Mastering the Power of Habits

Courtesy of Bussolati

Good or bad, habits are hard to break. Try refraining from showering for a week - or even a day - and see what I mean.

In a fascinating podcast on Social Trigger Insider by Derek Halpern, Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, shared that the way in which habits are formed can be broken down into three main areas:

1) Cues - the triggers that stimulate our behaviours;

2) Routines - the regular activities that form part of our daily lives; and

3) Rewards - the positive outcomes that reinforces our behaviours.

This can be represented by the diagram below:

Image from Econbrowser

To illustrate these factors, consider for a moment the act of brushing teeth.

According to Duhigg, advertising pioneer Claude Hopkins in the early 1900s cleverly associated the film on one's teeth as a "cue" for consumers to brush their teeth so that they can remove this "dirty" coating. Inventor of the Pepsodent toothpaste, Hopkins further created a special recipe with mint extract which made one's tongue and gums tingle.

Apparently, the shiny smooth tooth surfaces (as felt by one's tongue) and tingling sensation make up the "reward" of using toothpaste to clean one's teeth. They make us feel that our teeth is clean even though the minty taste has nothing to do with the effectiveness of the toothpaste! Over time, this forms part of our daily "routine" - and a fairly addictive one I might add.

The pairing of simple and obvious cues with immediate rewards are also found in shampoos. Contrary to popular belief, your shampoo's foams and suds doesn't really do anything to clean your hair. However, they certainly make us perceive and believe so.

Such cues can also be found in the Kaboom bathroom cleaner, which lightens from blue to white after you've sprayed it on your sink for some time. The colour change simulates a cue for cleansing action, even though it exerts no influence on the process.

In the same vein, Apple incorporated the turning of pages on an iPad e-book to mimic an actual book even though there is limited utility to the feature.

The lesson here is that people need to know that something is happening when they use your product. That "something" can be an addictive habit learned through years of use. It can be as banal as the visual effect of "opening" an application on a computer, or hearing the "pop" sound of a newly opened jar of mayonnaise.

This brings us to what Duhigg calls the Science of Small Wins. Popularised by management guru Tom Peters (check out his wonderful list of 163 small wins here), the basic idea here is to create habits that provide small opportunities for victories. These in turn can be positively reinforced through repeat practice.

An example of small wins is seen in Olympian swimmer Michael Phelps' daily routine. Every day, he would perform the same exact ritual - waking up at the same time, eating a certain breakfast, going on small practice drills and so on. Everything goes according to his coach's plan. This series of small victories reduces the stresses of the actual race, which will then be perceived as yet another victory.

Small wins allow serendipity to happen. The goal is to try something and test to see if it succeeds. Doing so allows one to conduct small costless experiments in a non linear fashion.

We can adopt the same principle with our customers and employees. Create opportunities for them to achieve small results as fans. Develop cues that trigger desired actions. Hopefully, these rewards will influence their brain to welcome tasks that eventually become a part of their regular routines.

More examples of small rewards can be seen in the step by step check out process on Amazon. Research shows that customers who complete each stage get a tiny shot of dopamine (a feel good hormone) through their system. This mini sense of accomplishment becomes an addiction that culminates in an online shopping habit.

As we'd imagine, Starbucks is a master in cultivating habits. Beyond the natural addiction of caffeine, the global coffee chain dishes out appreciation cards for all its employees to thank each other every day. While these cards do not offer anything tangible, they are viewed as small wins that are treasured by crew members.

Similarly, yelling your name out loud also gives you a jolt of recognition when you collect your dose of overpriced coffee. Yes, that's another reward - albeit a small one.

Renowned for its service, Starbucks adopts the LATTE method of dealing with angry customers, namely:

- Listen to the customer's complaint;
- Acknowledge their complaint;
- Thank them for complaining;
- Take action by giving them a fresh cup of coffee etc; and
- Explain to them why it won't happen again.

In this case, the "reward" which Starbucks baristas enjoy from this "habit" is a customer who stops screaming!

Finally, Duhigg shared that any habit can be changed. To switch our habit - or those of others - we should diagnose and retain the old cue and reward, and only try to change the routine. This can be better understood as the Golden Rule of Habit Change which goes like this:

1) Identify the cue;
2) Identify the reward that you crave for;
3) Identify the routine that you perform to get the reward; and
4) Change the routine when the cue appears so that you get the same reward.

For the Golden Rule to work, you need to believe that you can change your habits and that things will get better. Often changing one's habit is easier within a community. Check out this handy flowchart below (larger version here) to learn how you can master your own habits.

Source of image

As marketers, it is important for us to understand how habits are formed. Doing so allows us to achieve a greater probability of success when changing customer behaviours. On a personal level, understanding how habits are formed and broken is also useful for us to break free of negative behaviours while embracing positive ones.

For more, check out the short video below of Charles Duhigg in action.

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