The Power of Habit (updated)

We are creatures of habit. A book I often cite is called “The Power of Habit – Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” by Charles Duhigg. My niece thought I might like this and she was correct. I would encourage you to read it as well, as it articulates how much of what we do each day is based more on habit that is ingrained in each of us or in our organizations.

A friend who taught philosophy at University shared with me that Aristotle felt habits reigned supreme. In his “Nicomachean Ethics,” as referenced in Duhigg’s book, Aristotle said:

“…just as a piece of land has to be prepared beforehand to nourish the seed, so the mind of the pupil has to be prepared in its habits if it is to enjoy and dislike the right things.”

A few examples from “The Power of Habit” might help reveal further Aristotle’s belief. Paul O’Neill is a great example. In short, he came in and transformed Alcoa as its CEO in a very unheard of way. It unnerved so many financial experts, they told people to sell the stock once they heard O’Neill’s first speech. One analyst later said “it was the worst piece of advice I have ever given,” as under O’Neill, Alcoa’s earnings and stock price soared for many years. What did he do that was so unusual and successful? His first focus was to make Alcoa the safest company it could be, as its safety record was atrocious. In other words, he wanted to change Alcoa’s bad safety habits.

He consciously picked this as he explained later, as it was the one thing we could get management and labor to agree on – a safer workplace. So, what happened? Communication between the line workers and management improved as accidents and how to prevent them had to be reported within 24 hours. He showed by example, after a tragic death, that this mattered to him and was not window-dressing. He changed the habits of executives, managers and line workers by insisting that we cannot condone safety problems and must avoid them at all costs. Through the improved communication, other benefits occurred – processes had to be improved to make them safer, the workers were empowered to share ideas on how to improve processes, and management’s goals could be communicated more readily. By emphasizing the importance of safety habits, the company got better. And, so did results.

Another good example about habits is regarding Starbucks. There is a moving story about how a young man had fallen into bad and even criminal habits. His drug problem caused him to lose everything time and time again. Then, someone suggested he try to get a job at Starbucks. Someone gave him a chance and mentored him. But, it was really the Starbucks training that transformed him. The training told him how to serve customers well. It told him how to address situations with an irate customer. It taught him the need to be organized, as if you were not, the customer would be ill-served. This consistent training replaced his bad habits with new habits. He built on his success by first building his self-esteem through better habit. And, it spilled over into his personal life. Now, he is managing a Starbucks and improving his education.

There are numerous examples in the book, but one my niece and I both found interesting is about the fabric freshening product called Febreze. Now, you may not know that Febreze was almost pulled from the market as its sales were almost non-existent. It was a flop. Febreze’s inventor had found a way to chemically remove bad odors from fabrics. When it was first marketed, the elimination of bad odors was the pitch. Yet, that pitch only sold to people whose houses were a total wreck and reeked. The average homeowner did not buy it, at least buy enough of it. Before Proctor and Gamble (P&G) pulled it, they did more research of their target buyers.

Through this research, they discovered a habit in housewives (please forgive the gender reference), who after they made their beds with new linens, they purposefully inhaled the crisp, clean laundered smell. In fact, after they did any cleaning, the desire for a clean-smelling house was habitual. P&G realized people did not crave scentlessness, instead they crave a nice clean smell after they’ve spent 30 minutes cleaning. With this focus, a new marketing effort was launched and within two months sales doubled and then took off, spawning dozens of spin-off products. P&G’s Febreze provided the reward of a clean-smelling house to someone who cleaned it, which was the cue for the reward.

I use cue and reward, as these are two of the tenets of understanding and changing habits, whether they be smoking, nail-biting, eating bad snacks, drinking, etc. In short, Duhigg articulates:

1) Identify the routine (what leads to the habit and why, when and how does it occur?)

2) Experiment with rewards (to change a habit, a new reward has to be substituted, but it has to be fulfilling, so experimentation is needed)

3) Isolate the cue (what is truly the cue; what more than any other thing is causing the habit?)

4) Have a plan (this is what am I going to do about it, this is in my control to change and if I write down my plan, I will have a better chance of success).

