About seven years ago, I succumbed to the reality that my destiny was to be bald. I had vowed never to be guilty of doing a “comb-over,” and sometime before a comb-over would present itself as an option, I shaved my head.

 

It was a liberating experience that I never regretted.

 

The morning after I shaved my head the first time, I stepped into the shower, grabbed the shampoo, and began to lather my head. “Woops,” I laughed to myself, “that was unnecessary.”

 

The next morning, though, I did the same thing, as I did the next morning, the next, and the next. A year later, even if I didn’t actually squeeze shampoo onto my hand, almost every day I would at least grab the shampoo. That was because for 42 years or so, that’s what I had done. Grabbing the shampoo when I stepped into the shower or bathtub was the first thing I did. It was a habit, a powerful habit it turned out.

 

I’ve recently been reading the book, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg and it’s been eye opening. In the book, Duhigg cites many different studies about how the brain works and how someone can go about changing habits.

 

In short, in most cases, habits actually are good. You breathe and swallow and go through other daily rituals out of habit. Your brain operates on auto pilot in these cases and it’s much more efficient that way.

 

The book also goes into detail about Americans brushing their teeth. Did you know, that at the beginning of the 20th Century, only about 7 percent of households had toothpaste? That changed with the introduction of Pepsodent. A decade after the introduction of Peposdent, and the advertising genius of Claude Hopkins, a whopping 65 percent of households had toothpaste?

 

Habits require three things, according to Duhigg: A trigger (or cue), a daily routine, and a reward. With a bad habit like overeating, a trigger might be the allure of packaging, the daily routine might be walking past a particular store that has such packaging, and the reward likely would be the taste of the food.

 

For brushing teeth, Hopkins needed to create a trigger; he cleverly used the “film” that we feel on our teeth every day. Brushing teeth with Pepsodent became the daily routine. And, at first, it appeared that the reward was beautiful, white teeth without “the film.” Eventually Hopkins and others would learn that the true reward that made Peposdent and other toothpastes wildly successful was the burning-type sensation that people felt in their mouths after brushing, a true sense of accomplishment and that became a craving, completing what Duhigg calls the “habit loop.”

 

Recognizing and exploiting habits, then, is a major component to advertising and marketing. Learning what are triggers/cues, becoming part of daily routines, and delivering some type of reward. Go through products with which you have some measure of brand loyalty and you’ll likely find that, for better or worse, you have been conditioned to follow the trigger/routine/reward cycle.

 

As you might imagine, the more entrenched a habit becomes (the stronger the craving), the more difficult it is to change. The cravings of a habit never fully disappear, but changing habits requires understanding the trigger, substituting a different behavior in place of the habit, and then having a reward of comparable magnitude to that which the habit produced.

 

To hear people say, in business, that something is done a certain way because “we’ve always done it that way” is itself a cliché. But I have had countless experiences where not wanting to have to even spend time thinking about how to do something differently becomes the barrier to change. To me, the rewards in business of trying a new tactic or approach are so obvious—new customers, more sales—that I often find it confounding when others don’t quickly see the benefit of changing habits.

 

As often is the case, to get started you have to take a real step back, do some real thinking and talking in a different setting. Identify the habits, their triggers and, then, how routines can be altered to yield new types of rewards.

 

As my colleagues will tell you, my approach for such discussions always is a big white board and a table full of Chinese food. Such a recipe for discussions never has failed to deliver innovative new approaches (some have suggested it is the MSG at work). Changing things up at least a bit and conditioning people to the idea that we’re talking about changing habits itself gets the creative juices flowing.

 

In most cases, if the new ideas don’t work, you can go back to the old habits, which is so easily done you’d be amazed. Tomorrow morning, in fact, it’s almost as likely as not that the first thing I will do in the shower is grab the shampoo.