Book Review: The Power of Habit

Hardcover $28 – Kindle or Nook Version $12.99

All of us have bad habits that we desperately try to break, or see habits in others that mystify us to no end. What if we could better understand the method of how habits are formed and then take action to change them?

This gnawing question is addressed in "The Power of Habit," by New York Times investigative reporter Charles Duhigg, whose prior work exposed the unsavory working conditions at Apple's iPhone and iPad manufacturing plants in China.

Using behavioral science with practical advice mixed in, Duhigg's easygoing narrative never wears thin. He zeroes in on creating and changing consumer behavior, motivating employees, and even explaining significant social change.

Duhigg explains that habits begin as a psychological pattern called a "habit loop" with three parts: the cue, the routine, and the reward.

A cue is a trigger that comes from the part of the brain that recognizes patterns, which puts your brain into a sort of automatic pilot, letting a behavior happen. The routine is the behavior itself. The reward is what the brain uses over time to remember the habit.

Understanding this cycle, it's easier to understand why we get stuck starting or trying to change habits.

Take the evolution of the fabric deodorizer Febreez, originally destined for Proctor and Gamble's graveyard of failed products. Once the reward (or product benefit) was reframed to the consumer from masking bad smells to making a freshly cleaned room smell as good as it looked, the product took off.

Starbucks had the challenge of hiring inexperienced employees unable to endure busy customer rushes and dealing with demanding coffee snobs. Using the habit loop, each store was able to develop employees and a stronger team environment, which eventually decreased employee turnover.

Target uses consumer information to build sophisticated buyer profiles. Finely tuned offers and coupons are calibrated to the customers with the intention of altering their buying habits. The book describes how the analysis of this information – gathered through receipts, online purchases, and surveys – can identify life-changing experiences.

One fascinating example shows how Target is able to identify women who are pregnant in their first trimester. The challenge then becomes how to craft an appropriate offer to the expectant mother without being perceived as invasive to their privacy.

"The Power of Habit" has wide appeal for those with their own personal motivations of changing the way they do things. The book also addresses consumer and social behavior, with Duhigg weaving in real-life stories that will entertain most readers.

Chris Wendel is a consultant and lender with Northern Initiative in Traverse City. Northern Initiatives is a private, non-profit community development corporation that provides entrepreneurs with access to capital, information, and new markets.