We are creatures of habit. We may like to think that our daily actions result from deliberation and willpower. But mostly they are the products of our unconscious habits. The same is true for our kids. Most of what they do is based on habit.
One of the keys to success in life is instilling good habits. Habits are about organic efficiency. They do not distinguish between what is good for you and what is bad for you. Does that leave us out of control? Or can we hack our habits by exploiting the habit-forming routine?
Charles Duhigg, an investigative reporter for the New York Times, presents an exploration of this subject in his latest book: The Power of Habit. Duhigg has loaded the book with information on how habit patterns work in the brain and suggestions on how to change them. Biologists have investigated the habit-formation aspect of the brain, but it’s the marketers who have pushed the envelope. They realize that creating habits means products moving off the shelf. That’s where retailers can really get their hooks in you and your kids.
One of the anecdotes in the book is the controversial story of how Target can identify when a customer is pregnant and then focus related advertising on the soon-to-be mother. Target realized that lucrative baby supply purchasing habits are already formed by the time the baby arrives so the retailer wanted to change habits before the baby came. The sooner customers started coming to Target for their baby needs, the better. Target figured out to hack habits.
Or take the background story on the crafting of Febreze, the odor eliminating spray, as an example of how our habits drive us to buy products. Procter & Gamble came up with a powerful product. One test subject was a park ranger who regularly had to wrangle wayward skunks. Her clothes, her car, and her home all stunk of skunk. Febreze changed her life. Less odoriferous customers loved the product, but ended up rarely using it.
Then the marketing scientists focused on the habits of cleaning. Febreze was scent-free. A person would spray it, but the application wouldn’t produce a sensory trigger to create a habit from using it. They added a fresh scent and advertised it for use as the final step in cleaning. “No one craves scentlessness. On the other hand, lots of people crave a nice smell after they’ve spent thirty minutes cleaning.” The addition of scent turned Febreeze from a smart product into a billion dollar product.
The Power of Habit is divided into three parts. The first focuses on individuals and how habits shape lives. Duhigg includes stories on how habits can be broken, reset, and persist. You can be trapped by a predictable cycle: you feel tired in the afternoon, you head out to Dunkin’ Donuts, and then you get the reward from the sugar and caffeine and feel much better. Marketers reinforce these routines by fiddling with the Pavlovian rewards.
The second part looks at the habits of organizations. Duhigg argues that managers can change entire firms by changing habits. The book’s third part looks at the habits of societies. Duhigg argues that some of the greatest social reformations have in part been produced by rewiring social habits. He links the pressure of weak ties and social norms with habit.
Not all habits are good habits — you probably feel trapped by your bad habits. Duhigg argues that you can also escape from the trap of the routines that trigger bad habits. Alcoholics Anonymous has proved so successful in part because it replaces one routine (drinking to feel better) with another (going to meetings and talking about your addiction to feel better). You re-wire your mind to appreciate and seek out the new routine.
That all sounds interesting, but can reading The Power of Habit help your life or help you better
control improve your kids? Yes. I’m rethinking some of my approaches (and own personal behaviors). The book is filled with techniques to help focus on habits and how to change habits. “Once you break a habit into components, you can fiddle with the gears.” To change a habit, you need to keep the old cue and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine. The hard part is discovering the cue and reward.
Some habits are keystone habits that appear to trigger other good habits. Studies show that families who eat together seem to raise children with better homework skills and higher grades. Making your bed each morning is correlated with better productivity. It’s not that these keystone habits themselves cause the the other good habits. They just seem to help the other habits to form.
If you’re interested in more of the research, the book’s notes go on for 50 pages citing hundreds of primary sources and research papers. The book is full of interesting ideas and based on an impressive collection of research. But it does a great job of balancing intellectual seriousness with practical advice. Even better, it’s written in a lively style, making it easy to read and digest. (The book was on my to-read list before the publisher sent me a review copy.)
This story first appeared in Wired.com’s GeekDad.