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The Power of Habit

The Power of Habit

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Human habits seem intractable and inexplicable, as ingrained in our beings as the color of our hair. “They are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense,” Duhigg writes. But it turns out our habits are quite malleable, and as the author shows, companies are getting ever more adept at identifying, co-opting, and shaping our behavior patterns to increase profits.

A habit is essentially an equation written on the blackboard of the brain’s basal ganglia. First there is a cue: An iPhone dings during a meeting. Then there is a routine: The iPhone is discreetly examined. Then there is a reward: A Words with Friends opponent has made a move, and now it’s time to pounce. We crave the ding and the rush of endorphins it promises.

Though scientists didn’t put a name to this mechanism—the habit loop—until well into the 20th century, entrepreneurs have long understood the importance of routines. Duhigg points to Claude Hopkins, the wizard behind Pepsodent and the man who, in the early 1900s, got us all to start brushing our teeth every day. He found a cue: feeling a weird film on teeth. Through ads, he offered a solution: brush every morning. The reward: clean, bright tingly teeth.
Human habits seem intractable and inexplicable, as ingrained in our beings as the color of our hair. “They are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense,” Duhigg writes. But it turns out our habits are quite malleable, and as the author shows, companies are getting ever more adept at identifying, co-opting, and shaping our behavior patterns to increase profits.

A habit is essentially an equation written on the blackboard of the brain’s basal ganglia. First there is a cue: An iPhone dings during a meeting. Then there is a routine: The iPhone is discreetly examined. Then there is a reward: A Words with Friends opponent has made a move, and now it’s time to pounce. We crave the ding and the rush of endorphins it promises.

Though scientists didn’t put a name to this mechanism—the habit loop—until well into the 20th century, entrepreneurs have long understood the importance of routines. Duhigg points to Claude Hopkins, the wizard behind Pepsodent and the man who, in the early 1900s, got us all to start brushing our teeth every day. He found a cue: feeling a weird film on teeth. Through ads, he offered a solution: brush every morning. The reward: clean, bright tingly teeth.

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01/16/2014

 
 
The Power of Habit 
 
 
1
 
Human consciousness, that wonderful ability to reflect, ponder and choose, is our greatest evolutionary achievement. But it is possible to have too much of a good thing, andfortunately we also have the ability to operate on automatic pilot, performing complexbehaviors without any consciousthought at all. One way thishappens is with lots of practice.Tasks that seem impossiblycomplex at first, like learning howto play the guitar, speak a foreignlanguage or operate a new DVDplayer, become second nature afterwe perform those actions manytimes (well, maybe not the DVDplayer). “If practice did not makeperfect,” William James said, “norhabit economizes the expense of nervous and muscular energy, he”(we, that is) “would therefore be ina sorry plight.” I should have knownbetter. Cowen, whose New York City-based headhunter andresearch consultancy focuses on e-discovery and compliance, wouldn't waste his time with keynotewannabes. Then I saw the bio forthe author, and the imprint,Random House, and figured I was infor a good ride. Duhigg is aninvestigative reporter for
The New York Times
, and he has won a basket full of important awards, including the George Polk, and as part of a team that was a finalist for a 2009Pulitizer Prize. That piqued my interest, and put the book on the top of my tall pile of "toreads."Let's put it this way, if you like Malcolm Gladwell (my favorite author), I can all but guarantee you that you will also find
The Power of Habit 
mesmerizing. (And you'll probably
 
 
2
 
want to re-read Gladwell's
Outliers
and
Blink 
.) Duhigg breaks the book into three sections,looking at the habits of individuals, then successful organizations, then societies. At theheart of the book is the simple mantra: to change habits, you have to disrupt the routinethat is triggered by a cue, to get to the reward. And by establishing "keystone" habits, youcan accomplish your goals, be it to lose 20 pounds or save the world.Yes, I can see your smirk: "If it's that easy... blah blah." But it's the drill down that will get you buying the Kool Aid, and thinking how you can apply this to yourself, your work, andyour relationships. The book traverses a huge range of exemplars as Duhigg explores theneurology of habits and how habits are created, reinforced, controlled, or not -- and theramifications of all of those options. (No worries, it reads like a novel, not like a medicaljournal paper.) He takes us through the experiences of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps,Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, National Football League coach Tony Dungy, Procter &Gamble's failure and success with Febreze; Saddleback Church, and many more compellingsituations where changing habits -- of individuals, institutions, and society itself -- madedramatic changes to how they function.Each story addresses specific issues of how habits influence everything from the productswe buy to whether an individual lives or dies. It explores why Target got a bit queasy about using algorithms to determine whether its customers were pregnant so they could start sending diaper coupons, to howthe Rhode Island Hospital did a180 after one of its doctorsrefused to listen to asubordinate and did brainsurgery on the wrong side of anelderly man's head. The patient did not survive, but the incident triggered a crisis that triggereda complete change of protocolsthat triggered a transformationof the hospital.At Aluminum Company of America (best known as Alcoa) when Paul O'Neill (no, not the ex-Yankee, this is the O'Neill who served a short stint as U.S. Secretary of the Treasury) took the helm, he changed the entire culture -- and habits -- of the mega-company by simplyfocusing on worker safety, improving not just his own company but the industry.Duhigg covers everything from winning football games to losing prejudice. One of the most fascinating and compelling sections is his analysis about how Rosa Park and Martin Luther

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