The power of habit: Good executive reading

Habits affect every relationship an executive has. Even how a CEO approaches decision-making reflects a habit, either a tendency to act crisply or to procrastinate. For many, it is the latter, and like many bad habits this one too can be changed. Just read this article – and the book.

A habit is a usual pattern of behaviour that is generally a consequence of repetition.  Executives may not realize it but they are very much in the habit business.  Good habits need to be reinforced.  Bad habits need to be changed.

Most everything an executive does in one form or another involves habits.  For starters, there are the executive’s own habits:  everything from hard work, civility, decisiveness and regular exercise on the good side, to procrastination, recklessness, inconsistency and arrogance on the other side.  Then there are the habits of those with whom executives interact on behalf of their enterprises:  customers, employees, suppliers, investors, bankers, media and government officials.  For good or for bad, habits affect every relationship an executive has.

Is a long-term customer not just a habit of doing business with you that needs to be reinforced?  Is your competitor’s long-term customer that you want to take not just a bad habit that needs to be changed, at least from your point of view?  Is the employee who is chronically late for work not just another bad habit?  Or, is the employee who is never late for work not just another good habit?  As for you, the executive, is your tendency to carefully think a problem through before making a decision similarly not just a good habit?  Or is your tendency not to acknowledge and recognize the contributions and accomplishments of your subordinates not just another bad habit?

Thought of in these terms, much of executive life is either a habit, on the way to becoming a habit or ceasing to be a habit.  For executives, the challenge is “habit management” in the interests of their enterprises.  Sounds a bit unnerving, even creepy, but at heart what is leadership but getting people to do what you want them to do, repeatedly.

Enter Charles Duhigg with a new book:  The Power of Habit – Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (Doubleday Canada, 2012).  Executives will be well rewarded for investing time in this book.

What executive is not further ahead for knowing more about why people do what they do?  The book is in the same behavioural vein as two other books I have endorsed recently for executives:  Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (Ivey Business Journal, March/April 2012) and David Brooks’ The Social Animal (Ivey Business Journal, September/October 2011).

An author does not often use the same quote twice in a book to good effect.  Duhigg is an exception.  His use of the 1892 William James observation “All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits” superbly sets up both where the book is going at the beginning and where it has been at the end.

Parenthetically, I note that James is an absolute fount of executive wisdom.  Consider:  “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook”; “A great many people think they are thinking when they are really rearranging their prejudices”; “As a rule we disbelieve all the facts and theories for which we have no use”; “There is no more miserable human being (for sure, executive) than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision”.  James was a Harvard Professor of Philosophy and Psychology from 1873 to 1907.

Having established through the reference to James the importance of habits in human behaviour, Duhigg then devotes himself to explaining how habits form and can be changed.  Duhigg’s key point is “Once you understand that habits can be rebuilt, the power of habit becomes easier to grasp.”  The executive who understands the power of habits and how they can be changed has a very powerful tool at his disposal and in Duhigg’s words should “get to work.”

The Power of Habit is a balanced trip through scholarly literature and anecdotes.  You get the neuroscience and psychology of habit formation and change in a readable way, and you also get a blizzard of great stories about real situations.

Executives will find the stories particularly useful references as they attempt to steer their own organizations.  Specifically, you will learn how Procter and Gamble turned Febreze into a habit of many consumers, how Pepsodent turned brushing your teeth with toothpaste into a habit, how Palmolive soap became a habit, how service became a habit at Starbucks, how Puffed Wheat became a habit, how safety became a habit at Alcoa, how abstinence and meetings became a habit at Alcoholics Anonymous, and how Coach Tony Dungy developed the team habit on the Super bowl Champion Indianapolis Colts.

The theory and practice of habit formation and change as presented by Duhigg is straightforward:  cue; routine; reward, and a craving to drive the loop.  Take the Febreze story:  the cue is a need to clean something; the reward is a pleasing smell; the routine is a squirt of Febreze; the craving is for a pleasing smell; presto you have a habit.  Febreze took off.

I would be astonished if executives did not find the Power of Habit a good use of their scarce reading time.  You will learn things you do not know that are worth knowing.  You will have a new slant on some of the same old seemingly intractable problems.  You will be wiser.  You will be entertained.

About the Author

John S. McCallum is Professor of Finance at the I. H. Asper School of Business, University of Manitoba, and former Chairman of Manitoba Hydro. Contact

About the Author

John S. McCallum is Professor of Finance at the I. H. Asper School of Business, University of Manitoba, and former Chairman of Manitoba Hydro. Contact

About the Author

John S. McCallum is Professor of Finance at the I. H. Asper School of Business, University of Manitoba, and former Chairman of Manitoba Hydro. Contact