Sweet and sour
A new book shows why bad habits form and how to get rid of them
I’m in withdrawal. Last summer I was addicted to the TV series Breaking Bad, a show set in the starkly beautiful US state of New Mexico about a high school chemistry teacher who becomes a crystal-meth manufacturer after being diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. But with a large break between the two halves of the final series, I’ve had to forgo my viewing habit for now – and the comedown has been excruciating.
I’ve been able to analyse my addiction to the show, however, using the lessons I’ve learned from The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, the recent book by Pulitzer-prize-winning reporter Charles Duhigg. What I need – and what Breaking Bad provided – is both excitement and vistas of the great outdoors. So I’ve bought myself a mountain bike, which is so far proving an effective – and healthy – substitute.
Coincidentally, Charles Duhigg is a New Mexico native. He’s also a reporter at The New York Times and a foreign correspondent who did a stint in war-torn Baghdad. The Power of Habit – his first book – is about the science of habit formation, a science which, he explains, has helped him apply various positive changes to his own life.
“Since starting work on this book, I’ve lost about 13 kilograms,” he writes. “I run every other morning and I’m much more productive. The reason why is because I’ve learned to diagnose my habits and how to change them.
“Take, for instance, a bad habit I had of eating a cookie every afternoon. By learning how to analyse my habit, I figured out that the reason I walked to the cafeteria each day wasn’t because I was craving a chocolate chip cookie, it was because I was craving socialisation. That was the habit’s real reward.
“The cue for my behaviour – the trigger that caused me to automatically stand up and wander to the cafeteria – was a certain time of day. So I reconstructed the habit – now, at about 3.30pm each day, I absentmindedly stand up from my desk, look around for someone to talk with, and then gossip for about 10 minutes. I haven’t had a cookie in six months.”
The breadth of Duhigg’s book encompasses far more than personal habits, however. Part one looks at the habits of individuals and delivers a wealth of insights for professional development, notably the concept of the “Habit Loop”. Part two identifies the habits of successful organisations, while part three ambitiously explores the habits of societies.
On the way Duhigg takes us to the cusp of scientific discoveries that explain why habits exist and how they can be changed. We get to see inside laboratories where neuroscientists examine how habits operate and deduce where exactly they reside in our brains.
A number of case studies look at broken individuals hell-bent on self-destruction and draw some key conclusions. One of the most salient is the importance of addressing – and eliminating – your “keynote bad habit”. According to Duhigg, other bad habits will then fall like dominoes.
This is apparently now becoming conventional wisdom. Michael McNulty, a corporate coach and keynote speaker, says that there are some habits – called “keystone habits” – that can have a trickle-down effect on how people behave and perceive life around them.
“A good example is exercise,” he says. “Exercise creates new and fresh ways of approaching the other routines in life because it gives you more energy and optimism, due to the creation of endorphins and other ‘happy’ chemical reactions in the body. Your mental and physical reaction times improve, your powers of concentration are extended – encouraging you to be more engaged in listening and interacting with people around you – you are more conscious of what you eat and how it might affect your performance, and you sleep better because your body has been engaged and needs time to repair. You wake up fresher and more likely to want to get on with your day, including getting to work in good time and primed for the day.
“In terms of the recruitment and development of staff, it is fundamental that in order to promote consistency, clarity of purpose and synergised, authentic goals that are shared and owned by the whole organisation, core values, habits and processes are identified and invested in by all. By encouraging a collaborative approach to investing in keystone habits, the intentions become compelling and irresistible.”
In examining successful organisations, Duhigg uses a case study from product manufacturer Procter & Gamble. The company was trying to rescue a new product called Febreze, a household odour eliminator that was threatening to become one of the biggest flops in P&G’s history.
The product started out as merely an odour neutraliser. However, after studying hours of household cleaning routines – or habits – P&G noticed that the people who used the product did so because it felt like a “reward” at the end of their routines. The company added more perfume to the Febreze formula, so it had its own distinct scent, and adjusted their ad campaign accordingly. Now Febreze is one of P&G’s best-selling products.
Other “right habits” case studies mined for their inspirational ore are the success of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, the Midas touch of Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, and the unstoppable tenacity of civil-rights hero Martin Luther King, Jr. Duhigg says it’s all about “patterns of behaviour” and how success can be achieved by transforming or overriding habits.
Duhigg presents a whole new understanding of human nature. At its core, his book contains an exhilarating premise: that the key to personal wellness, becoming more productive, building revolutionary companies and social movements, and achieving outrageous success can be found in understanding how habits work.
The author contends that “you have the freedom and responsibility” to remake your habits and that “the most addicted alcoholics can become sober. The most dysfunctional companies can transform themselves. A high school dropout can become a successful manager.”
This, however, makes it sound easier than the reality probably is, and at times Duhigg – who has evidently never underachieved in his life – sounds a little out of touch. He does, though, reassure us that habit-changing, while hard initially, does get easier as we progress in our personal journeys to transformational change.
I’m sure I’ll slip back into my Breaking Bad habit when it starts airing again in a few weeks. But that mountain-biking has done me the power of good and has revealed my keystone bad habit: slothfulness. According to the key message of Duhigg’s book, I’m on the right habitual track. No back-pedalling from here.
CASE STUDY: HONG KONG HABITS
As shared by Annie Lai, senior PR and marketing manager at Arte Madrid.
SLEEPING HABIT "A bad habit that I recently identified and then fixed was my tendency to sleep late during weekends, normally till noon. These days, I wake up at 9am at the weekend to make best use of the time I have."
iHABIT "However, one bad habit that I haven't yet fixed is excessively playing with my iPhone in bed before I go to sleep. I don't think I'm alone in this respect in Hong Kong."
CHANGING HABIT "Habits can be changed. It is important to defeat bad habits and maintain good ones. Admittedly, some habits are easy to change, while others are so difficult that they require a lot of effort, encouragement and willpower."
GOOD AND BAD "Habits can be good or bad, but it is good habits that empower us to become the successful people we want to be. However, bad habits are a stumbling block on the road to success."