“All our life…is a mass of habits,” said William James in 1892. In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg, an investigative reporter for The New York Times, helps us understand this universal truth by showing us why habits exist, how they work, and how you can change them if you really want to.
In The Power of Habit Duhigg explains the “habit loop,” which all habits have in common -- cue, routine and reward. He tells the story of an aged man suffering from severe viral encephalitis, which has erased his ability to retain anything from the past 30 years. While unaware of the reasons for his actions, he still minimally functions because of the learned cues and routines stored in his basal ganglia.
The rewards from our habits create specific neurological cravings that keep us going back for more (think money, sugary treats, etc.) For those truly tempting rewards, the brain essentially turns off and stops participating in the decision making. This explains why some of us have a hard time resisting the smell wafting from Cinnabon at the mall.
Duhigg explains that we need not be victims of these “automatic” bad habits. By understanding the habit loop and having a desire to change, we can conquer problems in our personal lives, in business and even in society at large.
Take the story about changing keystone habits—or one habit that triggers other patterns— and how it turned Fortune 500 company Alcoa around in the 1990s. Encouraging the keystone habit of worker safety resulted in a positive effect on employee relations, quality control and, ultimately, the bottom line.
At a Rhode Island hospital, where organizational habits were so dysfunctional that safety measures were regularly bypassed, a life-threatening crisis caused the institution to review and change procedural habits so extensively that now it wins Beacon Awards for excellence in patient care.
Examples small and large abound in The Power of Habit, giving us hope that we too can identify and change less-than-ideal habits in our personal and work lives.