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. 

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