How habits work in organizations and for individuals

How habits work in organizations and for individuals


The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change” by Charles Duhigg, 2012, 400 pages

Published by Random House Books, 2013.


How much of what we do in a day is done completely consciously using our full awareness? How much is done more or less on automatic pilot, because we have done it uncountable times before and we always do it in a particular way? For myself I agree with the findings laid out in Charles Duhigg’s book “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change” that most of my actions during any given day are run on routines/scripts that I do not give too much thought to. I run on habits.

Now habits are a nifty “invention”, because they let us conserve brainpower and willpower for the relatively few activities that really do require our awareness, either because they are new to us or because they are complex/unpredictable. However, not all of our habits are bound to be inherently good for us – or habits that used to be good for us may be so no longer because our conditions have changed in the meantime.

If we understand how habits are constructed, we also put ourselves in a much better position to tweak habits that do not work for our benefit.

Understanding the Habit Loop

How do our habits form? A simple model includes three components: cue, routine, reward.

Reward: We carry out certain routines/scripts, because we consciously/unconsciously associate them with a particular reward which we have come to crave. The reward may be anything, it can be food/drink, a sense of accomplishment, social interaction or perhaps relief from boredom. Basically, the reward is something that gives us satisfaction and triggers the reward chemicals in our brains. If the reward is appealing to us, is something we crave, we will carry out the steps needed to get the reward.

Cue: As we have a host of habits, we rely on cues to figure out which reward is in the offing and which habit/routine we need to activate to get the reward. A cue can e.g. be location, time of day, our emotional state, other people or any action we have just carried out. So, for instance every Wednesday afternoon you go grocery shopping and when there you always pick up and consume a large size sugary beverage. The reward involved could a sense of treating oneself (sugar craving) or it could be treating a feeling of peckishness (hunger).

Routine/Script: The routine involved could be always taking the same route to the grocery store, always touring the grocery store in the same order of sections, always picking up the same kind of sugary beverage which is consumed before heading home reversing the exact route taken to get to the grocery store. All of which is done without really questioning the actions that are chunked into this routine. Some of us may even have trouble remembering going the route to the grocery store and the process of getting and drinking the sugary beverage. Our minds were busy processing other things while making the trip and drinking the beverage on automatic pilot.

Habits and Personal Growth

How do we update our habits, if the activities we carry out are not beneficial for us (anymore), but the reward is still something we crave?

Charles Duhigg says that we need to keep something familiar at the beginning and the end of the habit loop whilst changing the middle part. The cues and the reward need to be fairly close to the cues and rewards from the existing habit to make changing the actual routine/script we carry out something that we can accomplish and stick with.

Let’s say that the amount of sugary beverages consumed has added a bit to our waistlines. If we want to get the reward we crave (a sweet treat + relief from peckishness), we can look for artificially sweetened beverages or switch to eating a piece of fruit. So the cue is kept intact (Wednesday afternoon, grocery shopping) and reward is still getting a treat and helping out our sugar and food cravings. However, the routine is changed: the treat consumed is of a different kind.

Habits and Organizations

Habits not only govern individuals but also heavily influence how organizations perform. The organizational habits are carried out by members of the organization in their daily decisions and actions. The habits form the structures and patterns and in the end the culture of the organization. In many organizations no particular attention is paid to steering habits in directions that benefit the organization. In such organizations habits typically form based on power politics and fear.

Organizational habits exist to help us deal with uncertainties and to ease cooperation between different divisions, departments and even individuals. As long as these habits are founded in a true justice and balance between the parties and make it clear who is in charge at the end of the day, these habits can support the organization and help it thrive. If however, habits are based on one division, department or individual's exclusive needs and priorities, the habits are unlikely to be helpful to the organization.

When the organization faces a crisis it is the best time to influence and change existing habits, according to Charles Duhigg. When a crisis looms, the organization and its members become more open to making changes in order to weather the storm. In some ways this calls to mind the “Burning Platform” much spoken of in various change management theories.

Some leaders may play up a crisis or go as far as invent a crisis to enable changes that are seen as necessary in the organization. Whether inventing crises is a wise move is a question. However, making sure that the organization understands the potential impacts of an existing crisis and is given the belief that doing things differently is indeed within reach is often the cue for making changes to business as usual/habits.


Much of life, be it private life or life in organizations, runs on habits. This is great because it allows us to conserve our brainpower and willpower for the relatively small amount of items that require awareness and closer consideration. However, we must continually keep in mind that our habits are the best possible way for us to achieve the rewards we aspire to whether that be personal growth or a thriving organization. A crisis may well present an open and shut case for us to change our ways. However, awareness of the programming of our automatic pilot: the cues, the routines and the rewards, allows us to tweak our habits on a more incremental basis – making change itself a habit.

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