Charles Duhigg’s research into how habits can be diagnosed and re-shaped offers a route map for individual and organisation success.
When Charles Duhigg was researching his bestselling book, The Power of Habit, he found that he’d fallen prey to a wicked afternoon cookie habit. Every afternoon, he’d wander down to the cafeteria, indulge in a cookie and chat with his colleagues. A post-it note on his computer saying NO MORE COOKIES was not enough to stop him gaining eight pounds in short order.
Instead, he decided to take his own medicine and to use the habit loop he champions in his book to diagnose why he just couldn’t stop eating those cookies. Here’s what that loop looks like. It’s a simple model which identifies the relationship between a cue or prompt, how we react (the routine) and what our perceived reward for that routine may be.
A four-stage framework for diagnosing and reshaping habits
The first stage in his diagnosis was to identify the routine: in this case, it was pretty obvious: going to the cafeteria for the cookie. That’s the behaviour he wanted to change.
But identifying the cues and the reward in this case needed more probing. What was the cue for the routine? Hunger? Boredom? Low blood sugar? Needing a break?
And what was the reward? The cookie itself? A change of scene? Meeting up with his colleagues? An energy rush from the cookie?
The next stage in the diagnosis was to experiment with rewards. Duhigg considered a variety of alternative rewards to explore precisely what craving was driving his routine, for example, going for a walk instead of visiting the cafeteria; buying a doughnut instead of a cookie and taking it back to his desk; buying an apple and chatting with his friends; sharing a coffee with a colleague at his desk.
By testing rewards, he was able to identify patterns. He wrote down the three things that came to mind when he got back to his desk. Then he set an alarm for fifteen minutes to see whether he still wanted that cookie. If, after eating the doughnut, that cookie need was still there, then clearly the habit was not motivated by low blood sugar; if, after gossiping with a colleague, he still wanted the cookie, the reward was not the need for social interaction. By experimenting with different rewards, Duhigg was able to isolate what he was actually craving, what reward he really wanted.
Once he had worked out the routine and the reward, then he could isolate the cue. What was the trigger for his routine? Research suggests that habitual cues generally fall into one of five categories:
- Emotional state
- Other people
- Immediately preceding action
When trying to identify the cue for his cookie habit, Duhigg wrote down answers to these five things when the urge hit. After three days, it became clear that the cue triggering his habit was the urge to get a snack at a certain time of day – between 3.00 and 4.00pm each afternoon.
He had already figured out in step two that the reward he was seeking was not satisfying hunger, or any other of the rewards on offer, but the distraction of gossiping with a friend.
With the first three pieces of the jigsaw in place, Duhigg could move to the fourth and final step in his plan for change: having a plan. He could start to shift his behaviour by planning for the cue and delivering the reward he wanted without the cookie routine.
Habits are basically a formula our brain follows automatically:
When I see CUE, I will do ROUTINE in order to get a REWARD
Duhigg was able to reframe his cookie habit loop with the following plan:
At 3:30, every day, I will walk to a friend’s desk and talk for ten minutes.
It didn’t work straight away, but, with time, it became more automatic: it had become a new habit.
Duhigg’s four stage framework for diagnosing and re-shaping habits:
- Identify the routine
- Experiment with rewards
- Isolate the cue
- Have a plan
The habit of self-discipline: Starbucks and the LATTE method
Changing one person’s afternoon cookie habit might be one thing; changing the culture of a large organisation quite another. But that’s what Starbucks did with a company-wide training programme focussed on the all-important habit of self-discipline.
The issue facing Starbucks was a simple one. Their brand and reputation are based on top-rate customer experience. And, in such a people-facing business, that depends on their employees interacting with even the most difficult customers or situations with equanimity and grace. This was, unsurprisingly, proving to be a difficult ask for the average Starbucks employee, generally with low educational attainment and often from difficult home backgrounds: Duhigg gives in his book the example of Travis, the son of drug addicts and a high school dropout, whose life has subsequently been transformed by what he has learnt at Starbucks.
The relationship between willpower or self-discipline and personal and professional success has a long history. Back in 1972, Stanford psychologist, Walter Mischel, conducted a study famously known as the marshmallow experiment. In the study, children were offered the choice of one marshmallow immediately or the chance to receive, after a 15-minute wait, two marshmallows. In follow-up studies, researchers found that the children who were able to wait longer for the bigger reward tended to have better life outcomes.
More recently, research by Mark Muraven has concluded that willpower is like a muscle that needs to be developed and used – but also that it can get tired the harder you work it. So, while building up willpower muscle is possible – and certainly desirable - even people with high levels of self-discipline will have willpower lapses. And that’s what was happening at Starbucks: even their calmest employees snapped and lost self-control when tired, stressed or faced with a difficult situation.
Once Starbucks looked in detail at what was happening in their stores, they began to understand that what they needed to do was to give their people clear instructions about how to react when they reached what Duhigg calls these ‘inflection points’. Training materials spell out routines for employees to use when they encounter a tricky situation, cues such as a shouting customer or long queues at the tills. Managers role-play the scenarios until the responses become automatic. Rewards – such a happy customer or praise from a manager – are identified as evidence that an employee has done a good job.
One of the routines identified – in response to the cue of an unhappy customer – is called the LATTE method:
Listen to the customer
Acknowledge their complaint
Take action by solving the complaint
Explain why the problem occurred
LATTE has become the automatic – habitual – response to the cue of a shouting or complaining customer, which leads to the reward of a happy customer and a job well done.
According to Duhigg, “Starbucks taught their employees how to handle moments of adversity by giving them willpower habit loops”. The key was turning self-discipline into a habit by identifying a certain behaviour (routine) ahead of time and following an established routine when triggered by a particular cue.
And that, truly, is the power of habit.
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