So, what do you do with a habit you wish to disown? Alas, Duhigg explains, "You can't extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it." Nonetheless, change can happen--ideally, anyway--by substituting a different routine (stopping at an AA meeting, rather than a bar, for instance), even while the cue (feeling anxious, edgy, depressed) and the reward (companionship, conversation, relief from being alone with uncomfortable emotions) remain stable. Yet even the crucial role support groups provide in helping change last may not be enough, Duhigg acknowledges. To his credit, he doesn't underestimate the difficulties of committing to the hard work of fighting addictions, but he doesn't delve deeply into how to overcome such obstacles, either. He's clearly more at ease exploring how renowned football coach Tony Dungy led the formerly mediocre Indianapolis Colts to a Super Bowl victory through constant drills that trained team members to exchange their old losing habits (like second-guessing themselves and choking in the clutch) for new habits of pinpoint focus and concentration.
One of Duhigg's major themes is the importance of identifying--and then instilling--keystone "habits of excellence" in every individual throughout an organization. The trick is figuring out which single habit, when dislodged and changed, will lead to a positive chain reaction throughout an institution already set in its ways. For Dungy's football team, the transformation hinged on learning a new way of paying attention to detail. At Alcoa, Inc., in 1987, newly installed chief executive Paul O'Neill turned the company around by instituting a companywide emphasis on worker safety. That new goal, Duhigg shows, forced workers at every level to reexamine and rework old routines. As a sense of mutual responsibility for safety became routine, productivity increased. Duhigg explains: "If molten metal was injuring workers when it splashed, then the pouring system was redesigned, which led to fewer injuries. It also saved money because Alcoa lost less raw materials in spills. If a machine kept breaking down, it was replaced, which meant there was less risk of a broken gear snagging an employee's arm. It also meant higher quality products because, as Alcoa discovered, equipment malfunctions were a chief cause of subpar aluminum." Duhigg extends this idea to social-justice movements and religious communities, whose growth can be aided by shared habits of mutual help and supportive peer pressure. I found it interesting that he chose the same examples to illustrate his thesis about the power of habit--the civil-rights bus boycott sparked by Rosa Parks and Rick Warren's mammoth-sized Saddleback Church--as did Susan Cain to demonstrate quite different points about the power of introversion in her recent book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking (see Bookmarks, July/August 2012).
By contrast, when an institution's dysfunctional habits go unchecked, they can prove costly, not just in dollars but in human lives. As Duhigg puts it, "Just as choosing the right keystone habits can create amazing change, the wrong ones can create disasters." A series of surgical errors at Rhode Island Hospital in the early 2000s, for instance, could have been avoided if the hospital administration had intervened to allay ongoing tensions between doctors and nurses. Instead, doctors fell into the habit of overruling nurses, even in the operating room, where surgeons felt empowered to ignore nurses' safety warnings--to the detriment of patients. Similarly, the horrific 1987 London Underground fire that killed and injured dozens probably wouldn't have occurred if the narrowly focused organizational culture had emphasized habits of communication and responsibility, rather than minding one's own business and keeping quiet about problems. The initial report of a stray spark triggered no safety routine, and with no system in place to combat the fire, even as it escalated, chaos and panic ruled. There's comfort--though cold, to be sure, for anyone involved in those disasters--that in both cases, the organizations learned from their errors to institute strict safety habits and protocols.
Duhigg is entertaining and informative throughout, but so much material is covered there's little time or space to look more deeply or complexly at such perplexing issues as, for instance, where our ever more ingrained Internet and smartphone habits may be taking us. Also, he can be simplistic. At a couple of points, I couldn't help thinking: if only the course of changing a merely pesky habit (not to mention an intractable, self-destructive one) ran as smoothly as Duhigg's explanation of how that ideally should happen, psychotherapists would be out of a job, and any number of businesses, from gambling casinos to tobacco companies, would close up shop.
What Duhigg does provide is an appealing, lucid narrative about the ways in which our habits and our humanity are intertwined, so even though therapists won't find the depth they'd like, their patients may benefit from his insights. Of particular interest for that audience will be the appendix, in which Duhigg presents a framework for how to go about changing habits. He admits it's a simplified process, which, in essence, analyzes and then reverses or substitutes new behavior in the initial habit loop. Using a bad habit of his own as an example (his daily cookie habit has led him to gain eight pounds), he breaks down the four steps of habit change this way: first, identify the routine (at about 3 p.m. every day, Duhigg takes a break from work to go to the cafeteria, where he snacks on a cookie and chats with his friends). Second step: experiment with different rewards (eating a cookie sure is yummy, but upon reflection, he discovers that the bigger reward is schmoozing with friends in the cafeteria). Third step: isolate the cue (the trigger for Duhigg, he realizes, is midafternoon fatigue and the need for a diversion). Step four: have a plan (having identified his cookie-habit loop, he develops a new plan: getting up from his desk at midafternoon and going over to chat with a colleague, with no cookie snack involved).
It's an example with which many will be able to identify. It points to the strength--and limitation--of Duhigg's book. It'll reward you with an understanding of the basics, but at the same time leave you craving a much deeper sense of how to grapple with those dark habits that can become our demons.
Diane Cole is the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges and writes for many national publications. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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