Charles Duhigg suggests that habits are the result of a three-step process that he calls a habit loop. The loop begins with a cue or trigger that tells the brain which one of our habits to use. Second there is a routine, which may be physical, mental or emotional. Third there is a reward, which helps the brain figure out if the habit loop is worth repeating. Over time this process; cue, routine, reward becomes automatic and a habit is born. This also applies to business and society as both have processes and routines that are merely habits practiced on and organization or community scale.
Duhigg showed how this process worked for the Alcoa Corporation. When Paul O’Neill became the CEO of Alcoa he set a new direction for the company that focused on worker safety and a goal of zero injuries. He recognized that individuals have habits and the organization version of that is a routine. He changed the routines that employees practiced in regard to safety. O’Neill identified a simple cue: an employee injury. He instituted a routine that required that every employee injury be reported to the president within 24 hours along with a plan that outlined how to prevent the incident from ever occurring again. And the reward; the only people who got promoted were those who embraced the system. In doing this O’Neill was able to create a culture where the new values became engrained.
As head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Tony Dungy also found value in this model. In order to create a winning team he analyzed their process of executing plays. He realized that his players were inconsistent because they took too long to think and decide how to respond on a play. His solution was to equip the team with a minimum number of plays and to practice those plays so much that they could be implemented without thought. He kept the cue, opponents’ body language and movements and the reward, scoring points and changed the routine that resulted in executing the right play rather than thinking about which play to execute.
The discussion about society and habit is somewhat different than that about individuals and organizations. The focus is on how societal habits influence world-changing movements. The example of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott was used to illustrate how habits of friendships ignited the initial protest when Rosa Parks was arrested for violating the bus segregation law. Because she had friends that spanned across Montgomery’s social, racial and economic hierarchies the community’s normal apathy could not take hold. What led to the endurance of the movement was the ability of its leaders to give participants new habits. These habits created a fresh sense of identity and a feeling of ownership.
After reading the book I thought I would apply the habit loop process to my habit of watching TV and eating junk food late at night. I realize the cue for me is boredom and the routine I use to end that state is to eat chocolate, nuts, cookies or any number of satisfying treats. The first thing I did was to replace the junk food with more nutritious snacks like fruit. I also only allow myself a limited amount of TV time and during the commercials I get up and move around to get credit for additional steps on my Fitbit activity tracker. And finally I go to bed earlier! Although I didn’t find a magic bullet the book was an interesting read. The key learning for me is to pay closer attention to my habits and look for the cues and routines that may be sabotaging me instead of helping me to achieve my goals.