The Power of Habit

“‘Some thinkers’, Aristotle wrote in Nicomachean Ethics, ‘hold that it is by nature that people become good, others that it is by habit, others that it is by instruction.’  For Aristotle, habits reigned supreme.  The ‘behaviors that occur unthinkingly are the evidence of our truest selves’ he said.  So ‘just as a piece of land has to be prepared beforehand if it is 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.'” – The Power of Habit p. 270.

For my work with Worthington Schools I am currently reading the “Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg.  How can we as an organization solidify our positive habits and change the habits that hinder student success?  (Not that you’re interested, but I’m also reading or have just read, “No Easy Day” by Mark Owen, “Soldiers First” by Joe Drape and “Muck City” by Bryan Mealer.  Football and Army books:  It’s Fall.)

When you woke this morning, what was the first thing you did? What habits helped or hindered you? Now think about what habits help or hinder our organization.

Charles Duhigg investigates how habits form, how to build new habits and how to change old ones. To address all areas of our life, he divides the book into 3 sections starting closest to home with ‘you’. He moves to the broader world of organizations and finally to societies.

Habits are not easy to understand but by drawing on hundreds of academic studies, interviews with over three hundred scientists and executives and research conducted at dozens of companies, Duhigg empowers us by illustrating why habits exist and how you can change them.

Three lessons thus far:

  1.  Small habits will make or break us

Don’t think we have it in us to change our bad habits? You will likely be thrilled to know that there is tremendous research that shows it is the small habits that fuel transformative changes. Each small habit creates a small advantage which sets in motion another small habit and advantage etc. The small habits create patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach. Duhigg shares the story of how it was small habits that led to Michael Phelp’s Olympic gold medal victory. Michael’s small habits allowed him to wake up the morning of the meet and not really think at all. He stayed relaxed and simply followed his habits, one at a time, to victory.  (Seems to make a case for individual student goal setting based upon MAP test results.)

  1.  Identify the cost of craving and the rest will follow

The key element is the craving. Marketers at Proctor & Gamble studied videos of people making their beds. Why? They were trying desperately to figure out how to sell Febreeze; a product which seemed to have such tremendous benefits but was on track to be the biggest flop in company history. Suddenly, one of the researchers detected a subtle yet important pattern.  People are rewarded by the smell of a clean room. They made some adjustments to their marketing and Febreeze went on to earn a billion dollars a year.

Why do we brush our teeth every day? Before Claude Hopkins created tooth brushing habits, no one brushed their teeth. In fact, so many recruits for WWI had rotting teeth, officials said poor dental hygiene was a national security risk! How did Hopkins change this? He created a craving. You know that tingling feeling our mouth gets right after we brush our teeth? When we wake in the morning, we can’t wait to get that feeling. Funny thing, that feeling is not necessary to have clean teeth! But we associate it as the reward for clean teeth and thus are inspired to clean our teeth! His toothpaste, Pepsodent, changed oral hygiene.

What cravings can we create for staff and students to change habits?

  1.  Habits can be learned and unlearned in four steps

While Duhigg admits that change might not be fast and it certainly isn’t easy, he believes that with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped. Habits cannot be eradicated but they can be replaced. His Golden Rule of Habit is to keep the same cue and same reward but replace the routine.

He offers 4 steps to do that:

1) Identify the routine.

2) Experiment with different rewards.

3) Isolate the cue.

4) Have a plan.

Habits create our school system. Too often, people don’t work or learn the way they know they should, because of habits. With The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg empowers us to know we can change those habits. And once we know habits can be changed, we have the freedom of choice again.

We have the ability and the responsibility to reshape parts of our school system. The only options remaining are to get to work, follow his advice, break down our habits and start new ones!  Simple right?


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