Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Power of Habit – afterword and appendix

I found the afterword and appendix to actually contain some of the most powerful, straightforward stuff in Duhigg’s book (though you may need to read the entire thing for this to be the case).

The afterword includes follow-up stories with some readers who had written in with thier experience using Duhigg’s guidance to lose weight, quit smoking, stop procrastination and improve teaching. One of the things that struck me the most in this chapter was the discussion of setbacks, and the importance of developing a plan for dealing with them. Duhigg says that “if you plan for failure, and then plan for recovery – you’re more likely to snap back faster.”

The Appendix provides a practical guide to using all the ideas in the book. Duhigg is careful to warn that even with a common habit, such as overeating, the cues, cravings, rewards, etc may be different for each person – which is why he created the book as a framework rather than a prescription. His framework is:

1) Identify the routine – the habit loop of cue, routine and reward seems simple enough, but figuring out the cue can be more difficult than you might expect. The routine itself, however, should be simple to identify.

2) Experiment with rewards – the reason for experimenting with rewards is actually to help to figure out what craving the routine is satisfying. As you test each reward, look for patterns by jotting down the first three things that come to mind once you have completed your routine with the new reward. Then, set an alarm for 15 minutes and when it goes off ask whether you still have the craving for the routine. The rationale behind these steps is described in the book, and reviewing the notes on how you felt immediately after the replacement rewards as well as 15 minutes later will help identify exactly what craving this routine has been satisfying.

3) Isolate the cue – Duhigg shares scientific evidence that almost all habitual cues fall into one of five categories: location, time, emotional state, other people or immediately preceding action. So when he felt a craving for the routine he wanted to change, he wrote down answers to the questions: Where are you? What time is it? What’s your emotional state? Who else is around? What action preceded the urge?

4) Have a plan – Once the cue is identified and you already know the routine you want to change and a suitable replacement reward, all the elements are in place to create a better routine. The plan is crucial for dealing with setbacks, and gettting back on track.


Are we responsible for our habits?

The final chapter of Duhigg’s The Power of Habit discusses neurology and personal responsibility. Once again, he uses two powerful examples to make his point.

One example is of a man who killed his wife while experiencing sleep terrors (a slightly less conscious version of sleepwalking). Scientific and circumstantial evidence showed that this man had no intent to kill his wife, and that he was simply following a deeply ingrained habit – fight or flight – and was left with a deep sense of guilt. Not only was he found not guilty, the judge attempted to console him.

The next example was of a woman who developed a habit of compulsive gambling, declared bankruptcy and moved to another state to avoid casinos, but was drawn back in by predatory marketing and grief over the loss of her parents – which ended up in the loss of her $1 million inheritance.

A study of the neurology of problem gamblers showed that their brains showed the same reward reaction to near wins as they did to wins, whereas other gamblers correctly interpreted near wins as losses. This showed up in the brain stem and basal ganglia, the same areas as sleep terrors. Further, people who have taken medication that affects these areas have been found not to be responsible for sudden binges of gambling, eating, shopping, etc. So should all problem gamblers who exhibit this deterioration be excused for their actions?

Duhigg says no:

We can choose our habits, once we know how. Everything we know about habits, from neurologists studying amnesiacs and organizational experts remaking companies, is that any if them can be changed, if you understand how they function.


However, to modify a habit, you must decide to change it. You must consciously accept the hard work of identifying the cues and rewards that drive the habits’ routines, and find alternatives. You must know you have control and be self-conscious enough to use it…

The habits of societies – how movements happen

Chapter 8 of the Duhigg book, focusing on the Montgomery bus boycotts and the founding and growth of Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, is the beginning of the third portion of the book – the habits of societies.

Early in the chapter, Duhigg introduces the concept of weak ties – the people who are not close friends but instead casual acquaintances or friends-of-friends. As I’ve heard before, weak ties can be more important than close ties in finding a job. But it also turns out that they are crucial to building a movement. In discussing Rosa Parks, Duhigg says:

A movement starts because of social habits of friendship and the strong ties between close acquaintances. It grows because of the habits of a community, and the weak ties that hold neighborhoods and clans together. And it endures because the movement’s leaders give participants new habits that create a fresh sense of identity and a feeling of ownership


Duhigg talks about how Parks was an extraordinary individual, with ties that crossed many social boundaries and was admired throughout the community. But that is just a catalyst. It is when “the strong ties of friendship and the weak ties of peer pressure merge” that momentum is gained.

As always, Duhigg takes what seems like a simple 1+1 recipe and then says there its a secret ingredient – in this case it is this:

For an idea to grow betting a community, it must become self-propelling. And the surest way to achieve that is to give people new habits that help then figure out where to go on their own.

This was the secret to the growth of both the bus boycotts and then the larger civil rights movement as well as Saddleback church, posits Duhigg.

Movements don’t emerge because everyone  suddenly decides  to face the same direction at once. They rely on social patterns that begin as the habits of friendship, grow through the habits of communities, and are sustained by new habits that change participants’ sense of self.