One example was an office worker and his craving for a mid-afternoon donut, muffin or unhealthy snack. The routine was the person would leave his desk from boredom, being tired, just to get up, etc. and would go to the vending machine for a snack. The reward was the snack. The cue was harder to find, as various paths led to the reward. It turned out the cue was the time. Invariably, between 3 and 3:30 pm, the person would get the unhealthy snack. So, he noted this in a plan to do something differently. He experimented and felt if he purposefully socialized with others for ten minutes instead of getting a snack, the new reward would satisfy him. So, he planned and executed the plan by getting away from his desk at the same tim each day, forming a new habit. Instead of eating, he would talk with colleagues.

There are other habits noted that have been replaced by new rewards. The key is to find a new reward. If you drink, substituting something that takes the place of the drink will make it a new habit. It could be drinking fruit juices, hot tea, coffee, etc. or it could be taking a walk after dinner, when your old habit of drinking most occurred. The same would hold true with smoking. You have to find a new reward to replace the smoking reward. Otherwise, the old habit will have a better chance of returning.

Let me close how Duhigg did referencing a passage from William James’ book “The Principle of Psychology.” Note William’s brother Henry is an author of some renown.

“All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits – practical, emotional, and intellectual – systematically organized for our weal or woe, and is bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.”

Habits can be good or bad. If they are the latter and you want to change, the above steps are worth considering. The book is a good read, with many understandable examples. I highly recommend it. Let me know what you think.

Replacing bad habits with good ones

I was reading a post by M.L.Davis at the suggestion of our friend Roger of Woebegone regarding good things that happen when you make writing a habit. I have included a link to her blog below. As I mentioned to her, it reminded me of a book my niece suggested for me when I was discussing breaking a bad habit of mine called “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg. I wrote a summary about the book in the link below.

Many of my older readers know that I am an alcoholic. But, I have not had a drink in going on twelve years. A blog I wrote on my sixth anniversary remains by far my most frequented blog (link provided below). I think we all suffer from a bad habit or two that we would love to change. I believe that is the reason for the post’s relative popularity. My reasons for change were the wife of a colleague dying from complications from alcoholism and the recognition I was a train wreck waiting to happen.

The best piece of advice I received came from another colleague as we waited in an airport restaurant/ bar for our planes in Cincinnati. When she noticed me not ordering a drink early on in my sobriety, she said her husband went through this. She then said he used the mantra “I am not going to drink today.” There is a reason alcoholics can count the days of sobriety. It is a daily struggle.

Even today, there is a faint whisper of wanting a drink. It usually occurs during certain trigger moments, which Duhigg references in his book. My greater triggers were getting home from work and grilling out on Sunday. Unwinding from a stressful day sent me down an easy path to drinking. And, watching football or golf, while starting the grill became a cue for Happy Hour.

Recognizing these triggers is a way to change the habit. You have to substitute a good habit for the bad one. My good ones were fruit juices, popsicles, and tonic water. The alcoholic brain craves something sweet, so this allowed me to respond to the craving. Non-alcoholic beer helped some, but those added more calories than I wanted.

Regardless of your bad habit, identify its triggers and what happens next. I recall from the book about a worker who snacked too much at work. His cue was going to the restroom that took him past the breakroom. When he realized this, he changed his route and went for a quick walk.

The book is a good read. The attached post does highlight a few examples and teachings, but falls short of what Duhigg’s writings instruct. And, if you are an alcoholic or know someone, please offer the final link below. I have heard good feedback on it as I share what helped me with my problem.

4 Things That Happen When You Make Writing a Habit

https://musingsofanoldfart.wordpress.com/2013/04/14/the-power-of-habit/

https://musingsofanoldfart.wordpress.com/2013/08/08/six-years-alcohol-free-but-still-want-to-drink/

Six years alcohol free, but still want to drink

I am an alcoholic. Yet, today is the sixth anniversary of my last drink. I have learned a lot about myself along the journey, but don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, stopping a habit is hard work. The thing I most learned is from an old colleague where we were waiting for our respective flights in an airport restaurant in Cincinnati, shortly after I stopped drinking. She gave me the best piece of advice courtesy of her husband who had stopped earlier that I will share with you now – I am not going to drink today.

You see, while I do not drink anymore, six years later, I still want one. The urge is still there as a faint echo at times and as a stronger urge at other times. Usually, the stronger urges occur when I do something like cook on the grill on Sunday afternoon while watching the golf tournament, football, etc. As an alcoholic, you eventually don’t screw around, so I was drinking scotch on the rocks. Many at a time. Yet, with that said, there are many people with habits off other kinds of drinks. Chris Mullen, the great NBA basketball player spoke of being a beer alcoholic. Tom Watson, the famous golfer, almost derailed his career with wine.

