I've always been fond of books that examine how people think and make decisions, and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg falls squarely into that genre. It frames almost all of what we experience in life as a series of routines that we build upon. I found it to be a very interesting read, changing my views from everything about raising kids to how one might influence a large organization.

The cue → routine → reward loop

The core thesis of the book is that all habits follow the same loop...

  • first there's the cue (the thing that kicks off the habit)

  • then there's the routine, executed by your basal ganglia. this is a fairly deep and old part of the brain that allows you to stop "consciously thinking" while you have established the routine.

  • then there's the reward that reinforces the habit

If we are to modify any of our habits, we must first understand them as part of this loop. It’s quite hard (nee impossible) to modify the cue. But what we can do is establish new routines.

There's a story in the book about Eugene (coincidentally if you just watched Momento, Eugene may have been the inspiration), a guy who has all of his long-term memories, but is unable to create short-term memories. Eugene somehow starts being able to go on walks around the block after his wife has taken him along the same route hundreds of times, or find nuts in the kitchen when he's hungry.

Researchers work with Eugene to try and give him an experiment. They have pairs of objects, and under one object in the pair is a sticker labeled "correct". They give Eugene 40 pairs, and ask him to find the correct ones. They repeat this experiment for 30 days. After 30 days, Eugene comes in, and the researcher asks him "why are you here?" Eugene can't say. But he is able to identify the "correct" item with 95% accuracy. How does he know? "I'm not sure, I guess it's just a habit".

Some slight nuance here: your brain doesn't distinguish between good and bad habits! Habits never really go away, which is why re-training them is so tough.

Create cravings

This takes us to an interesting space if you are trying to create a new habit in someone. To do that, you need to actively foster cravings for various items. You need to create the cue.

The example of creating a craving given in the book is Febreeze. A chemical engineer had created this new wonder-molecule which would absorb odiferous molecules, and make any scent seem to go away. It was perfect for removing the smell of smoke, pets, or skunk (as one Park Ranger in the book details).

But it was missing a 'craving'! For most part, users would not realize that their home smelled bad. And they didn't look for simply absence of smell, they wanted something which would make them feel a sense of satisfaction and reward after they finished.

So the Febreeze team looked more carefully and started realizing that power users were spritzing Febreze at the end of cleaning. They re-positioned all of the marketing to add open air windows, added a clean scent, and applied Febreeze to after their users had cleaned their homes.

Sports as a series of routines

The big problem: sports teams lose when they diverge from the habits they have tried to drill again and again.

The author says that this happened again and again to the Buccaneers in big game situations in the late 90s. They would explicitly not trust their drills and fall back on old habits. Which then caused them to fail

Creating “keystone” habits

Often, a single core habit can be used as the basis for many others. That’s part of the reason that people going through a very upending life situation (say a new job, a divorce, or a death of a family member) may shift many of their habits all at once.

These “base” habits are called “keystone” habits. Like a keystone does to an arch, these fundamental habits hold many of the other habits in place.

The example Duhigg uses to illustrate this comes from Alcoa, one of the largest Aluminum manufacturers in the U.S.

Alcoa had hired Paul O’Neill as its CEO in 1987. He had come from the government, and had a strong track record there—and everyone wondered what he would do as the firm’s new CEO.

At his first investor call, O’Neill surprised everyone in the room. Instead of talking about revenue or profits, all he talked about was worker’s safety. He found one issue that everyone could agree on, that would begin building an organization-wide habit of greater discipline. This “keystone” habit was what he used to drive change.

The very effective switch that O’Neill managed to pull off was that he would pre-commit to how he’d react to a cue ahead of time. If there was ever a question around safety, it would get top priority (he later fired his VP who failed to report safety violations).

Organizations are a model of habits

This section reminded me of “What you do is who you are. Effectively it states that organizations will behave as the set of habits that they have built.

Duhigg uses a couple of examples to illustrate this: one from a hospital where the norm is that nurses have no power compared to the doctors. Another is from the London Underground, which experienced a huge fire simply because each individual didn’t think fire safety was under their jurisdiction.

In his model of the world, large organizations can easily devolve into many different fiefdoms which are constantly at war and struggle for power. Habits are the rules and processes that help maintain order.

Social movements are habit-driven too

All social movements follow the same path: friends → community / neighbors → broader movement. In order to reach an escape trajectory, the habits and norms of a movement need to be strong enough so that a proximal community of neighbors isn’t necessary to spread the movement.

The example Duhigg uses in the book comes from the civil rights movement and the Montgomery Bus Boycotts.

Part of the reason Rosa parks succeeded is that she was very well socially connected. She knew academics, friends in the black and white community, church groups, and had ties across many different circles.

Many habit actions are governed by these sorts of "weak" social ties. Your close friends will influence a lot about you, but you don't care nearly as much about what they think of individual actions. After all, they have a lot of training data.

Instead, it's the acquaintances who hold a high social standing, but may have a poor opinion of you who you really want to impress. If you’ve signed up for a march or protest, and members of your church come to you and ask when you want to be picked up, you’ll have a hard time saying no.

Part of me wonders what the most useful ways to apply this sort of peer pressure are. Could you be nudged to do something really beneficial for society because a social group of peers thought this was important / cool but are not your friends. How do you hold them in high esteem? (In some ways, I think this was part of the reason we kept going with building Segment, we didn’t want to let our investors down!)

Building Habits

If you want to change a habit, what should you do?

It starts by examining the 'habit loop', the cycle of cue, routine, reward.

Most cues fall into one of five buckets...

  • Location

  • Time

  • Emotional State

  • Other People

  • Immediately preceding action

Whenever you detect the habit loop, you should take stock of each of these five different areas. Chances are good that you will spot some pattern across them.

Once you have isolated the cue, figure out whether the routine is actually necessary for getting the reward you want. Duhigg says you can do this by wildly varying the routine: if the routine is normally “eat a cookie”, try “walking around the block” or “calling an old friend” instead. You can then judge via the reward whether the habit itself is really driving the reward, or if it’s just a proxy.

Full description of the apendix is here: https://charlesduhigg.com/how-habits-work/