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Originally published Sunday, April 8, 2012 at 11:50 AM

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Book review

'The Power of Habit': vanquishing bad habits with good ones

In "The Power of Habit," New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg offers a prescription for how individuals, institutions and businesses can really, truly break bad habits and forge new ones

Special to The Seattle Times

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

by Charles Duhigg

Random House, 371 pp., $28

We all learned recently that performer Mike Daisey is not the best source for information about Apple's manufacturing practices in China. A better source is Charles Duhigg, a reporter for The New York Times who's covered that story and others about how the world works.

In his new book, "The Power of Habit," Duhigg combines lots of reporting and crisp writing to teach a lesson about habits. None of the chapters is about Apple, but about a third of the book focuses on business — including overviews of how Paul O'Neill turned around the aluminum giant Alcoa and how Howard Schultz built and later fixed Starbucks. Other parts of the book focus on the habits of individuals and societies, although there's a fair bit of overlap.

In O'Neill's case, the key to resuscitating Alcoa was a seemingly myopic focus on safety. Because greater safety led to other good habits, Alcoa's profits, labor relations and stock price all improved as well.

At Starbucks, Schultz built a world-popular coffee-shop chain by training baristas to have self-control — specifically, helping them anticipate, plan and practice how to react under the pressure of long lines and impatient customers. Their training is a lot like rehabilitation plans created by knee- and hip-replacement patients, which Duhigg also describes in detail.

For that matter, it also resembles what Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps does to win. For years, he has envisioned winning races, and everything else he does builds to that eventual reality.

Although Phelps' training appears in another part of the book, lots of the stories in "The Power of Habit" seem interchangeable, once you get the hang of how habit building works.

Essentially, people adopt good habits and break bad ones by replacing their old behaviors with something new. The "cue" for the old habit remains, but once they're triggered, these people do something other than, say, bite their nails to reach their goal — in that case, physical stimulation.

Rubbing your arm is an alternative that worked for one research subject in the book, and I was incredulous enough to try it. A week later, my nails look much better.

Another big factor is what's called a "keystone" habit. Change one of those — like how much you exercise or your focus on factory safety — and other behavior will change as well.

Duhigg clearly knows that people do not like, or even buy, the idea that we're not creatures of choice. He carefully explains each step of habit building, using science and — the best part — a slew of interesting anecdotes.

Occasionally he overreaches — for example, it's probably a stretch to say President Obama used the financial meltdown to implement huge changes; our banking system remains roughly the same.

And it's definitely an overstatement to suggest that Schultz ever stopped being personally involved in daily decision-making at Starbucks, even when he took a hiatus from the CEO job.

But overall, "The Power of Habit" — whose 371 pages include 60 pages of notes — makes a compelling case about a pervasive but little-known aspect of how we operate as humans, businesses and societies. We'd all benefit from paying more attention to our habits.

Melissa Allison is a business reporter for The Seattle Times.

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