Two things happened that caused me to do something about my problem while I still could. My doctor told me that taking action before it was too late was a major plus in my favor. Many wait until the train wheels come of the track.The first thing is the wife of a colleague of mine, who I knew and was one of the most vivacious people you would ever meet, died in her late fifties from complications due to alcoholism. To hear the diagnosis after she passed, when no one else knew she had an issue, was staggering. I wanted to see my kids become adults and witness their many life events. I wanted to be there for my wife. I knew I had that problem.

The second thing is what I started noticing at work late in the day. You see, I was what is called a “home drunk.” I would only drink when I got home after work and on weekends. Being a big, tall guy, I could hold my liquor, so I would easily down five or six doubles a night. I mentioned the scotch on the rocks. The scotch and waters drinks diminished the amount of water used over time until it the water was no longer necessary. What I noticed late in the day at work is my body would begin craving the alcohol and I would get over-heated and red-faced. I was already on blood pressure medication in a stressful job, so I was a train wreck waiting to happen. It did not help matters that my father was an alcoholic before he quit late in life.

So, I had to stop. I started with a drug called Campril which is designed to wean you of your craving. I did that for a few weeks, but stopped that as well. The key is to substitute a new habit for the old one. If you do not, you will eventually drift back into the old one. I am now a green tea aficionado and drink a lot of fruit juices. At parties, I don’t mind ordering a nonalcoholic beer or tonic water. I don’t mind being around people who drink. Plus, you need to exercise as your sweet tooth can get out of hand due to the craving for sugar. But, the key is the lesson that my friend shared with me in the Cincinnati airport – I am not going to drink today.

It is a daily journey. The craving is still there. You just have to say, I am not going to drink today. People trying to stop drinking know the number of days they have not had a drink. This is the reason. It is a daily struggle. Over time, it becomes weeks, then months and now years of tracking the absence of alcohol use. It is hard, but it can be done. This is one reason people find places like Alcoholic Anonymous. The support group is amazingly helpful. I chose not to go that route, but that was a personal choice. The stressful job did not go away and, most importantly, I wanted to be there for my wife and children, so not going to AA was a time issue for me. If I had not stopped, I would have become a liability. Plus, it has given me a platform to talk openly with my kids about being aware of their medical history in me and my father.

A couple of other benefits of not drinking is your weight (again with the caution about the sweets) is easier to maintain. Alcohol has a lot of calories, so when you don’t drink, you can lose weight. The other is the money. Alcohol is an expensive habit. Take the time to add up what you spend per week on alcohol – the beer, wine and hard liquor. I estimated I was spending over $6,000 per year on alcohol. That can add up. Plus, the other stuff goes away and your health improves

Please feel free to share this with others who may have my problem. They should start with being truthful with themselves, their spouses and their doctors. Doctors have said when a patient tells them how much they drink, the doctor knows when the patient is understating the amount. Tell the doctor the truth. He or she cannot help you if you don’t. Do something while you can. It is hard, but if you do try to stop, remember these words – I am not going to drink today.

Who is Paul O’Neill and why should his opinions matter?

I am in the middle of a fascinating book by Charles Duhigg called “The Power of Habit – Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business” and a very useful example appears involving Paul O’Neill. The name rang a bell for another reason, but more on that later. Who is Paul O’Neill? O’Neill was the CEO who turned Alcoa around during his tenure from 1987 – 2000. He joined a company in turmoil, and under his leadership, the value of the company doubled and the annual revenue went from $1.5 Billion in 1987 to $23 Billion. How did he help Alcoa achieve these results?

Ironically, when he made his first speech to investors and stock analysts, they came away unimpressed. He was not a well-known quantity having served as a in the VA Administration, Office of Management and Budget and as a Vice President and President of International Paper. Yet, what he said in that speech gave everyone pause. He said “I want to talk about worker safety.” He went on to discuss how Alcoa had a horrible safety record and his goal was “to go for zero injuries.” Many stock analysts were stunned by this focus as he did not use any of the typical words around synergy or rightsizing, etc. Several told their clients to divest of Alcoa stock after that meeting. One analyst later said “It was the worst piece of advice I gave in my entire career.”

