The second book of 2014 is The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg.  In it, Duhigg deconstructs habits in a series of anecdotes and that help us understand what they are, how they form, how they change, and what the aggregate effects can be.

The book is too long, and far too interesting, for me to outline every detail, but I highly suggest you pick it up if you are interested in design, business, economics, or anything else that involves working with humans.


The authors describe a habit as consisting of three parts: The Cue (or trigger), the Routine, and the Reward.  A fourth component, the Craving, works as the engine to move a person through these three phases.

In general, habits are a good thing, they off-set the immense cognitive load that we deal with day-to-day by letting us fall into autopilot when common situations arise.  Essentially, as we repeat an activity over and over again, the Routine gets recorded in a deeper, more primitive part of our brain.  When we see a Cue, we think of the Reward, and the Routine sequence begins.

An Example:

So, lets take apart one of my habits: drinking coffee.

Over the course of reading this book, I decided to take apart my own ritual of coffee drinking.  I drink a lot of coffee, probably too much, and I often intend to slow down (with mixed success).  When I started paying attention, I noticed that I refill my cup at a very certain time: as I get ready to do concentrate on something.  When I pull out a book, I reach for my cup of coffee.  When I open up illustrator to start wire-framing (I’m a designer), I reach for my cup of coffee.  When a meeting is about to start, I reach for my cup of coffee.  But when I start cooking dinner, or sit down to play Gran Turismo or practice guitar, all things that are more muscle-memory to me, rather than activities that require concentration, I don’t crave it.

So for me, the Cue is starting an activity that I will need to concentrate on.  The Reward is the thought of learning something new or creating something great, and the Routine is filling up my cup.

It is important to remember that, just as for many people addicted to cigarettes, alcohol, or gambling, nicotine, being drunk, or getting rich, for me, a caffeine-high isn’t The Reward.  Instead, my brain expects the preparation of a Productivity Event with an increase in caffeine.  When it isn’t present, something isn’t right, this isn’t the way that this procedure is supposed to occur!

The power of habits, the Author summarizes, is that once established, are very difficult to change, even harder to overcome, and can never be fully eradicated.  Understanding them better, though, gives us a lot of power to shape them (though it is a lot of hard work).

People, Organizations: 

Duhigg spends a lot of his book talking about the way that Habit forming can influence the way that organizations behave and can be changed.  His examples range from the Aluminum Corporation of America (Alcoa) to football teams to the American Civil Rights movement with a common framework: by reengineering incentives at the ground level, and through rote repetition, a small change can ripple through an organization creating a culture that will outlast individual participants within it.

In each of these examples, the leaders of these organizations picked a simple set (often only one) variable to emphasize and encouraged repetition until practices became habits and, eventually, muscle memory.  Alcoa, under the leadership of Paul O’Neil, concentrated on worker safety above all else, creating a system where employee incentives up the chain were tied to safety records and workplace incidents too precedence in company communications.  The Civil Rights movement marked an important shift when it began to encourage members to protest peacefully and celebrate arrests.

Relevance to Interaction Design:

The ability to create, change, and enforce habits is both the most powerful, yet, elusive part of interaction design.  If we can learn to control it, our influence will be profound, but to do so will take a complete and detailed understanding of how habits work.

A profitable way for us to use a knowledge of habits in our day-to-day work is to capture and augment habits that people have already established.  Starbucks got me to use their payment app because every time I walk up to the counter, I give my order and reach into my back pocket for my wallet.  Now I reach into my front pocket for my phone.

It would be a mistake, though, to assume that having the app has augmented my tendency to walk in to the Starbucks in the first place.  That tendency is based on a wholly different collection of factors, the Routine has shifted slightly, but everything else is the same.

In the same way, we know that, for instance, the effects of peer pressure and social accountability can be powerful in changing the way that people act.  We have to understand, though, that simply making something “social” doesn’t create or diminish a habit.  Habits exist in a complete context with often elusive triggers and powerful cravings.

The use of design to create desirable habits is a much bigger endeavor that will have to reach far outside screens.  In this area, we have a lot to learn from marketers who have, for the past century or so, focused on augmenting the landscape across every possible touchpoint possible by influencing entertainment with commercials and product placement, real-estate (by making me pass 4 McDonalds’ on the way home), the internet with banner adds everywhere and Search engine optimization, and choice architecture by grocery and other retail store layouts.

We should concentrate, now, on building engines that notice the cues that individuals respond to.  Marketing has taken a saturation approach up until now, but is quickly shifting toward temporally and locationally specific indicators and will evolve toward the situational.   In-roads, at the present, are beginning to track and extrapolate where and when people do things, but not why.  As we begin to track more individual physiological trends with wearable technologies such as the Nike Fuel Band, and start to combine them with studies of motivation, such as the work being done by B.J. Fogg, and others, our ability to influence habits will become stronger.

My Thoughts:

The concepts presented in Habit, particularly in their overviews of the way habits manifest in and have the propensity to shape an organization give further validity to the shift to agent-based modeling in the field of economics.  The anecdotes in Habit, such as a shift towards safety in the Aluminum Company of America or the Civil Rights community’s response to the Rosa Parks arrest present a particular approach to top-down and bottom-up organizational change.

In both examples, centralized power structures, though strong, were difficult to enforce because of communication and other transactional inefficiencies.  A top-down push, therefore, was used to instill one, specific, attribute of day-to-day activity in each individual that comprises an organization.  Once a specific goal was established at the ground level, a system was able to emerge in a purposeful direction.


The Power of Habit is a fantastic book, I highly recommend it!

Categories: Book Notes