The Power of Habit

The Power of Habit:  Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business

by Charles Duhigg

Every single one of my clients faces the need to build new habits at some point. Whether it’s replacing an unhelpful old habit or building a new one from scratch, the process of illuminating automatic behavior and changing it can be quite difficult.  At the same time, building a habit that operates without conscious thought and that supports desired outcomes is a marker for success.

You have to have the right habits.

Especially when it comes to business development, I’m a proponent of building strong habits. Why?
Because habits build a structure that takes over in the face of challenges.  Habits are behaviors that we perform without thoughts.  They just happen.  And when they don’t, we feel so uncomfortable that, for better or worse, we usually revert to the habit.  There’s a lot of power in a habit.

But it isn’t easy to establish a new habit, and it’s often even harder to break an old one. We’ve all heard the “do it for 28 days and you’ll have a habit” advice.  That doesn’t match my experience, though, and too often it doesn’t match my clients’ experience.

Several recently published books explore habit, but Duhigg’s The Power of Habit captured my attention. In an Amazon Q&A, Duhigg shares what sparked his interest in habit:

What sparked your interest in habits?

I first became interested in the science of habits eight years ago, as a newspaper reporter in Baghdad, when I heard about an army major conducting an experiment in a small town named Kufa.

The major had analyzed videotapes of riots and had found that violence was often preceded by a crowd of Iraqis gathering in a plaza and, over the course of hours, growing in size.  Food vendors would show up, as well as spectators.  Then, someone would throw a rock or a bottle.

When the major met with Kufa’s mayor, he made an odd request:  Could they keep the food vendors out of the plazas?  Sure, the mayor said.  A few weeks later, a small crowd gathered near the Great Mosque of Kufa.  It grew in size.  Some people started chanting angry slogans.  At dusk, the crowd started getting restless and hungry.  People looked for the kebab sellers normally filling the plaza, but there were none to be found.  The spectators left.  The chanters became dispirited.  By 8 PM, everyone was gone.

I asked the major how he had figured out that removing food vendors would change peoples’ behavior.

The U.S. military, he told me, is one of the biggest habit-formation experiments in history.  “Understanding habits is the most important thing I’ve learned in the army,” he said.  By the time I got back to the U.S., I was hooked on the topic.

Duhigg’s book is divided into three parts:  The Habits of Individuals, which explores how habit works and how to create and change them, The Habit of Successful Organizations, which describes how various businesses use (and perhaps abuse) habit formation, and The Habit of Societies, which investigates societal habits and related ethical questions. Filled with stories, anecdotes, and tweetable insights, the book is a quick read that seems to be well-grounded in research and experience.

I was surprised to learn that, according to cited Duke University research, more than 40% of actions are habits rather than action motivated by conscious decision. Duhigg defines habits as “the choices that all of us deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about but continue doing, often every day.”  That’s when I began to pay close attention to the book.

Habits are based on a three-step process:  a cue that triggers the action, the action itself, and the reward. Using examples such as the habit of checking email (routine) in response to a message waiting alert (cue) to relieve boredom (reward), Duhigg explains why habits are so difficult to change.  When a cue triggers us, we crave a reward, and the habit occurs automatically.

To change a habit, Duhigg teaches, choose a cue and a reward, then focus on the reward until you crave it, and preferably join a group composed of others who believe that change is possible. It sounds easy enough, and Duhigg offers plenty of examples, but he also acknowledges that habits become deeply and often unconsciously engrained, making change difficult.

I was particularly intrigued by Duhigg’s recitation of research that demonstrates the success of those who make specific plans for action well in advance and know how they’ll work around obstacles. We’ve all watched carefully cultivated habits fall apart when work gets unusually busy or a child gets sick, and Duhigg’s recitation of finding after finding serves as a strong prompt to anticipate obstacles.

What’s in it for lawyers?

The Power of Habit offers both conceptual and concrete tips on how to make habit-building more conscious and more successful. As noted above, every single client I’ve worked with in the last six years has bumped into habits at some point.  Bad habits (such as returning to the office with intentions to follow up with a new prospect only to watch days slip by without any movement) have to go, and new ones take their place.  Implementing Duhigg’s suggestions will help.

