How to break bad habitsMarch 16, 2012: 5:00 AM ET
Our Weekly Read column features Fortune staffers' and contributors' takes on recently published books about the business world and beyond. We've invited the entire Fortune family -- from our writers and editors to our photo editors and designers -- to weigh in on books of their choosing based on their individual tastes or curiosities. In this installment, senior editor-at-large Allan Sloan reviews The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg.
FORTUNE -- Habits are the kind of thing you don't think twice about. You do something because that's the way you always do it, you slip into a routine, and the longer you keep at it, the deeper the groove worn in your brain becomes, and the harder it becomes for you to change.
You have to fight against your habits sometimes. After Hurricane Irene flooded our basement last August, for example, I needed to replace 10 copies of the 1982 Haggadah that my family uses at Passover seders. I began in the habitual way that you hunt for old publications these days: online. I didn't like what I found, and it finally occurred to me to contact the publisher, United Synagogue. Success! I got new books from one place at one time for considerably less than what online sellers were charging for used Haggadahs.
Print journalists are especially prone to behaving habitually, because print journalism is such a habit-driven business. That's why I'm impressed that Charles Duhigg, a business reporter for the New York Times, managed to step outside what he and I do for a living in order to write about habits, how they're formed, how they affect what we do, and how to modify them.
I bought The Power of Habit because I was responding -- habit! -- to an e-mail from Duhigg, whom I know slightly and whose work I generally like. To make sure that I didn't allow myself to be distracted by lighter fare -- a bad habit of mine -- his book was the only reading material I took with me on a recent plane flight. I finished it more quickly than I expected, and ended up having to read in-flight magazines for half the return flight. That's one habit I don't plan to get into.
I read the book as a series of essays rather than as a whole, which may explain why I finished it quickly. I enjoyed (and learned from) Duhigg's description of how Starbucks (SBUX) trains its baristas to respond cheerfully and automatically to grumpy customers, and how "habits of society," as Duhigg calls them, explain why Rosa Parks' refusal to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala., touched off the boycott that helped launch Martin Luther King Jr.'s career.
Some parts of the book -- such as a creepy tale of how a compulsive gambler ruined her life -- don't really seem compatible with other parts. And while I found the Rosa Parks tale interesting, I think that Duhigg's "habits of society" construction is a reach. Ditto for the idea that Paul O'Neill stressing worker safety made Alcoa (AA) the top performer of the 30 Dow Industrial stocks (a meaningless metric, by the way) during his tenure as chief executive.
But those are quibbles. On the whole, the book is a good and educational read, which is what matters. Duhigg doesn't preach, rather he invites you to learn -- a much better approach. The book's most valuable contribution is explaining how habits are formed, and how you can modify your behavior gradually by changing a piece at a time rather than taking on an entrenched habit frontally.
Just as I was finishing this review, habit struck again. I was doing a walkthrough with the contractor who had just finished repairing the damage that Irene inflicted on our house. He asked why the refrigerator in our laundry room is wedged into a tight, inconvenient spot rather than in a larger, more convenient space nearby. My wife and I answered, "Because it's always been there." But it won't be there for long, now that we recognize the situation. Habits are only habits. Unlike your destiny, they can be changed.
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