Wednesday, January 7, 2015

"The Power of Habit": A Fitting book for New Year's Resolutions

Do you make New Year's Resolutions every year and give up after a week or a month? Maybe you need to take a closer look at the habits that surround your resolution - study your cue, the routine and the reward. Then, dig even deeper into what makes you crave a certain habit.  New York Times investigative reporter Charles Duhigg's book "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business" explores the truth behind habits - the habit loop, our cravings, how we can change habits and how habits can lead us to success or failure as individuals and even societies.  He could end up helping you transform your life (or stick to your New Year's Resolution) by understanding why you do what you do.

Duhigg says this in his introduction:
"In the past decade, our understanding of the neurology and psychology of habits and the way patterns work within our lives, societies, and organizations has expanded in ways we couldn't have imagined fifty years ago.  We now know why habits emerge, how to break them into parts and rebuild them to our specifications.  We understand how to make people eat less, exercise more, work more efficiently, and live healthier lives.  Transforming a habit isn't necessarily easy or quick.  It isn't always simple.
But it is possible. And now we understand how."

I found parts of this book fascinating, parts a stretch of comparisons that didn't necessarily fit together, and then others more about mob psychology and societal change than habits themselves.  Regardless of the slow parts or the parts that made me scratch my head a bit (in one section he compared a gambling habit where a woman gambled away her life savings to a sleepwalking habit of a man who accidentally killed his wife), the rest of the book was compelling enough for me to read sections aloud to my husband who is tasked with transforming his growing company.  I kept asking him, "Have you ever thought about that for your company?" He listened intently.

As I read about Hopkins transforming the dental hygiene of Americans by creating a foaming craving and tingling sensation in Pepsodent toothpaste, I was intrigued.  This was a necessary habit to stop the epidemic of bad teeth.  As the government put it when they started drafting men for WWI "so many recruits had rotting teeth that officials said that poor dental hygiene was a national security risk." Look at us now - consumed by foaming and tingling sensations brought about by whitening toothpastes.  The choices in the toothpaste aisle are dizzying thanks to the habits Claude Hopkins helped to create in the early 1900s. What would our teeth look like today if Hopkins had not helped us create that habit?

Another part of the book that was fascinating to me was Paul O'Neill and his ingenious reformation of ALCOA.  Unlike the previous CEO, O'Neill stepped into power and made one thing his goal - safety.  By changing the way people thought about safety, he improved every aspect of the company.  He improved their profits, and higher quality products.  Researchers have found that tapping into the right keystone habit can transform other habits.  For example, "studies have documented that families who habitually eat dinner together seem to raise children with better homework skills, higher grades, greater emotional control, and more confidence." Just like they have found that people who habitually make their beds are more productive and better with sticking to a budget.  "It's not that a family meal or a tidy bed causes better grades or less frivolous spending. But somehow those initial shifts start chain reactions that help other good habits take hold." Eye opening stuff.

When he uncovered the secret behind the success of Febreeze, the buying habits of Target shoppers and Target's marketing analysts (totally Big Brother stuff), Michael Phelps and his routine of success, and Tony Dungy's winning coaching strategies that all focus on the habits of players, I again was fascinated by how humans can be broken down to a series of routines and reactions.  Just like when I read the part about recovery from surgery or success according to Starbucks stems from creating a habit - a habit of how to help someone in stressful retail situations (LATTE is ingenious) or a habit of writing down an intention.

I somewhere read that a study showed that students who attended Harvard business school and wrote down their goals were more successful than students who didn't which makes perfect sense according to Duhigg's research.  I also like to think that my husband and I are more successful in reaching our goals because we meticulously write them down and try to come up with one intention for the year.  Last year my intention had to do with a successful cross country move for me and my family, and things worked out really well.  This year my focus is on creating more of a balance in my life.  Am I working on my habits the right way? I'm not so sure about that, but I am way more aware of the psychology behind successful and not so successful habits thanks to reading this book.

Duhigg's book will stick with me for some time to come (and many more New Year's Resolutions to come as well).

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