Pick the Habit

All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits,—practical, emotional, and intellectual,—systematically organized for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be. — William James, Talks to Teachers on Psychology

I am a creature of habit. And so are you. And that’s a good thing, according to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit (Random House, 2012), and reporter at The New York Times. 

Duhigg became interested in the research being done on habits while in Baghdad covering the war. It occurred to him that the U.S. military “is one of the biggest habit-formation experiments in history.” His interest led him to hundreds of experiments, thousands of articles and books, interviews with Paul O’Neill, Tony Dungy, Howard Schultz of Starbucks,  and many others, and into the labs of the foremost neuroscientists of our time. 

Research into habits isn’t new, of course. Aristotle based his ethics on practicing the virtues until they became habitual, second nature. William James devoted a chapter of his Principles of Psychology to it in 1890 and returned to it repeatedly throughout his career, calling us ‘mere bundles of habit,’ and remarking that ‘The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work (Talks to Teachers).’ John Dewey based his Human Nature and Conduct (1922), a social psychology, on the development of morals through the formation of powerful habits of conduct. 

That approach to growing up certainly was part of the upbringing of several generations of American and British children since the 1920s. We were taught to cultivate good habits and shun the bad ones, learning through cultural norms and precepts which could be trusted and which to stifle. 

What is new is the confirmation, through extensive research and experimentation, of many of these early conjectures and hypotheses. Duhigg’s approach is to focus first on how habits develop in our lives, then how companies and organizations instill habits in the lives of their employees and customers, and finally, to examine how movements within societies harness the power of habits to transform the culture and ethos. 

His central idea is that ‘habits can be changed, if we understand how they work.’ We build them consciously, as we gain more practice, layer upon layer, day to day, until they come to govern most of our actions. The key is understanding that what was put together can be taken apart and reassembled for different results. It’s no panacea for all our problems, but much of what we put off doing because it’s too hard could be accomplished through the conscious cultivation of habits. 

What scientists and psychologists have discovered is a basic three-part loop: cue, routine, and reward. In order to change a habit, says Duhigg, we first find the routine that meets some hidden need. Then we experiment with the rewards, built to satisfy our cravings. Third, we isolate the cue, what sets us off in playing through a habit, and finally, if we’re serious about change, we come up with a plan. 

On the idea that understanding is more than half the battle won, Duhigg gives us example after example of people discovering the loops, developing them, and changing their lives, however incrementally. 

Paul O’Neill took over Alcoa as CEO in 1987, and made it his mission to turn the company into the safest place to work in America. He had the idea that transforming the working habits that resulted in at least one accident a week at most of Alcoa’s plants might have a ripple effect throughout the organization. He was right. Changing the mentality of everyone at Alcoa—management to line workers—about safety not only resulted in the company’s worker injury rate dropping to one-twentieth of the average in America, but net income and market capitalization soared in the years O’Neill led the company. 

O’Neill believed that certain ‘keystone habits’ have the power to ripple through an organization, changing everything. Focusing on priorities rather than attempting to do everything exactly right, O’Neill found that workers now felt empowered to make suggestions and change routines that made their lives safer and their productivity skyrocket. 

Tony Dungy, coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, drilled his team on the basics, reducing the time it took to make decisions during a five-second play to automatic responses, thus freeing the players to react instantaneously to changes on the field. 

Mark Muraven, a psychologist at Case Western University, began studying willpower as a Ph.D. student. He wondered why willpower sometimes seemed to waver and then grow stronger, only to flounder again. Through a series of ingenious experiments, Muraven and his team discovered that willpower is more than a skill. “It’s a muscle,” he says, “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.” If you want to change something, then you need to conserve your willpower and not waste it on tedious tasks. 

Muraven’s research was picked up by other researchers who extended it to other areas. What they discovered was that when willpower was built up and grew stronger, it touched everything else in a person’s life. Those who developed a habit of exercising regularly found it easier to eat more healthfully, work more efficiently, and have more satisfying personal relationships. 

But the flip side of habits is also explored. Duhigg examines the case of a woman whose gambling habit eventually took over her life, resulting in her losing a $1 million inheritance, her home, and her family. The power of habits is such that they can transform our lives for the better or ruin us. 

Once again, understanding how habits work is essential to harnessing all that power for the good. Duhigg cautions that there is no magic formula for speedily changing habits. Just as they build up over time, so it takes time to substitute routines, isolate the cues, and reap the rewards. Moreover, the infinite number of variables in any one person’s experience renders a formula useless. There isn’t one formula, says Duhigg. There are thousands. His aim throughout the book is to reveal the process of building habits and provide a guide to how to experiment with them. 

William James thought the development of habits so important that he urged teachers to ingrain the most useful ones into the lives of their students. “Education is for behavior,” he said in 1892, “and habits are the stuff of which behavior consists.” 

Any of our routines can become habits, usually below the level of our awareness. But that needn’t be the case, and if we want to pilot our ship instead of being a stowaway, paying attention to our habits offers a direct route. 

The unexamined life is not worth living, said Socrates. He could also have said, the unlived life is not worth examining. Either way it’s a fair bet that habits will be involved, habits that if put in place can free us up, both individuals and societies, for the more pressing problems we face. 

One thought on “Pick the Habit

  1. In aviation we preach safety, security and quality as the basic tenants of the industry. Many in the industry give lip service to them however, these are cultures that should be ingrained in the psyche of people in the industry. These are not abstract ideas but actions to live by at work as well as the rest of our lives. They should be habits and the only way is EDUCATION, EDUCATION and EDUCATION.


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