I wish The Power of Habit had offered more discussion around identifying harmful habits that are not obvious, such as the realization that Iraqi riots wouldn’t occur without food vendors’ presence.  It’s one thing to know what habits are getting in the way, and it’s another entirely to see a pattern of blockages without being able to identify the linchpin that’s creating problems.  (Very often, an outside observer is the best way to spot that habit.)  Once you’ve identified the deleterious habit, Duhigg can help you to change it.

I’m studying The Power of Habit to help my clients find more effective ways to build automatic behaviors. If time is limited, I’d strongly recommend that you read at least the first four chapters.  You’ll get a good grounding in how to create and change habits, and you’ll likely find yourself at least skimming the rest of the book.

In the meantime, ask yourself:  what do I do with little or no thought that’s getting in my way? What reward am I craving?  How can I get that reward without the harmful behavior?  What should I substitute?  Even if your study of habit remains on that relatively surface level, you and your practice will benefit.

Must-see Maxims

I occasionally find an article or resource that’s so helpful I wish I’d written it.
When I do, I pass it along to you.

Twenty Marketing Maxims is probably the best summary of business development best practices that I’ve ever seen. As I wrote when I tweeted the resource:  Print it. Laminate it. Read it daily. Use it. Get business.

Start now.

What’s your number?

There’s an old maxim that 50% of marketing efforts are a complete waste of time.
The problem is, as the punchline holds, that nobody knows which efforts fall into the 50% that succeed.  That’s amusing only if it’s untrue.

I’m quick to climb up on a soapbox and start to rant when a client or a prospective client (or, for that matter, anyone within earshot) bemoans the “fact” that they just can’t bring in new business. Woe is me, it’s hard, the skills don’t come naturally, I may as well quit. I try to quell my irritation (and remember that I once felt similarly), but it’s easy for me to jump into conversation with a prickly request that’s designed to catch the bemoaning would-be rainmaker short:

What’s your ROI on each market effort?

If you don’t know the ROI at least in qualitative terms, you’re operating in the dark.
(You really should know or be able to get quantitative information, as well, but let’s focus on basics for now.)  The truth about marketing is that some of it will fail gloriously, some will succeed wildly, and most of it will just kind of tick along with nothing special resulting.

ROI matters because, in the words of Lord Kelvin, “If you can not measure it, you can not improve it.”

Two key factors help to determine your ROI.

  1. Objective-defined measurement. While it’s great to build relationships through networking, if all of those relationships remain friendly or personal in nature and never cross over into business, your ROI is zero.  (Of course, ROI depends on your objectives:  if your goal is simply to meet colleagues and build professional relationships, your ROI could be stratospheric without your landing a single client.  That isn’t a business development objective.)
  2. Conversion rate. If you’re looking at ROI for business development purposes, conversion and ROI are almost synonymous.  A conversion rate, at its most basic, describes the ratio of new clients (or new business) to consultations with the potential client.  You must know your conversion rate.  Why?  If you don’t have enough business, a conversion rate of 20% suggests one avenue for improvement whereas a 90% conversion rate means that your problem is somewhere upstream of a sales conversation.  Diagnosis leads to solution.

Depending on what kind of marketing activities you’re doing, you should also know conversion rates for your newsletter sign-ups, your follow-ups after making a call to action in the course of a presentation, and for your direct mail marketing, for example. At the very most basic, do you know how each of your clients found you?  And do you keep records over time so that you can track effectiveness?

It’s important that you know your ROI “number” so that you can guide future activity. One of the most dangerous mistakes I see comes to light when someone really, really believes that a marketing effort will succeed and when he maintains that belief despite evidence to the contrary.

If you’re reluctant to evaluate your ROI, consider the possibility that you may be making a conscious decision to engage in unproductive activity. Maybe what you’re doing is comfortable.  Perhaps it pleases someone else.  There’s no sin in continuing unproductive activity when the lack of results is acknowledged, but I see too many people who are willfully blind to the lack of results, and that only keeps them stuck.

If you aren’t tracking your ROI, start today. Ask yourself how ROI should be measured for the activity you’re undertaking.  For example, is new business the right metric, or is it building strong relationships with a particular group?  In some cases, if you’re building your credentials, you can get tremendous ROI simply by writing an article, having it published, and then using the basis of the article for a presentation.

