Today we will be taking a deeper look at The Power of Habit
, in the second of our nine-part series on the mammoth hit that spent over a year on the New York TimesBestseller list. The Power of Habit was written by Charles Duhigg. Duhigg was a staff writer of The Los Angeles Times, until 2006; since then he has been a reporter at The New York Times, and was one of a team of New York Times reporters who won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for a series of 10 articles about the business practices of Apple.
Chapter Four of The Power of Habit starts the drive from individual habits, identified in a lab setting, to applied habitology in a workplace setting. We are introduced to Paul O’Neill, who in 1986 assumed control of a creaky business in a declining industry, and instead of coming in as a vulture-capitalist and stripping the husk for parts to make the other executives and himself rich, he identified the one thing that he thought was a ‘keystone habit,’ that all other habit-building could be based on. According to O’Neill, that keystone was workplace safety.
O’Neill’s previous work had been identifying misused government healthcare funds, where he recognized that hospitals are big and easy to stand in front of for a photo op, so many towns that didn’t need them would have them built so the local politician could stay in office. The loop was broken, and he spotted it so changes could be made.
O’Neill’s decree for Unit Presidents to report injuries within 24 hours forced them to work with their VPs to get them reports, which meant branch managers had to act fast. Once O’Neill made it clear that missing these deadlines meant not getting promoted, rather than “having a low rate of reported injuries” (the previous methodology, which led to reports being ‘lost’ or simply never filed), Unit Presidents found themselves reprogrammed to order safer conditions, if only to reduce their filing-of-injuries workload. This improved safety and efficiency trickled down to better performance in general, and the value of Alcoa stock went up 200% under O’Neill, making everyone on the Board very rich men – and without destroying the company in the process.
Similarly, habits and changing of the keystone can energize further change. When Gay Rights stalled for years, it was an activist pushing for Gay literature to be reclassified in the Dewey Decimal system (a tiny thing that didn’t help anyone get married or uncloseted) that was the tipping point. This small win was a concrete thing fundraisers and activists could point to, to get amped up, to say “We are winning” and that was all that was needed to make the next step, and – as the US’s premier motivational speaker, DJ Khaled would say, “and another one, and another one
Cultures develop the values their keystone habit-building tools allow them to. Duhigg concludes this chapter with an object lesson from West Point, where most recruits/freshmen wash out before the first fall classes, but a small group persevered and succeeded – because they made it a core habit to start each day with an amp-up session and drive each other to be the very best, like no one ever was. This group made a habit of reinforcing each others’ wills, and that gave them the grit to succeed at the nation’s most grueling university.