Tag Archives: the habit loop

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. 

The Golden Rule of Habit Change

The Golden Rule of Habit Change, subtitled “Why Transformation Occurs” is the third chapter in Duhigg’s The Power of Habit, and the final section of part one, The Habits of Individuals. 

The golden rule itself is “you can’t extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it.” Duhigg goes back to the 3-step habit loop and says that you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but change the routine.

Duhigg once again uses a couple of examples to demonstrate, this time a football coach who focused relentlessly on improving his players’ habits and the founders and members of Alcoholics Anonymous. Once again there are powerful, compelling examples of change, and strong results, so that you would think the above formula is “it.” But then Duhigg gives powerful counter-examples where each of the above failed – in both cases it was high-stress situations (the playoffs/superbowl for the football team, times of major personal crisis/loss for the alcoholics). Duhigg then comes in with the “secret ingredient” which was not explicit in the 3-step loop: belief. 

Duhigg doesn’t make it all seem easy, which is good. He first discusses the difficulty of identifying the cue, which can be subconscious in the case of many habits (Duhigg uses a brief but memorable example of an extreme fingernail chewer). Then, he discusses how it can also be difficult to identify the actual reward (e.g. with alcoholics, it is rarely the physical effects of alcohol, but a certain feeling). Only once these are properly identified can a new routine begin to replace the bad habit.

And of course, the belief part may be the most difficult. Duhigg quotes Lee Ann Kaskutas of the Alcohol Research Group:

There’s something really powerful about groups and shared experiences. People may be skeptical about their ability to change if they’re by themselves, but a group will convince them to suspend disbelief. A community creates belief.

I like that Duhigg takes the time to mention that while the process of habit change is easily described, it is not always easily accomplished. I wish that this was not relegated to a footnote, though.