Why the focus? The purpose of the book is to understand the role habits play in everything we do. If you can find a keystone habit and get someone to change it, then other better habits will follow. Companies were no different. O’Neill recognized before he took the job, he needed to help Alcoa change, but the unions did not trust management, communication was poor and processes needed changing. So, he decided to focus on the one thing everyone could agree on – worker safety. By focusing on worker safety, he would help change that habit and watch it spillover.

O’Neill instituted a policy that his managers had to notify him of an accident in the company within 24 hours along with a plan on how we learned from it and how we could avoid it happening again. Many thought it was just window dressing, but two weeks into his tenure, a young man acted rashly to fix a machine and was killed. O’Neill took this to heart and said “I killed this man. All of us in this room killed this man.” Everyone saw this was meaningful and things started to change. But, it was more than safety improving. To receive a report within 24 hours with a plan, a leader needed to know about the accident, what happened and how it could be avoided. Communication up and down the ranks improved, so the safety improvements could be conveyed and understood.

To improve safety, though, you had to improve processes. You had to make things easier to work with and provide the equipment to be safe. Not only did safety improve, but so did productivity. And, with these better communications, ideas from the manufacturing floor started to flow up. Some of the ideas had been bottled up for years, but now people felt empowered to share them. And, before the internet got up and running, they were using an intranet to communicate these ideas which kept them ahead of the competition and let information pass quickly. So, the company took off, because of O’Neill’s purposeful focus on one keystone habit – let’s make our jobs safer.

Where the name sounded familiar is O’Neill became President George W. Bush’s first Secretary of the Treasury in January, 2001. However, with all of his success and track record, he was fired by December 31, 2002. Why? O’Neill was very outspoken in his criticism over the now famous “Bush Tax Cuts” and our going to war with Iraq. As Secretary of the Treasury, he had seen a report that said the US had a looming deficit problem that would require tax increases and spending cuts. That report was suppressed by Bush and we went ahead with the Bush Tax Cuts that unbalanced our surplus budget left by President Bill Clinton aided by his Chief of Staff, Erskine Bowles.

Quoting a footnote in the book, Duhigg notes “However, O’Neill’s politics did not line up with those of the President Bush, and he launched an internal fight opposing Bush’s proposed tax cuts. He was asked to resign at the end of 2002. ‘What I thought was the right thing for economic policy was the opposite of what the White House wanted,’ O’Neill told me. ‘That’s not good for a treasury secretary, so I got fired.'”

I put O’Neill’s quotes in bold for effect. I would add that Warren Buffett, another pretty smart cookie, largely said the same thing at the time. Buffett said “You are giving me a tax cut I do not need.” So, just to state the obvious:

– we had a balanced budget, even a small surplus;

– President Bush wanted to push tax cuts to stimulate the economy;

– his Secretary of Treasury, a pretty competent leader, reads a report that forewarns of deficits down the road and tells the President and Vice President Dick Cheney (by the way, he recommended Cheney to Bush’s father for Secretary of Defense), that tax cuts are not the right answer for the economy and we need increases and spending cuts;

– the President and Vice President (who wielded more power than many VPs) ignores his advice and asks him to resign;

– we now have budget deficits heightened by the Bush Tax Cuts and two unfunded wars; and

– we continue to fight over these Bush Tax Cuts and need to raise revenue as well as cut spending to address the deficit, two ideas the suppressed report and fired Secretary of the Treasury espoused in 2002, eleven years ago.

Hindsight is usually 20/20, but the last bullet is very important. We have leaders who refuse to see that we must increase tax revenue and cut spending. No greater authorities than Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles reached that same conclusion in the Simpson-Bowles Deficit Reduction Commission report. O’Neill, a very successful and competent CEO told his bosses, Bush and Cheney, this very thing and got fired. He also told them this before it would happen and before Bush actually threw gasoline in the fire and made it worse. Not to beat a dead horse, but Presidential historians have also noted President Bush as one of the worst presidents we have ever had and contrary to what his brother Jeb said last week, history will not judge him any better looking back from a future date.

So, to recap. Paul O’Neill, Warren Buffett, Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, all pretty capable people, said we need tax increases and spending cuts to address our deficits.However, O’Neill said it in official capacity as Secretary of Treasury and got fired. And, now we are living with not only the failure to act, but actions taken by Bush that are perpetuated today. I think O’Neill and these other people’s opinions matter and we should listen to them.