“Be on the Books” is a regular series in which Braithwaite staff explain what we found useful and what we think leaders can learn from the best marketing and business books.
There’s a good reason “The Power of Habit” made a habit of appearing on bestseller lists since it was first released in 2012.
Author Charles Duhigg won the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism as a business reporter at The New York Times, so it’s no surprise that he’s able to take deep research and explain it through intriguing stories about how people have transformed themselves, and entire organizations, by adjusting their habits. It’s often called a “business book,” but it’s a fascinating read for anyone who wants to better understand how people operate.
The first section of the book is focused on individual habits, which makes it a must-read for anyone trying to finally make good on New Year’s resolutions. The second section is filled with stories about organizational routines and processes, and the third broadens the scope further to societal habits. In each, our automatic behaviors choices are shown to be powerful forces that can be dangerous if left to their own devices – even deadly, as Duhigg notes in a few graphic examples. They can also be wondrous if channeled in positive directions. Habits are nothing but our brains trying to save effort by putting routine activities on a continuous loop, and those loops can either virtuous cycles or downward spirals.
Our team refers to this book regularly, particularly its insights on organizational habits, which are very relevant to our internal communications, corporate culture and crisis management work. If you’re trying to make a change, it’s essential to understand how systems form and become ingrained in the first place.
Here are some specific lessons our staff took from The Power of Habit, which we think you’ll find useful as well.
Mary Cosmides, Senior Account Executive
One of the most surprising and interesting insights I took from the book was this sentence: “Crises are so valuable, in fact, that sometimes it’s worth stirring up a sense of looming catastrophe rather than letting it die down.”
That’s from the chapter titled “The Power of a Crisis,” in which Duhigg explains that organizational habits become uniquely malleable in the midst of turmoil, presenting a rare opportunity for leaders to create change. It shows that successful crisis management isn’t simply suppressing bad news – which is most people’s assumption – but actually more about finding a way to come out better on the other side.
That ideas is also fascinating when we’re thinking about general efforts to rally people around causes. We often call this “coining the crisis” when crafting the story about why a company exists and what it hopes to accomplish. It’s intuitive, in a sense – we’ve evolved to respond to danger. But we see many companies who are too risk averse to acknowledge that anything is wrong, and subsequently struggle to get attention. I’d even say that’s a New Year’s resolution business should all make – if you want to make changes, don’t be afraid to be honest about the need for change.
Ariel Shore, Senior Account Executive
Weirdly enough, the Appendix was the most useful chapter to me. It’s a step-by-step guide for implementing some of the book’s ideas, which Duhigg describes through his own process of trying to cut his daily cookie craving. Essentially, the process is to identify the routine you want to change, experiment with different rewards to entice you into a new habit, isolate the cues that make you want to go back to your old habit, and have a plan for sticking to your new routine. Pretty simple when spelled out, and a great way to systematically make changes.
The broader takeaway for businesses looking to improve organizational habits is to actually acknowledge the routines that exist, and consider whether they are truly the best ways to do business. That first step seems so simple, but so many people are reluctant to challenge the status quo, meaning that wasteful routines stay in place far longer than they need to. All companies would benefit from a greater willingness to at least reevaluate their habits from time to time.
Lee Procida, Senior Account Executive
The chapter titled “Starbucks and the Habit of Success” is probably the one I think about most often. By examining several academic studies, and several very successful companies like Starbucks, Deloitte and The Container Store, Duhigg explains that willpower is like a muscle that can be both worn out and built up. That concept brings a lot of utility to the work environment, explaining why tedious tasks can waste energy needed to tackle big projects, and why practicing tough situations is crucial to handling them in the heat of the moment.
After re-reading that chapter, there’s also a part that dovetails perfectly with another one of our agency’s favorite books, The Story Factor. A key concept from that book is how stories pull people in rather than push them in a certain direction, which is exactly the dynamic Duhigg shows is necessary to truly motivate people. He cites several studies that found when people don’t feel like they have a choice, their willpower is exhausted much faster. On the other hand, he writes that “giving employees a sense of agency – a feeling that they are in control, that they have genuine decision-making authority – can radically increase how much energy and focus they bring to their jobs.” That adds some scientific heft to author Annette Simmons’ argument that pushing people activates resistance, whereas pulling them along with a story taps into their own momentum.
On a personal note, I think I would have done very well in the study Duhigg details that presented participants with two bowls of food – one with freshly baked cookies, and the other with radishes. One group was only allowed to eat the cookies, and the other was only allowed to eat radishes. The radish eaters did much worse on a subsequent series of puzzles, which supports the theory that willpower is actually a muscle you can exhaust after a period of time, the argument being that these test subjects used all their strength resisting the allure of chocolate. I personally think radishes are delicious, though, so I guess I would have been an outlier.