Reading Notes: the Power of Habit

I was reading the book "The power of habit" recently and got some inspirations. This is not a summary of the book, but more like a narration from my point of view.

Basically the book is about how to take advantage of a thing named "habit", which is defied as an automatic routine not involving thinking, to make our life as well as an organization work better. As far as I read, three steps are suggested to reach the goal: identify the keys, make the routines automatic, and cultivate the willpower.

Identify the keys

Organizations and personal life both involve a lot of procedures. There are many cues we have to observe, based on which many decisions we have to make, and undertake the consequences. However, not all of them are equally important. Some of them are obviously critical. And some of them may cost you not much time, but still have the potential to change the whole organization or personal life.

One example is production safety for the company Alcoa, which manufactures aluminum and other metal materials. Its CEO O'Neill changed the whole company and boosted the stock price by 200%, simply by focusing on improving the production safety. First production safety was a topic agreed to be important by both the company and the union. Second in the process of improving safety, the production process, equipments, and as well the company culture were seriously reconsidered. And the imperfections got their opportunities to be corrected. By this way, Alcoa improved not only its safety, but also its equipments, the way to collaborate, production efficiency, and the culture of being responsive, thus achieved higher profits.

Here O'Neill identified the production safety, to change which a) a lot of other procedures will also be involved, b) easy to start with, as the key procedure. And it turns out investing time and money on this procedure is economic.

From another perspective, this is to "do the right things". And an easy way is to simply recording what you did (about the stuff you try to improve). Usually, the difficulty to get an answer is not from the lack of analysis, but the lack of data. (That also explains why wearable sensors are so popular recently?)

Make the routines automatic

Once determined to do the "right things", here comes how to "do things right". With the context of this book, it's not about how to analyze the situation and come up with some solutions, but more about how to make it effective. The problem is, usually such important things is not a giant beast which you only need to beat it once. It hides within every single detail of our life, and it's hard to resist to the distractions in the long run.

As the title of the book says, the habit is the solution. By planting automatic routines in your brain, you're able to do the right thing without any thinking (thus hesitation) when facing the (potentially hard) decision. How? A habit can be cultivated and enhanced with a simple three step cycle: cue -- routine -- rewards. Every time when you see a cue, force yourself to do the routine and give you rewards when goal achieved. Your brain will like this game (by nature) and will anticipate the rewards when seeing the cue (in the future), which will then motivate you to do the right routine.

The key is to set up a clear cue (otherwise your brain doesn't know when to start the anticipation), and a clear reward (it can be an abstract emotion or feeling). Repeat. Repeat. And then repeat. It's like learning something. Keep doing this, and with the help of the cue and rewards, this process can be much easier (compared with general learning).

The willpower

What if the routine itself is miserable? Usually you have to use your willpower.
Research shows that willpower is like muscle. It will be tired if being overused, but will also grow when you use it often. So the correct way to cultivate it is like working out. Do it often, but don't overdo it.

There are also other tricks (which are also like work outs). Anticipate the pain and write down a detailed plan before you start. Don't give yourself the time to think. Start right now. Join a community will make it much easier.

So in summary, we can take this post to three (short) sentences of ancient Chinese:

  • 射人先射马,擒贼先擒王 (identify the keys)
  • 无他,惟手熟耳 (make it automatic)
  • 凡事豫则立,不豫则废 (anticipate the pains)

Chinese is beautiful isn't it?