Once you’ve defined the right measurement, track your activity and results and perform an ongoing analysis. After three to six months, you should have enough ROI information to determine whether the activity is producing results.  If you don’t have solid qualitative data, at a minimum, within six months, guess what?  The activity probably isn’t producing.

If you’re one of those who’s very busy with business development activity but unhappy about the outcome, and if you aren’t tracking your ROI, we should talk.  Please contact me to set an appointment for a complimentary consultation.

How to Adjust for Chaos

Last fall, I shared that I’d joined a gym, and I drew some parallels between getting into the regular gym-going habit and regularly engaging in business development.
If you missed those notes, you can read them here and here, and I recommend you do so.

I haven’t written about the gym since last September, partly because when things went a bit haywire in my personal life and got frantic with business, I quit going. Isn’t that the story?  I worked out on my regular schedule while I was away on vacation, but when I got back to “real life” in November, real life crowded out my goals.  (At least, that was my story.  The truth, of course, is that I allowed that crowding out to happen.)

The lessons I’ve learned from this experience apply equally to business development.

  1. Take full responsibility for your choices. I would love to blame circumstances for my gym interruption.  And, in fairness, I could — life threw several big curveballs that boomeranged around over and over.  But if I blame circumstance, that puts circumstance in the driver’s seat and I can only play along.  Thanks, but no.  I’d rather take responsibility for my choices because doing so creates an easy-to-see opportunity for change.
  2. Do what you can even when things fall apart. Even though I wasn’t able to stick with the workout schedule I’d planned, my fitness goals remained important and so I focused on eating well rather than using my “inability” to go to the gym as license to abandon the goal completely.  Results?  I’m down almost 30 pounds since I started going to the gym, despite the 3 months of not working out.  And my first day back to the gym was much easier than it would have been had I used the lack of workouts as an excuse to spend time with my pals Ben and Jerry.
  3. Get back to your plan as soon as you can. The more fully you observe the first point, the quicker “as soon as you can” is likely to occur.  But even when you lose sight that the timing is largely within your control, keep a sharp eye for the first opportunity.  As soon as you see it, seize it.
  4. Consider whether the disruption reveals the need to revise your plan. I was going to the gym for an hour a day four or five days a week.  That pace isn’t realistic for my life right now.  However, I can revise my plan and go two or three times a week and supplement with neighborhood walks.  That change takes account of my own changed circumstances and makes it much more likely that I’ll stick to the plan.

Let’s face it:  sometimes we let life or business get in the way of our goals. If you keep these tips front-of-mind, however, you’ll find a lot more success even when you might be tempted to throw in the towel and wait for things to settle down.

What suggestions do you have for staying on track under adverse circumstances? I’d love to hear.  Just click here to email me directly.

Priorities of Trust

I’m in the middle of two renovation projects. You’ll see the results of one project in the next few weeks, as I life the curtain on some significant changes to the face of my business.

The messier renovation by far is taking place in my home and my home office. It’s been loud, with lots of dust and people dashing through the house, often needing answers to questions I hadn’t even thought to contemplate.  My mantra has become, It will be worth it when it’s done!

My contractor is terrific. He’s creative, thoughtful, thrifty, and careful, and I’ve recommended him to several friends.  When I told him yesterday that I’d passed on his name again, he looked somber for a moment and then said, “Tell them that I’ll be with you until the job is done.  If they’re in a hurry, they’ll need to call someone else.  I won’t shortchange you just to get another job, and they have to understand that.”

I’m not his only customer, but really?  I feel as if I am. He’s doing a few other small jobs along with mine, and he’s renovating other houses he owns and plans to sell.  He always has time for me, he answers all of my questions (annoying though they must be, since I know nothing about renovations), and he’s always thinking about what would make my job come out the best it can possibly be.  He’s even made some suggestions that are not related to the renovation, and they’ve been right on point.  I am absolutely thrilled to be working with him.

I feel as if my job is the most important job he’s handling. No matter what comes up (and in a house built in the mid-1920s, there’s lots that does come up), I know he’s on top of it and he has it handled.  He’s on the job, so I can breathe easy.

Can you inspire that kind of trust?  Can you treat all of your clients as if they’re your only client? It’s a challenge I’ve assigned myself.  Not easy, but certainly worthwhile.