The Power of Habit

The Power of Habit is a psuedo-science book about the formation and breaking of habits. I enjoy reading psuedo-science books as they have useful tidbits of information that are useful with a bit of fluff around them. Power of Habit cites their studies and information and follows up with notes on things that were not clear.

The book is split into three parts: The Habits of Individuals, Habits of Companies, and Habits of Societies.

The Habits of Individuals

Habits are a three step process. A cue, a routine, and a reward. Cues can be locational, temporal, based on mood, based on other people, or following an action. Routines and rewards are self-explanatory.

A strong habit has one tendency different from just regular cue/reward cycle and that’s craving. Craving is when you anticipate the reward during the routine, which is usually a sign that the habit is formed.

The way to form a habit is to start a routine based around a cue that you know will end up in a reward that you desire. So for athletics, concentrating and repeating the same actions over and over again (a successul hit is the reward) and identifying the cues in order to do that hit is important. If you do and drill and practice the same thing over and over, your reactions will start becoming habitual. I’ve actually been applying this to ping pong as much as I can, trying to repeat the same motion over and over again with my hands in order to get the motion of the paddle correct. When the ball comes with top spin, I try to hit it back with the same motion. Now I just gotta work on my backhand :/

The way to break a habit is you need to identify the cue and change your routine to get the reward. The example used in the book was at 3 PM the author would go eat a cookie everyday. Instead of going to get that cookie, he would instead try different routines. He would hang out with co-workers, he would go eat an apple, he would go walk around the block. The identification of the reward (a break from work) didn’t require the daily cookie and he found that walking around the block helped better. The reward might have been hunger satisfaction or something else, identifying the cue and reward are probably the two most important parts of forming and breaking a habit. Once you can do that, even with a few lapses you can eventually change your routine.

Successful advertising is based around creating habits that form based on cues or rewards that weren’t normally there. An example is licking your teeth to make you remember to brush your teeth was a successful advertising cue in the United States when toothpaste was first taking off. Cool little tidbit. Listerine intentionally burns in order to get the reward link of a clean mouth with that burning.

The Habits of Companies

This was probably the most interesting section of the book and analyzed how companies manipulate what they present to you and how habits form inside companies outside of policies.


So in 2010, Target started collecting ALL the information they possibly could about their customers. Buying habits, where they shopped, where they used their credit card, online information, anything they could they collect. Then they analyzed it, so their first target (see what I did there?) was a great industry: pregnant women. Pregnant mothers spend TONS of money. So they took the customers using their baby registries and analyzed their purchases. Based on what you were purchasing, they could identify what trimester you were in and wether you were pregnant or not. Vitamins usually were an indicator of stage of pregnancy.

The best part is then they would send you ads to help you to come to Target, but they can’t just announce they know you’re pregnant, that’s creepy. So they would intermix their baby ads into your advertisements of lawnmowers. That way it seems like everyone is getting ads for diapers, not just you. One dad even went to the store to complain to Target that their teenage daughter got an advertisement with a coupon for baby ads and he was pissed, a week later he found out his teenage daughter was pregnant.


The second case study was the music industry. So when playing music on the radio, there are songs that DJs know as “bath rock”, music that is so tepid and familiar that you will never change the station (anything by Maroon 5). Because these songs are familiar, they are played constantly on the radio in order to keep you from changing the station. BUT, the music industry also has statistical models on what songs are going to be major hits, the example used in the book was “Hey Ya” by Outkast. The song initially did terribly because it was so different that people changed stations when it came on, but when they put it between two bath rock songs, it became far more popular and proved to be a massive hit.

Again the tactic of puttings things familiar around something that a company wants to sell comes up.


The majority of habits inside organization section revolves around the two cases. 
Alcoa was doing terribly until Paul O Neill took over. His entire company philosophy didn’t revolve around profits or income or revenue, he sought one thing: safety. That’s it, he would focus on getting Alcoa to be the safest company in America. 
While this sounds strange, it worked because what happened is that employees were given privileges to do things that revolved around better safety giving them greater control over their own environment. When employees are told to push back against management for “safety” they also tend to be able to push back on other reasons, including efficiency and improvement of the process.
The managers on the other hand were held super responsible for every safety incident. Every safety incident had to be reported to O’Neill himself at the top. Which means that the feedback systems between employees, managers, directors, and district heads all had to be a much tighter loop, they would get retribution if they didn’t report a safety incident quickly. 
The basic idea is that O’Neill focus on safety allowed for OTHER behaviors to come out of his primary focus. You don’t need to control company culture to the point where you need to define rules but you need to be able to have priorities and have your employees focus on those priorities. It’s better to set up the rules so that failure is encouraged with strong risk tasking rather than discouraged. 

King’s Cross and Institutional Knowledge
But at the same time company culture can create negative habits as well. King’s Cross had a rigid bureaucracy where you weren’t supposed to mess with the other sections. The ticket collectors don’t check the escalators, nobody calls the fire department except for the safety inspector, etc. What happened one day was that a passenger noticed smoke coming out of an escalator and notified a ticket inspector, the inspector did nothing about it because it wasn’t part of his section. 
Later on that escalator caught on fire. When the safety inspector finally heard about it and checked it out, the blaze was full burn and they had to evacuate the station. Unfortunately, he didn’t know how to operate the sprinkler system because the information was sent to the wrong department and that department head didn’t forward the information as sharing information and passing on messages was discouraged. After the firefighters finally came, their hoses had trouble reaching key parts of the flame as they were hooking up to the above ground hydrants instead of the hydrants inside. Quite a few people died that day.
The main faults were identified that 1) The ticket inspector should have reported it right away, 2) The departments should have shared the information about both the sprinkler system and the hydrants, even if they aren’t in their own department 3) The firemen should have used the hydrants inside.
BUT here’s the thing, while 2 is just incompetence, 1 and 3 are based on institutional habits from previous experiences. Ticket inspectors were told to always stay in their booths because when they helped customers they would delay lines, so their priority instead of safety was set to staying inside for efficiency. The firefighters also had the same situation, they had trouble operating outside hydrants sometimes and that caused major issues, so they all agreed that they would use their own hydrants from now on even if it wasn’t the best option available. These small habits form inside companies and they are very hard to root out until a critical emergency happens (ie the fire at King’s Cross), and only then will there be change. 
Institutional knowledge and habits are very hard to break as we tend to do things a lot of habit and just old situations that are no longer valid, it is very important that I think everyone is critical of the habits that form inside your workplace and that you push against them when they actively reducing productivity.

Habits of Societies

This section was fluff and the author was trying hard to add more to his book. It wasn’t very good and the observations being made were far-reaching and terribly inaccurate. The only interesting piece of the information was why Rosa Parks started the Civil Rights movement vs other people in the community who also stood up against the bus law. Rosa Parks was a VERY active member of the community, and when you get enough people together for her, you get a peer pressure effect. If enough of your friends are doing something, you will do it too. I have no clue how this ties into the habits but it was an interesting point on why some movements take off and others do not. 


My overall impression of the book was very positive, I loved the first two sections and while I kind of summarized them, reading the author’s writings on them yourself would be better. I also didn’t cover everything he talked about and only things that I thought were interesting and relevant. You might also get a different impression of the habits and information that I did of course.