habits form to benefit your business.

Charles Duhigg does a good job explaining how habits form, how companies utilize this understanding to build habit-forming products, and how anyone can make or break habits in his book The Power of Habit. Throughout the book, he uses a simple three-part diagram to formulate the process of a habit loop.

The cue refers to a trigger that leads us to some form of reward. The reward is something that stimulates us and results in a spike of brain activity (a happy or satisfied feeling). The routine is the action you take to receive the reward.

For example:

  • You catch a whiff of a donut shop piping their sugary smell outside (cue), you go into the donut shop and buy a donut and eat it(routine), your brain spikes from the sugar rush (reward).
  • You see a notification on your phone(cue), you open up the app (routine) and see that your friends have liked your photo (reward).

Our day is chock full of these cues that we have formed habits around such as hunger, boredom, sounds, smells, times of day, chemical shifts in our body, visuals, and thoughts among other things. With this in mind, you don’t even need to create a new cue or teach a routine. Routines already exist throughout our life and inserting your business into one of these habit loops will have the same result.

Any company can utilize habits to improve the business. Now that you know how habits form, all you need to do is harness them by focusing on these three things.

Don’t just solve a problem, satisfy a need

When you are building a business, you should first identify what problem you are solving. If you haven’t thought through this yet, go check out my article here.

Once you’ve established the problem you are solving, you should ask if it’s a need-to-solve or a want-to-solve. In the former case, a person may buy your solution and enjoy the reward but afterward feel no need to return to that solution.

For your business to be sticky, you need customers to feel like they are unable to go without your product after they’ve used it. To do this well, you are best off going after problems where there is a need involved. Especially if it is one that can be satisfied but never erased.

To identify a need, you should tie the problem back to a resource we frequently rely on such as time, sustenance, procreation, shelter, and money among other things.

Make your solution routine

This is an effective way to think about User Experience. Whether your business is an app, a service, or a product, you should always be thinking about making the process the user goes through as seamless as possible.

The simpler it is to use, the easier it is for your business to become a routine for your customers. This is why the subscription model has become popular in recent years. Now a customer can pay monthly and have everything come to them seamlessly, removing the pain of the thought of losing money each time they buy again, and erasing steps they take to get the reward.

Narrow the path between the cue and reward

The more obstacles you can replace between the cue and the reward, the more likely you are to stick your customers in a habit loop (2-day delivery anyone?). And since our attention spans are worse than a goldfish and content is being consumed faster than your average GIF, speed is the key to your customer’s heart.

Making things faster is an effective way to beat the competition. If your going after the same need and are looking to drive the customer to your reward, a way to win is to shorten the path.

Heck, why even make them walk a path, why not just deliver right to their doorstep. Now, if only we could figure out how to remove the door entirely.

Giant retail behemoth’s aside, if you can learn how to harness habits, you may find growing your business is as simple as putting on a pair of pants.


If you like what you read, have something to add, or want to learn more about what I do, drop a comment below or connect with me here!

Philip Delvecchio

Written by

Living in NYC and writing about tech, communities, and acceleration. Operations Expert, Startup Advisor, International Speaker, China enthusiast. www.hapday.co

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