Coffee and the power of habit

What if a sustained focus on safety changed everything in a sagging business? That's what happened at Alcoa, when Paul O'Neill took over in 1987 and it's one of the most fascinating chapters in the "The Power of Habit -- Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business," a book by New York Times writer Charles Duhigg.

Investors at an initial meeting with O'Neill were confused when he started talking about worker safety. At the meeting, some started asking the usual questions about inventories and capital. One analyst immediately called his clients and suggested they sell the stock. 


"I'm not certain you heard me," Duhigg wrote, quoting O'Neill. "If you want to understand how Alcoa is doing, you need to look at our workplace safety figures. If we bring our injury rates down, it won't be because of cheerleading or the nonsense you sometimes hear from other CEOs. It will be because the individuals at this company have agreed to become part of something important: They've devoted themselves to creating a habit of excellence. Safety will be an indicator that we're making progress in changing our habits across the entire institution. That's how we should be judged."

O'Neill, Duhigg wrote, believed that one habit -- the safety focus -- had the power to disrupt other ingrained habits and start a chain reaction of good habits. Duhigg calls these keystone habits. In O'Neill's case, he handed out his home phone number and told hourly workers he wanted to hear about managers who pushed them to be unsafe. Instead, workers called him with their ideas -- ideas that improved productivity, and profit.

Much of Duhigg's book focuses on one idea -- how habits, in general, consist of a cue, routine (the habit) and reward. To change habits means understanding the cue and the reward, so that changing the routine still produces the same reward.

I experienced this myself when I was pregnant. Like many reporters, I was highly addicted to coffee. At the time, I was covering courts in Camden. I'd have a cup of coffee at home. As soon as I got to the office, I'd grab a cup of coffee and buy one to go, which believe it or not, I'd hide in little nooks and crannies in the courthouse as I went in and out of courtrooms looking for stories. By lunch, I was on my third or fourth cup. In the middle of the afternoon, I needed another cup and when it came to sit and write around 5 p.m., that was when I poured another cup from the coffee pot in the news room. Basically, I was drinking six to eight cups a day at a time when I needed to get to as close to none as possible.

So, I followed Dung's advice, although I didn't know it. What I did was try to figure out what I really wanted when I grabbed a cup of coffee.

Sometimes I wanted caffeine. In that case, I'd have half a cup of coffee. Sometimes, I wanted the companionship of hanging around drinking coffee. In that case, I'd buy decaf. Sometimes, I wanted the taste of coffee, usually with dessert. Again, decaf. And when I wrote, I realized that what I wanted was the warmth of the cup in my hand and something to absentmindedly sip as I was turning my brain to write. Decaf tea was the choice then.

I never succeeded in getting to no coffee, but I did get to one cup of caffeinated coffee a day.

Anybody else have a story like that?