The Power of Habit and Compliance

One of the keys to success in life is instilling good habits. 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. These habits make our lives more efficient. (Try to remember how many steps it took you to get from your front door into your office chair.) Charles Duhigg, an investigative reporter for the New York Times, presents an exploration of this subject in his latest book: The Power of Habit.

Habits are about organic efficiency. They do not distinguish between what is good for you and what is bad for you.  I suppose one of the goals of a good compliance program is to instill good habits in your company and to shut down bad habits. But how?

Duhigg has loaded the book with information on how habit patterns work in the brain and suggestions on how to change them. The scientific study of habits is extensive. 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.

Take the background story on the crafting of Febreeze, the odor eliminating spray. 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. Febreeze 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. Febreeze 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 of feeling much better. Marketers reinforce these routines by fiddling with the Pavlovian rewards.

Not all habit 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 reward.

The second part looks at the habits of organizations. Duhigg argues that managers can change entire firms by changing habits. A handful of these are “keystone habits” that can change the entire culture of a firm. Duhigg uses Paul O’Neill as a poster child. O’Neill transformed Alcoa by focusing on safety. Worker appreciated not getting injured (or killed) and mangers appreciated the more productive workers. This focus on safety turned out to be a keystone habit that transformed the workplace, increasing a focus on principles and increasing communications across the firm. At first the communication was about safety issues, but that evolved into a more open dialogue.

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.

That all sounds interesting, but can reading The Power of Habit help your compliance program? Yes. I’m rethinking some of my approaches (and own personal behaviors). The appendix is focused on techniques to help focus on habits and how to change habits. Finding keystone habits could help improve your organization.

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.)