Many of us restrict our definition of habits to be very narrow. I know I certainly do. I think of habits as things I want to actively do more or less of, such as working out more, drinking less, or eating more healthily. This mindset is evidenced by this post where I talk about how I set and track habits.
In reality, habits have a much broader scope. Habits are basically choices that all of us deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about but continue doing, often every day.
For example, putting toothpaste on a toothbrush -- something each of us does every day -- is simply a series of actions that our brain has converted into an automatic routine. This is known as chunking and is the root of how habits form.
Duhigg breaks this down into something known as the habit loop. Every loop consists of three parts: a cue, a routine, and a reward.
As this 3-step loop becomes faster and faster, a habit emerges -- because your brain stops fully participating in decision making. This is the power of habit. When a habit becomes ingrained, it is like second nature, and your brain stops thinking.
Companies are well aware of this. Fast food chains deliberately standardize store appearances, menus, and what employees say so that the entire experience is a consistent cue to trigger eating routines.
So if we want to change our habits, we need to modify this habit loop. Duhigg presents the Golden Rule of Habit Change: Use the same cue, provide the same reward, but change the routine:
For example, say you have developed a bad habit of eating a cookie every afternoon at work. Breaking it down:
It’s good to focus on keystone habits. These are the habits that matter the most and the ones that -- when they start to shift -- dislodge and remake other habits. Within companies, focusing on keystone habits can encourage widespread change, by creating cultures where new (and better) values become ingrained.
For example, if companies can give employees a genuine sense of agency over their work, it can radically increase the energy they bring to their jobs.
Another point Duhigg raises that feels particularly salient given the current pandemic is that a crisis should be used as an opportunity to remake organizational habits, because it is during these times that habits are the most malleable. Good leaders recognize this and use it to their advantage.
Duhigg ends with powerful words borrowed from David Foster Wallace.
“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’”
The water is habits, the unthinking choices and invisible decisions that surround us every day -- and which, just by looking at them, become visible again. Said simply, my ultimate takeaway is that I should acknowledge my habits, understand that they can change -- and use this knowledge to remake them as I see fit.