It sounds obvious, but the most powerful thing about this book is the core finding. Duhigg concludes from his research that ‘habit loops’ are central to every habit – whether personal habits or the habits of an entire organisation. The ‘habit loop’ consists of a cue, a routine and a reward. In Duhigg’s own words, ‘it’s that deceptively simple. Your alarm goes off in the morning (cue), you shower, eat breakfast, and brush your teeth (routine), and you get out the door on time and without forgetting anything (reward).’
Duhigg argues that in order to create or alter a habit, you first need to identify the routine and then you need to create a reward. For instance, as recently as 100 years ago, people did not brush their teeth regularly and toothpaste as it exists today was not commonplace. Pepsodent, the first company to achieve widespread sales of toothpaste, created a ‘reward’ to encourage the habit by adding mint flavouring to toothpaste. The pleasant taste creates a ‘clean’ feeling that previous toothpastes did not. Duhigg suggests that it was through Pepsodent’s advertising that the cue (sticky, coated teeth) and the reward (fresh, minty mouth) created the routine of brushing your teeth.
This ‘habit loop’ serves as the basic premise for the book, and Duhigg uses it to explore how organisations as a whole can change their internal habits. His conclusion is that we, as business leaders must create and follow the same process and focus on building a ‘keystone’ habit – that is, a habit that helps create a chain reaction by changing other habits as you integrate the new habit into your life.
One of the most interesting examples in the book is the story of Alcoa, the world’s third-largest producer of aluminium. Duhigg tells the story of the new CEO, Paul O’Neill, who initially confused board members and analysts with his obsessive focus on safety in the workplace. O’Neill argued that profits did not matter as much as safety and that before safety was completely up to scratch, the business could not progress. O’Neill’s emphasis on this ‘keystone’ habit of putting safety above everything else was filtered down and drilled into the entire organisation. As a result, workplace efficiency improved, downtime decreased and the company saved money on injury claims – all of which drove profits up significantly by the time O’Neill retired in 2000.
Unfortunately, once Duhigg has explained the process of the habit loop and demonstrated how it relates to wider business issues, the book becomes a little repetitive. There is also a tendency in pursuing the idea of the habit loop to force some examples to fit the model. While the framework is a good one, Duhigg tries to explain too much with it – which unfortunately means that important distinctions become somewhat blurred.
So why the editor’s choice? It’s an important and simple message. And one that could change the way you live and work quite fundamentally. The Power of Habit is an interesting read, for the most part simply because it makes you aware of habit loops forming in your own life.