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The Power Of Habit

A client told me about this book because she thought it would help her develop new habits. That part of the book would fill all of ten pages and isn't a lot different from any other behavior mod based, productivity book. But it does include a fascinating deconstruction of a complex series of cues, cravings and rewards—what the author calls the Habit Loop. And what Madison Avenue has known since Pepsodent persuaded a nation (whose rotting teeth was considered, by the army, to be a national security risk) to actually look forward to brushing their teeth.


Here's how it works—an environmental cue prompts you to do something that has an outcome which includes a satisfying reward. Pretty standard Pavlov's dog stuff. However, further research has shown that the whole sequence, when repeated regularly, creates a craving so strong that the behavioral sequence could be classified as an addiction. This craving is what keeps the habit going whether the person wants to be doing it or not because it has become automatic.


The author, Charles Duhigg, a NYT journalist then pulls in lots of historical anecdotes from legendary corporate turnarounds, to legendary football team turnarounds to the genuinely legendary societal turnaround that resulted in the Civil Rights movement. There is something for everyone in this book that has anything remotely to do with changing habits so it is a good easy read and why it has all the makings of a best seller. The author has also been interviewed on NPR and can now command a speaking fee of $15,000. Not bad for a first book.


Here's how you change a habit. You study what environmental cues are prompting you to do the routine you are trying to change. Then you ask yourself if you really wanted to eat that cookie or if there was some other auxiliary reward that gave you a sense of satisfaction. Then you replace the cookie with something that is more appropriate to reap the same sense of satisfaction. This could turn out to be just a break in routine, or a walk down the hall to chat with a colleague instead of a walk to the cafeteria to find company. The trick is to link the new behavior with the old cue. You can also sandwich a new habit between two familiar habits to get it going.


I have been doing some variation of this with my clients, for some time now, through my inquiry into their natural habits. I then redesign some piece of the sequence, whether it be the cue or the habit, to be more productive. And this is a very good reason to hire an organizer, worth their salt, because very few people realize what they are doing at this level of minutia.


As for the stories in the book. It was a fine thing for Pepsodent to so improve the nations dental health, but the amount of brain power, scientific study and redesign that went into making Febreeze into an essential home cleaning product just goes to show how intensely capitalism has degraded American civilization to sensory consumerism while filling the world with unnecessary chemical scents and ecologically immoral plastic bottles.


On the other hand, another company we love to hate—Starbucks—has implemented a training program to elevate the level of customer service that has in turn improved the mental self-discipline of young people to such a degree that they are to be commended for doing society such a service by rehabilitating what dysfunctional parenting and marginal schooling has produced.


The final anecdote of the book is an excellent analysis of the Rosa Parks story, but I would argue that it is not a story about habits at all, but is more about social networking and the weak vs strong ties theory that was used to criticque the relative worth of the internet that prompted me to read Clay Shirky's "Here Comes Everybody". The Rosa Parks story is the stuff of genuine social change, that shows that when provoked by outrage over treatment of a much loved person, a community will gel into action and risk their life for change. It is the power of a greater good.

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Taken on July 11, 2012