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The Power of Habit - Why We Do What We Do

Habits make up the underlying fabric of our lives. We all have them, and so do organizations. Understanding habits and replacing them with better, more helpful behaviors can provide us with the keys to create the businesses and lives we dream of enjoying. In The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg provides readers with a sound understanding of how habits form and how we can identify them and adapt them to be valuable mechanisms that help us achieve our goals faster and more easily.

We all rely on a sequence of habits that help us through our day. Organizations have also developed habits that dictate how the managers and their teams go about their work. As Duhigg writes – 'there is no organization without habits, only intentional and unintentional habits.' Leaders who can consciously adapt their organization's habits to support their culture and values will gain a competitive edge in their market, build places of work that people want to be a part of, and increase their profits along the way. Helpfully, Duhigg shows readers exactly how to create the ideal environment for building good habits personally, organizationally, and across communities.

From I to all

The book provides three sections that deal with individual habits, organizational habits, and societal habits. The book begins with captivating stories about individual's keystone habits and an intriguing tale of a change in societal habits that led to peace for a small town in Iraq. While seeming unconnected, as the chapters unfold, we learn how habits form and create a foundation that enables widespread change for individuals and large groups of people.

Habits are simply a sequence of actions that we put together to save time and remove the need for constant decision-making. These routines are partly to do with skill-building and also a way for us to conserve energy – and time. Once a habit has been formed – such as brushing teeth – the need for detailed analysis, full attention, and conscious decision making is removed, and we are free to turn our attention to other things.

Interestingly, the habits we form never die. They forever remain in our heads, waiting for the right cues to be sparked into action. The only way to overcome unhelpful habits is to overlay them with new neurological patterns. These effectively overpower the older behaviors and force them into the background. This is as true for individuals as it is for organizations and societies, and the author cleverly illustrates this with multiple stories, scientific studies, and anecdotes throughout his book.

Organizational habits

While individuals have habits, organizations have routines. These routines emerge either consciously through leadership or unconsciously from employees who develop 'workarounds' on the fly to deal with dysfunctional policies and procedures.

Just as surely as individual habits follow the pattern of cue → routine → reward, so do organizational routines. If left unchecked, management can respond to workplace cues with automatic responses. These routines might play out to protect their position, help them gain more status, or deliver some other reward that may not benefit the organization.

Clever leaders identify and build upon keystone habits that encourage the organization's values and intentional cultures to become ingrained. These keystone habits work by encouraging additional supporting structures to be created and newer, better practices to form and flourish around them.

Duhigg provides the example of Alcoa's intentional keystone habit formation of 'safety first.' This focus led to several other supporting processes being put in place. A 'safety first' focus required fast communication of incidents for them to be addressed and repeat incidents avoided. To support this keystone habit, an internal messaging system was needed to enable swift communication. Once in place, this led to transparent leadership and open employee engagement and input. This 'safety first' ethos permeated the entire organization, creating a 'domino effect' for communications, reporting, openness, and learning from mistakes. Everyone benefited, and the keystone habit caused many other behaviors to change for the benefit of all.

Conversely, Duhigg offers the example of a hospital that allowed employees to develop their own organizational habits and workarounds that protected nurses from arrogant physicians, sadly with disastrous results.

Keystone habits are helpful to individuals and organizations partially because they build on 'small wins.' These small wins help create a positive mindset and create an impetus for more significant catalysts for change and more considerable achievements. When done well, organizational routines can make otherwise difficult decisions and choices easier, aligning with core values and culture.

Customer habits

Today, many organizations are turning to studying customer habits and using this knowledge in their sales and marketing campaigns. Habits can be formed without our awareness – which is why leaders must be on the lookout and consciously aware of their organization's routines. From a sales and marketing perspective, this means using behavioral science to tweak and nurture customer relationships and nudge their habits in ways that support organizational goals.

One way to encourage the adoption of new habits and processes is to couch them in the familiar. An organization that wishes to encourage customers to adopt new routines will do well by sandwiching these routines between familiar habits. The YMCA is one organization that successfully used this tactic to attract more people to their gyms. To sell the habit of exercise, they 'wrapped it' in the familiar routine or instinct people have to go to places where it's easy to make friends. This was done by teaching their staff to remember customers' names and greet them with a friendly hello and smile. This simple change helped the gym to retain their new customers and customers to build a new, healthy habit upon their innate drive to socialize.

Understanding and creating good habits

By learning how habits form, we can begin to build the automatic routines we need to achieve the successes we desire. In The Power of Habit, we learn how habits are formed and how to identify habits and then change or tweak them to support our higher intentions.

The author points out that not all habits are created equal. Some are harder to shift and change than others. For example, giving up smoking will require a completely different approach to building the habit of ongoing employee feedback. Rather than attempting to provide the reader with a one-size-fits-all formula for habit formation and adaption, Duhigg gives us a framework that can be applied to individual habit formation just as easily as organizational or societal routine creation.

Readers are invited to begin by identifying the habits they wish to change, then experiment with the rewards these behaviors deliver and isolate the cues that are sparking the habitual process. Once a routine has been identified, a plan can be put in place, and the conditions to create a new habit formed. Whether reading this book to help establish better individual habits or consciously build organizational habits that support a company's success, Duhigg's book provides readers with the necessary tools and understanding to develop better habits at work and home.


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