How To Turn Your Toxic Habits Into Better Patterns of Behavior

Nearly half your life runs on your habits. The Power of Habit author Charles Duhigg shares how to find the most important—and most toxic ones—and turn those patterns for the better.

New York Times business reporter Charles Duhigg deconstructed the habits that run much of the lives of people and organizations in the bestselling book The Power of Habit—out now in paperback.

Since we're in the first leg of keeping (or modifying) our New Year's resolutions, we asked Charles about why some habits are more crucial than others—and how individuals and corporations don't realize they undermine them.

Find an edited and condensed transcript of that conversation below.


When most individuals or most companies are talking about trying to create healthy habits, the key is to identify which habit or habits seem most important.

Because if 40% to 45% of our daily life is habitual, then you have an infinity of choices of behaviors you could attack. But that doesn't make much sense—you need to be kind of measured; you don't have all the time in the world to try and encourage change. So then the question becomes: If I'm going to change one pattern, which pattern is going to have the most impact? And that's where you really get into the science of keystone habits.

Blocking out the keystones

Some habits seem to be much more significant than others, because when a keystone habit starts to change, it sets off a chain reaction that changes other patterns as well, almost subconsciously. One of the best examples of this is exercise. When people start habitually exercising, they're more likely to eat more healthfully. And that makes sense, because you start to feel good about your body, so it's easier to go eat a salad than it is to eat a hamburger. But what's really interesting, when people start exercising, they're also more likely to use their credit card less and to start to procrastinate less at work and start to do their dishes something like 23 minutes earlier in the day.

Nobody out there is running and thinking, "Oh, because I'm running it's going to be so much easier to ignore the AmEx in my pocket," but what happens is that for some people who exercise habitually, they subtly shift their self-concept. They begin to see themselves a little bit differently because they are someone who exercises on a regular basis—and they're less likely to splurge on something while standing in the checkout line.

For a company, the same kind of thing is true. If a company wants to create behavioral change, it needs to identify those corporate habits that seem to touch those people's self-identity. Or the corporation's self-identity, in a way that can spark change. The best example of this is Alcoa; when Paul O'Neill came in as the CEO of Alcoa, he said, I want to focus, almost exclusively, on what are safety habits. Alcoa is a big aluminum company: worker safety doesn't add to the bottom line at all, but he knew it would be powerful, it would be a keystone habit for the company because worker safety, despite not having financial goals, is pretty much integral to how everyone sees their job when you work in a super dangerous factory.

When you make aluminum, you put all these powders into a pot and you spark electricity over them. People got hurt all the time in Alcoa factories. So by saying to everyone, "Look, the number one habit we're going to concentrate on in the next two years is worker safety habits," you're actually sending this very complicated message. You're saying, "We care about our employees. We care about you more than just making money. We want to find issues where management and unions can be on the same side of the table."

Of course, it turns out that the key for improving workers' safety in Alcoa's plants was making those plants more efficient, because an efficient, well-functioning plant is a plant that doesn't have accidents. O'Neill framed through this keystone habit of workers' safety, and that set off a chain reaction of how people worked, how communication habits within the firm functioned; it had a really profound impact.

How the habits got there

Typically, when there are corporate habits that undermine individuals, it has emerged without any sort of central planning. Nobody sits down and says, "I'm going to create an evil habit for this corporation." What happens is that nobody sits down and says "I'm going to think about this company's habits." So bad habits pop up. Bad habits usually pop up to try and overcome some weakness that already exists.

In the book we talk about a hospital where the communication between the nurses and the doctors was terrible: the nurses thought the doctors were too arrogant to listen to them, the doctors thought the nurses were uninformed, so all these bad habits popped up to try and bridge this communication gap. And that's exactly where bad habits usually come from: You're trying to accommodate some weakness that nobody really wants to confront and face up to.

How to deal with bad company habits

So the first way you deal with that is you start asking people, "What are the patterns within this company that are not good? That are destructive, that make your job harder?"

Then the more difficult questions: "How do these habits work? How do we change them?" That's really contingent on getting deep into the science of habits. There's the cue, which is a trigger for a behavior to start, a routine, which is the behavior itself, and then finally a reward. And particularly in corporate environments, how to diagnose how a habit works and how you can change it is to pay attention to the reward. Because almost everything that happens, within one of these corporate environments that's negative, is happening because it's rewarding someone.

Often in companies you'll see tensions between sales and marketing. Sales people will want to give discounts to clients because they often get paid a commission based on how much they sell. So they're always pushing to give discounts because that will increase sales. Marketing, however, is judged by overall profitability. So they will say, "No, we don't want you to give any discounts. The reason we're coming up with these prices or running these big advertising campaigns is because we want to try convince people that this is worth a lot of money so they're willing to pay us a lot of money." This is a common tension that occurs within companies.

They might be trying to undermine each other, back channelling each other, coming up with dueling data to try and convince their bosses that the other ones are wrong. Very frequently it gets habituated: You know Joe is going call the boss five minutes after the meeting to try and undo everything you just decided, so you need to call seven minutes after that to try and prevent it.

When those habits emerge, it's usually serving someone's interest: There is someone who is benefiting from that. There's some sales executive or some marketing executive that has figured out how to work this habit, work this system, better than anyone else, who ends up getting personal glory as a result of it.

The Bottom Line:

If you align the award not with the individual's, but with corporate goals, then you're able to start changing the corporate habits.

[Image: Flickr user Agustín Ruiz]

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