Habit Science: Part 2

Since my last post, I have delved deeper into The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We do in Life and Business with more illuminating insights. In part 2 of the book- The Habits of Successful Organizations we learn about how collective groups have successfully implemented habits to improve their business, stature, or general success.

This was more interesting than I anticipated, as the book appears to market itself as advantageous for both individuals and businesses. The business angle puts me in a precarious position of distrust, as for most of my adult life,  I’ve tended to perceive a career in marketing as detestable and fueled by greed. However, my attitudes have begun to change with how this topic is approached, and the real, valuable insights that can be gained from learning about it.

A Trickle Down Effect of Keystone Habits


Right away, part 2 tells the story of Alcoa, one of the largest aluminum manufacturers and distributors in the world. In the late 80s, the company hired a new CEO, Paul O’Neil. O’Neil is credited with introducing company wide habits where none existed before. With his zero tolerance for deviation approach, O’Neil brought on a massive, organic reconfiguration of the company’s infrastructure and quintupled its yearly earnings in the process. His radical idea? Focus all efforts on improving worker safety.

It was through developing a habit based initiative around worker safety that Alcoa flourished. The improvement and emphasis became apparent to all, and it immediately altered how the company structured itself, defined itself as a community, and how the line between management and staff blurred into voluntary cooperation.

I found the analysis of Alcoa’s habit shift quite interesting. It brought on immediate recollections of good and bad experiences I’ve had working for various companies. So often in my experience, the work done without structure, or “habit” as it were, became devoid of meaning. I, along with likeminded colleagues, would become apathetic and focus on knit-picking every last issue we had with our working situation. No structure, no work. When in better situations, my best experiences have always been where morale was high, people like each other, and the common goal is understood by all.

I may be projecting for the sake of enjoying this part of the book, but when I analyze the successful structures I’ve dealt with in the past, I can pretty easily identify a chain of keystone habits. What do I mean by keystone habits? Well as Duhigg describes in the book, keystone habits are the catalyst that initiate desired behavior change. When Alcoa emphasized worker safety, old protocols were updated and new strategies implemented. What followed was a “trickle down” effect that inspired confidence amongst a wider spectrum of its employees.

Suddenly, workers felt valued. The changes and recognition unions had been fighting for years were met with open arms. Management was organically rebranded as worker safety was one of the few issues no one could really oppose. The habit change trickled down and became a win-win for all.

West Point Grit

Interestingly, Duhigg quickly highlights how organizations can eventually grow out of keystone habits. He uses an incoming class at West Point as an example:

…when researchers studied an incoming class at West Point, they measured their grade point averages, physical aptitude, military abilities, and self-discipline. When they correlated those factors with whether students dropped out or graduated, however, all of them mattered less than a factor researchers referred to as ‘grit’ which they defined as a tendency to ‘work strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, or plateaus in progress’.

The author goes on to articulate how grit comes out of a sort of coalescence of habits. The cadets at West Point were only successful in their college careers if they were able to develop grit, as defined by the researchers. They had to assimilate their own keystone habits in order to create a culture which allowed them to be successful at the school.

I found this extraordinarily interesting, as I have recently desired a certain grit in my own life to take control and maintain effort and interest. I think what Duhigg is trying to say here is that the culture of one keystone habits begets the culture of an entirely new keystone habit, depending on the group. The West Point cadets developed a network of friends who became life lines in times of adversity. They structured themselves to habitually stay focused.

What I think this implies so clearly is that we rely on each other a tremendous degree. Through a lot of my research, I’ve learned about the power of mentors. It is the mentor who instills the habits of success. It can only be beneficial to have a network of people experienced and adapted to the same adversities you may face on your quest to becoming the best.

Conclusions So Far

This book only seems to be getting more interesting, as it leads my mind into what feels like very productive wandering. I am enticed by its conclusions and feel grounded in the scientific explanations given for habits and how they form. Its implications in that regard are very exciting.




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