When Paul O’Neill took over the floundering Aluminum Co. of America in October 1987, he shocked attendees at an introductory news conference by proclaiming that his focus would not be on expanding sales or improving profitability. Rather, he said, his emphasis would be on improving employee safety. Investors at the conference thought he was crazy and rushed from the room to tell their clients to sell Alcoa stock immediately. “It was literally the worst piece of advice I gave in my entire career,” one later said.
O’Neill instituted wide-ranging programs to increase safety in what was previously a dangerous industry, empowering employees to offer suggestions and ensuring that accidents were immediately brought to the attention of executives. As the accident rate declined — ultimately to about 5% of the national average — something funny happened. Communication among employees increased, line workers offered other suggestions to improve efficiency, and the company underwent a renaissance. Within a year, Alcoa’s profits reached a record level. By the time O’Neill retired in 2000, the company’s stock was worth five times as much as when he started.
O’Neill, who served as Treasury secretary during George W. Bush’s first term, had focused on what Charles Duhigg, a reporter at the New York Times, calls a keystone habit: a small change in behavior that, when it starts to shift, dislodges and remakes other patterns in life. Such habits can be things like instituting an exercise program when attempting to lose weight or visiting with friends in Alcoholics Anonymous when the urge to drink strikes. In other words, take care of the small things and the big things will take care of themselves.
“The Power of Habit” is chock-full of fascinating anecdotes like O’Neill’s story: how an early 20th century adman turned Pepsodent into the first bestselling toothpaste by creating the habit of brushing daily, how a team of marketing mavens at Procter & Gamble rescued Febreze from the scrapheap of failed products by recognizing that a fresh smell was a fine reward for a cleaning task, how Michael Phelps’ coach instilled habits that made him an Olympic champion many times over, and how Tony Dungy turned the Indianapolis Colts into a Super Bowl-winning team.
The subjects of the anecdotes may not have recognized it explicitly, but their actions were in line with a variety of modern research that shows that many of our activities in life are based on habits. Habits can be as simple and beneficial as putting on your left shoe first in the morning or turning right out of the driveway to go to work, or as damaging as turning to alcohol when faced with stress or eating a high-calorie snack in midafternoon. Understanding how the habits work makes it possible to change them.
In its simplest form, researchers have found, a habit has three components: a cue, a routine and a reward. Over time, the routine becomes so habitual that the person anticipates the reward and receives almost as much pleasure from the anticipation as from the reward itself — a phenomenon known as craving. The anticipation of lighting a cigarette, for example, can bring nearly as much pleasure as inhaling the first puff of smoke.
The key to changing habits is not to avoid the cues or to change the rewards, most research shows. Rather, it involves changing the routine that leads from cue to habit. Duhigg notes that he was gaining weight, at least in part, because every afternoon at 3:30 he would break and go get a chocolate chip cookie. A series of experiments, such as having tea instead, chatting with colleagues or taking a brisk walk, indicated that what he really wanted was a break from work and interaction with colleagues. Instead of getting a cookie, he started taking 10 minutes to chat and found that he got the same reward from the activity. The cue stayed the same and the reward was similar, but the routine was markedly different.
Duhigg sometimes oversimplifies his explanations and some examples, such as the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, seem to strain credibility a bit. But by and large, the anecdotes are entertaining and the book just may give you a few ideas about how to change some ideas of your own.