Stephen McGinty: Old habits needn’t die hard

Pepsodent convinced the public that using its toothpastewould result in reward
Pepsodent convinced the public that using its toothpastewould result in reward
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Changing a routine is not easy but it’s not rocket science either – as long as you can teach your brain a new, good habit to replace the bad, writes Stephen McGinty

WHEN John Browne took over as chief executive of BP in 1995, he quickly became the darling of investors and a villain to guardians of health and safety. For Browne, the most effective way of raising profit margins and so share price was to cut costs, which he did so with ruthless efficiency and, for a time, profits and share price rose.

Yet such a policy can come at a price, one which may be postponed but which, invariably must one day be paid, though rarely by the instigator. The cost-cutting programme was deemed to have compromised safety and, in 2005, there was an explosion at the Texas City refinery in which 15 workers were killed, 170 injured and which resulted in BP being slapped with record fines for hundreds of safety violations: fines which were further increased when BP was discovered not to have corrected the violations even after the disaster.

Then, in 2010, the sky was black with chickens coming home to roost, and plumes of oily smoke when the Deepwater Horizon exploded, resulting in 11 deaths, 17 injured and the largest oil spill in American history. BP came within days of total collapse as the company struggled to cap the leak, the White House applied unrelenting pressure and funds from the money markets dried up. Although the company survived, the current cost of the disaster is $70 billion and climbing.

When Paul O’Neill took over as chief executive of Aluminium Company of America (Alcoa) in 1987 he quickly became a villain to investors and a darling to guardians of health and safety, before eventually being beloved by both.

When he took to the stage of an affluent hotel in Manhattan to give his first speech to investors, he began by pointing to the nearest emergency exit and stating: “In the unlikely event of a fire or other emergency, you should calmly walk out, go down the stairs to the lobby and leave the building.” The audience were bemused.

Then O’Neill began to talk about worker safety. At the time the company witnessed one accident per week, better than many American companies, but still unacceptable to the new boss who said his mission was to make Alcoa the safest company in America.

“I intend to go for zero injuries,” he said. When an investor asked him about the company’s capital ratio, he replied: “I’m not certain you heard me. If you want to understand how Alcoa is doing, you need to look at our workplace safety figures.” One investor left the meeting and instructed his clients to sell their Alcoa stocks immediately.

In order to achieve his new goal, O’Neill insisted that every time an employee got hurt, the heads of the department had to meet with him and provide a plan for how the injury would never happen again. So as to discover how to prevent even the smallest accident, management had to re-acquaint themselves with the inner workings of an industry they had long taken for granted, and, in the process, they spoke to employees about their ideas, and discovered ways to streamline operations which in turn reduced costs. If staff wished to be promoted it was not through running a more profitable plant but by running the safest one. The irony was that although safety was the focus, profit soon became a by-product. By the time O’Neill retired, plants went years without an accident, remarkable given an environment where metal is cooked to 1,500 degrees. Profits rose by 500 per cent.

O’Neill believed that habit was one of the most important elements in a company. If you can change a few of people’s habits you can change the entire culture of an organisation.

“All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits,” William James, the American psychologist and philosopher, said in 1892. He added: “If practice did not make perfect, nor habit economise the expense of nervous and muscular energy, we would therefore be in a sorry plight.”

Researchers at Duke University in America have calculated that 40 per cent of every action you or I perform each day is a habit, that is, actions on which no thought was given or decision was made, but which were purely instinctive. An example of this would be the automatic routine which takes place as soon as you pick your car keys and turn on the ignition. You don’t think about how to drive the car, you are already too busy brooding on work or the children or the next football game. Over the past 20 years neuroscientists have discovered that habits are what happens when the brain pulls together an entire sequence of decisions and then sinks them deep into the basal ganglia, the smallest, most ancient part of the brain. It does this so that it can save the mental effort of recalling a whole series of separate decisions again and again and again. It is, in brain terms, the equivalent of a TV chef reaching for “one I prepared earlier”.

The problem is our brains do not distinguish between good habits and bad habits, between rolling out of bed and reaching for our running shoes or the first cigarette of the day. But what scientists and psychologists now believe is that habits can be broken down into three distinctive, component parts. The first is the cue or trigger, the second the routine and the third is the reward. For example: the habit of checking your phone during meetings will be triggered by the first ping, the routine is having a fly check and the reward is the mild endorphin rush we get with new information.

In his new book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg gives a whole series of examples of how the corporate world has exploited what he describes as the “habit loop”, our slavish devotion to the cycle of cue, routine and reward.

Among the most impressive is how Pepsodent toothpaste managed, in less than ten years, to raise the number of people who brushed their teeth from 7 per cent to 67 per cent. Claude Hopkins, the advertising executive, found his cue by pointing out to people the strange film that builds up on teeth and convinced them that the routine of brushing with Pepsodent every morning would reward them with the “Pepsodent smile” and clean tingly teeth.

The reason habits are difficult to break is that they are like worn, comfortable grooves into which our brain and thoughts slip. It would appear that it is far more difficult to break a habit and abandon it completely than it is to replace a bad habit with one that is better for you.

As an example, Duhigg examines how Alcoholics Anonymous works. A person with a drinking problem or habit will fall into the same system of cue, routine and reward. The cue will be feeling sad, upset or emotional, the routine will be going to the pub for camaraderie and drink and the reward will be intoxication and eventual oblivion which will bring a temporary relief. He believes the success, for those for whom AA does work, is that it maintains the same cue and reward; people who need relief can get it from the camaraderie of a meeting where they talk about how they feel as opposed to pouring out their troubles to the guy on the next bar stool.

For Paul O’Neill, attacking one habit – how people approached safety – was enough to trigger a transformation that rippled through the entire company. “You can’t order people to change,” he said. “So I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing. If I could start disrupting the habits around one thing, it would spread throughout the entire company.”

The difficulty I have always found is having the discipline to get started. But there is hope. Brain scans can show that one set of neurological patterns can be overridden by new behaviours.

So what is the best way to start and maintain good habits as opposed to bad? It would appear that one method is to maintain the notion of cue, routine and reward; for example, if you are intent on going for a daily run, one cue would be to leave your training shoes by the bed as a prompt, the routine is the run and the reward will either be the endorphin high or the big breakfast which you promised yourself.

It’s not rocket science, but as you set about sculpting these new mental grooves and allowing them to sink into the deeper recesses of your basal ganglia, it does seem to be a form of brain surgery.