Award-winning business reporter for The New York Times, Charles Duhigg (right), discusses his new book, The Power of Habit, about the science of habit formation in people, companies and societies. He explains the research behind the book, why habits exist, the secret to changing them, and how keystone habits set off chain reactions for sweeping business transformations. He examines the habit loop, making it clear why some companies struggle to alter course while others do so facilely. Duhigg provides insight to small businesses about changing institutional, employee and consumer behavior through the power of habit.
SL: Describe the backstory for The Power of Habit, where and when did you first become interested in the subject?
CD: I first got interested in the subject eight or nine years ago when I was a reporter in Kufa, about an hour south of Baghdad in Iraq. The U.S. military is very interested in understanding habits and I heard about an Army major who had figured out how to stop riots there by removing food vendors. What he discovered was that when people would gather, the food vendors would show up and the people would stay longer and the situation would escalate. By removing the food vendors from the series of events, at about 5:30 p.m. the people would get hungry and start to go home if there was no food. Crowds are collections of people with habits.
CD: Habits exist because our neurology needs them. It would be mentally exhausting if our brains did not make everyday routines into habits, which are actually a combination of three parts: the cue, routine and reward. The cue is the trigger to the behavior or routine, which is reinforced by the reward.
SL: Could you give an example of a simple habit loop – a cue, a routine, and a reward?
CD: Yes. Recently, I would eat a cookie every afternoon and that caused me to gain a little weight. A trigger can be a time or place, the presence of other people or a ritual. For me, the cookie cue came between 3:15 and 3:45 p.m. each day. At first, I thought the reward was simply eating the cookie, but rewards are complicated, so I reconsidered it. Was it that I needed a burst of energy? Did I need sweetness? I did little experiments exchanging coffee breaks for the cookie breaks, and what I discovered was that the reward I was craving was socialization. I needed time to socialize and that was the real reward of the habit.
SL: Why do some people and companies struggle to change?
CD: Change is hard if they haven’t analyzed the cues and rewards. The brain tries to make the patterns in our lives, our every routine, into a habit. Most people focus on the routine part of the habit rather than focusing on the cue or the reward, which are actually more important.
SL: You discuss keystone habits in The Power of Habit. What are they?
CD: Keystone habits are those habits that cause chain reactions. For example, exercise is a keystone habit, which leads to people eating better and also using their credit cards less.
SL: How can small businesses use this information to improve performance?
CD: For small businesses, look at the employee habits that are driving organizational habits. There are also consumer habits, with their own cues and rewards and one problem is having the reward set too far in the future.
SL: Could you provide an example of a situation where an institutional habit could be changed to improve outcomes?
CD: When a crisis happens, this is often an opportunity for improvement. An example is a Rhode Island Hospital, which had bad communication habits, which led to mistakes being made in surgical rooms that led to deaths in some cases. They changed their habits by starting to use checklists and by having time outs before going into surgery, and those changes became the new routine.
SL: Lastly, in the book, you tell the story of how Alcoa changed one habit that turned the company around, could you talk about that?
CD: When Paul O’Neill—who went on to become Secretary of the Treasury—became the CEO of Alcoa, he wanted to make the company more profitable, but there had already been a big strike, so any change risked having people at each other’s throats. So, what he decided to do was focus on worker safety first, and by changing the institutional habits about safety, the company became more efficient, more productive and more profitable. Safety was a keystone habit that unlocked a chain reaction that created a top-performing company.