The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg – The Golden Rule of Habit Change

The Golden Rule of Habit Change embodies an axiom that study after study has shown to be true: to change a habit you must keep the old cue and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.  Duhigg asserts almost any habit can be transformed if the cue and the reward remain the same.

The Golden Rule of Habit Change is: You can’t extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it.

The book follows Tony Dungy’s career in some depth, detailing how changing his players’ habits (and their belief) finally led to his winning the Super Bowl.  He believed the key to winning was changing players’ habits.

He believed champions do ordinary things extraordinarily well by doing them automatically, without thinking, without making a decision; by reflex.  This in turn makes them faster, and gives them the edge to win.

The secret wasn’t creating new habits, but changing old ones, by keeping the cues and rewards the same, but changing the routine.  He keeps his schemes and formations simple, so that by practicing them over and over, players’ behaviors become automatic.

Similarly Alcoholics Anonymous is a habit changing machine which, through its twelve step process, enables alcoholics to identify the cues and rewards that trigger their drinking habit.  If they can change the routine that responds to these, then they can kick their habit and addiction.

AA is not particularly scientific, and because it is not based on research academics and researchers have been critical of it.  But recently that same contingent has found valuable lessons in AA, particularly that it succeeds because it has found a way for alcoholics to use the same cues, and get the same reward, but changing the routine of alcohol abuse.  It forces them to identify the cues and rewards that encourage their addictive habits, and help them replace them with new behaviors.

“Alcoholics crave a drink because it offers escape, relaxation, companion-ship, the blunting of anxieties, and an opportunity for emotional release…AA has built a system of meetings and companionship – the “sponsor” each member works with – that strives to offer as much escape, distraction, and catharsis as a Friday night bender.”  If we want to change our habits, we would be well served to build a community of like minded individuals to help us.  The most powerful agent of change is social capital.

Influencer by Patterson et al

Influencer is about changing behavior, whether of an individual, a group, or an entire nation.  The premise of the book is that any behavior can be changed.

Behavior is changed by searching for vital behaviors, and once they’re determined using six sources of influence to change them: personal motivation, personal ability, social motivation, social ability, structural motivation, and structural ability.

The book is full of case studies from scientific research and business to show how the various concepts are applied.  Whether it’s changing the behavior of hardened drug addicts and criminals into productive citizens, stopping the spread of aids, or turning around a software business plagued by missed deadlines and cost overruns into a business that executes its business plan and meets deadlines in a timely manner, there are examples of applications of the concepts to a wide variety of behavioral problems.

I first listened to the audio version of the book, and then checked out the book from the library.  While the narration is good, it would be very hard for me to apply the concepts from the audio version alone.  To be useful, I think you need the book.

Applying the concepts will take some work; it’s not a quick fix.  Just determining the vital behaviors can take some subtlety.  I’ve yet to apply the ideas in the book, but I do intend to.

I recommend the book to anyone who wants to change their own behavior, or the behavior of others.