The Power of Habit

The Habits of Individuals

The brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine through a process called “chunking.” It does this, in part, to save energy.

Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often.

But ramping down thought can carry risks. What if the brain’s autopilot misses a key indicator (e.g. the presence of a predator)? To balance this the brain front-loads a large amount of effort to look for a cue as to what pattern (if any) to rely on. Much of this happens without our conscious thought.

So unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the pattern will unfold automatically.

We can end up developing habits without an awareness of the conditions or cues that led us to them. And yet minor adjustments to an environment or cue can break even long-standing habits. The challenge is more one of awareness than one of effort.

Claude Hopkins, an early advertising pioneer, landed on two rules that guide human psychology:

  1. Find a simple and obvious cue.
  2. Clearly define the rewards.

That alone can drive adoption. And once a routine is adopted we start to build a craving for the reward. To really change our habits, then, requires us to gain awareness of our cravings and the rewards we’re anticipating.

Champions don’t do extraordinary things. They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react.

Tony Dungy

To change a habit we have to keep the old cue and old reward but change the routine. Because once grounded our old habits are near impossible to eradicate; its far better to focus on shifting or replacing them. Once we’re aware of how our habits work and what cues drive us we’re a large part of the way toward changing them.

Replacement habits only become durable, though, when they’re accompanied by a strong belief and community. Otherwise they will often fall apart at times of peak stress. It’s communities that make change believable.

When people join groups where change seems possible, the potential for that change to occur becomes more real.

The Habits of Successful Organizations

Key to changing overall systems is the idea of a keystone habit; these matter most.

The habits that matter most are the ones that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns.

These keystone habits offer small wins, but are difficult to detect. Small wins, though, take a small advantage and build it into a pattern that enables larger gains.

More common is the circumstance where small wins are scattered…like miniature experiments that test implicit theories about resistance and opportunity and uncover both resources and barriers that were invisible before the situation was stirred up.

Karl Weick

Keystone habits encourage change by creating structures that help other habits flourish. They also help to create a culture where new values become ingrained.

Duhigg argues that willpower is the single most important keystone habit to unlocking individual change. Research during the 1980s viewed willpower as a learnable skill. That view has evolved over time:

Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, 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.

Mark Muraven

Once willpower becomes stronger it can influence everything. One of the best ways to train it is to practice in advance for the rough patches. Write out plans for how to handle a difficult situation, create a strategy for managing pain after surgery, make things more straightforward for your future self.

There are no organizations without institutional habits. There are only places where they are deliberately designed, and places where they are created without forethought, so they often grow from rivalries or fear.

These organizational habits lead to decisions often being made on past routine, not on deliberation. They’re necessary for a large group to function, though. They can also be deeply rooted and resistant to change.

A crisis can often present an opportune time to change routines. Past organizational habits become malleable and previous objections drop in the face of crisis. There’s even sometimes value in prolonging the feeling of a crisis in order to more deeply reset things.

The Habits of Societies

Duhigg cites three conditions as prerequisite for a social movement:

  • The social habits of friendship (movement formation).
  • The habits of a community (movement growth).
  • The endowing by leaders of new habits that create a fresh sense of identity (movement endurance).

To modify a habit, you must decide to change it.