Reading Time: 2 minutes
My book review is on Charles Duhigg’s book: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. This book is a study of how habits work, at a neurological and personal level, and what we can do to change them.
Takeaways include:
  • Keystone habits are patterns or habits that seem to promote a chain reaction. Changing them opens the door to changing other things. According to the author, studies have linked eating family dinners together and making the bed to other productivity improvements. (p. 109)
  • When businesses can identify a keystone habit and change that, it often results in improvements down the line. Paul O’Neill turned Alcoa around by focusing on worker safety. In stressing safety at any cost, he was able to redefine established processes and procedures to improve both safety and costs throughout the organization.
  • To change a habit, you must identify the cue, the routine (or habit), and the reward. And you must believe that you can change it. The key is to replace the old routine with a new (and better) routine. So for example, a smoker might substitute the habit of chewing on straws or gum instead of smoking. The cue, or the trigger that drives a craving for a cigarette doesn’t change. And there must be a similar kind of reward after the new routine.
  • Habits can actually change the brain.  And as habits get stored in the basil ganglia, the result is that the brain doesn’t have to work as hard. It is akin to being on auto-pilot. Tony Dungy, coach of the Tampa Buccaneers, and later, the Indianapolis Colts, exploited this phenomenon by drilling his players on a very small number of plays – that became habits. There was less to think about on the field and since milliseconds count in football, his teams improved.
  • Awareness training is used to help people identify cues, routines, and rewards. While habits can be changed and the brain can be reprogrammed with more constructive habits, it takes discipline, awareness, and belief. Communities can often help build belief. That is foundational to what Alcoholics Anonymous does.
  • Change is hard and a crisis provides an opportunity to make constructive changes effectively. Habits reduce the need to think. But not all habits are constructive. Bad habits can evolve to cope with dysfunctional systems – making the system even worse.
  • Richard Nelson and Sidney Winter, Yale professors, were instrumental in changing the way we think about how businesses make decisions. According to Duhigg, “it may seem like most organizations make rational choices based on deliberate decision making, but that’s not really how companies operate at all. Instead, firms are guided by long-held organizational habits, patterns that often emerge from thousands of employees’ independent decisions.” (p. 161)

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