When companies predict (and manipulate) habits

Chapter 7 in Duhigg’s book begins by talking about Target, and how they infamously used their analytics to identify pregnant women before they had told their families. The seemingly incongruous example paired this time is the Outkast song Hey Ya, which software had predicted would be a huge hit.

In both cases, the initial result was failure. The Outkast song was too different from what listeners were used to, and the Target targeting through coupons was too creepy.

Duhigg shares the secret recipe for creating habits from an old U.S. government study when they were trying to get Americans to eat more offal: people will try something new when it is surrounded by what is familiar.

So Hey Ya was played in between mega hits, and Target started putting the baby coupons next to unrelated common consumer items, and both succeeded.

The power of a crisis to instigate habit change

Chapter 6 of Duhigg’s book talks about the role crisis can play in instigating habit change. But first he explains the research of Nelson and Winter, who wrote about institutional habits as truces between warring factions within organizations. Duhigg says “There are no organizations without institutional habits. There are only places where they are deliberately designed, and places where they are created without forethought, so they often grow from rivalries or fear.”

Duhigg uses the examples of rampant medical errors and a major transit safety incident, which underscores his point: “Sometimes one priority – or one department or one person or one goal – needs to overshadow everything else, though it might be unpopular or threaten the balance of power that keeps trains running on time.”

Crisis brings this into sharp focus. Crisis brings a turmoil in which habits are more malleable and the sense that something must be done. It is easier to institute change and form new habits and routines in a crisis our its immediate aftermath.

While Duhigg emphasizes this for organizational leaders, it seems relevant to the individual as well. When we feel we are in crisis, out is easy to say “I can’t take on new changes during this time of chaos.” But maybe that’s actually the best time to make a change because we see the need and are open to it.

The evolution of strategic thinking in noprofits

Jed Emerson’s twitter feed (@blendedvalue) pointed me to this SSIR article by Barbara Kibbe entitled Five Things Strategy Isn’t, which Emerson describes in the comments as “just a really nice framing of how we got here and where we’re headed.”

The first half of the article is just that – a great summary of how “the dynamic duo of strategy and evaluation” has evolved from flip charts that simply record discussions, to logic models, to SROI and beyond. I’m oversimplifying what Kibbe herself calls an oversimplification, but that’s because it’s worth checking the article itself if you’re not familiar with the evolution of evaluation processes, tools and thinking from the 80s to now. My own nonprofit journey didn’t start until the 90s, but being in small local nonprofits, we certainly used 80s tools/thinking in the 90s (and sometimes still today).

The second half of the article opens by saying that the current debate over the value of strategic philanthropy is healthy, but in order to have that debate we should be careful in defining our terms. And Kibbe starts that definitional discussion by pointing out five times when what we call strategic thinking isn’t actually strategic:

  • when it’s fixed – good strategy is never fixed, nor is it a single tool (or a pair of tools). Kibbe quotes Rosabeth Moss Kantor of HBS: “Strategy is a lot like improvisation—setting themes, destinations, directions, and then improvising around those themes.”
  • when it’s insulated – context is key, and if strategy and evaluation are not considered together then both will suffer
  • when it doesn’t consider people – strategy needs to be flexible enough to deal with the complexities of human beings
  • when it’s old, hidden or boring – strategy needs to be current, compelling and shared in order for others to understand it and buy in
  • when we are too attached to it – here Kibbe quotes The Independent Sector’s founder John Gardner saying “Philanthropy is the only source of truly flexible capital for the social good” and following up with how important it is for foundations to listen to and support good ideas from the field.

Kibbe closes with her hopes for the future, including this quote that I really liked:

When we look strategy (and evaluation) in the eye, we will see a useful and evolving suite of tools—no more, no less. Practiced well, and in tandem, they will continue to be powerful aids for decision-making but never substitutes for judgment.


Making willpower a habit

The fifth chapter in Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit is about Starbucks, and features the success story of one of its employees. Starbucks has focused on developing the habit of willpower in its employees and in doing so has “…succeeded in teaching the kind of life skills that schools, families and communities have failed to provide,” says Duhigg, before he goes into the research, discussing the marshmallow study and several variants. 

Willpower has been shown to be a finite resource, says one of the scientists:

Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like the muscles in your arms or legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there’s less power left over for other things

Studies showed that willpower exercised in one area often translated into other areas – whether subjects were asked to go to the gym, begin money management, or practice study habits, they got better at regulating their impulses and distracting themselves from their temptations. A study of orthopedic patients who were asked to write action plans for their physical activity recovered at a greater rate than those simply given instructions – researchers found that it was the plan for dealing with key inflection points of pain  that helped them through.

Starbucks used this to design a training system for employees. Employees were introduced to the situation where an inflection point – like an angry customer – could cause a breakdown, and a framework for how the company suggests dealing with the situation. The employee then filled in the answer, and role played so that their response became automatic. The angry customer “inflection point” becomes the cue in the habit loop, and the reward should be grateful customers, praise from the manager, etc.

The other thing Duhigg emphasizes in this is the sense of agency that Starbucks gives employees. When people feel like they are in control, when they feel like it is their choice to exercise willpower (rather than having someone brusquely demand that they exercise willpower), they don’t need to use as much willpower and their energy and attention for other tasks dramatically increase.