The Nonprofit Bookshelf: 5 takeaways from The Power of Habit


Here at Whole Whale, one thing we’ve learned about building data cultures within nonprofits is that this can be an extremely heavy lift. It’s not because there are any complex coding languages to learn or sophisticated algorithms to analyze; rather it comes down to one easier-said-than-done shift. This is a shift in habit. Often we hear a similar refrain from nonprofits (especially legacy nonprofits): “That’s not how we do things.” “This is what we’ve always done.” “This is second nature for us.”
Yes, changing the way you’ve done something for 5, 10, or 20 years can be a big ask. The bigger the proverbial ship, the more time it takes to change course. But, as Pulitzer-winning author Charles Duhigg reveals, there’s a hack for that. Read on for our 5 takeaways from his book (a must read for any nonprofit administrator), The Power of Habit.
Required reading for nonprofits looking to implement change: @CDuhigg's #ThePowerOfHabit. #NonprofitBookshelf Share on X

1. All habits operate the same way

Whether you’re quitting smoking, taking over a multibillion dollar corporation, or trying to hold down a job at Starbucks without letting your emotions get the better of you, all habits operate on a loop: An environmental cue signals the start of a behavioral routine that results in a reward. If you’re a smoker, you know this as the craving often triggered by some external factor (stress, having a few cocktails, seeing other people duck out for a cigarette break) that leads to you lighting up and experiencing that moment of satisfaction that comes with the first puff.

We can operationalize habit by examining these three phases of the cycle. What is the cue that triggers the routine? What is the routine, from beginning to end? What is our perceived reward? Sometimes these are clear, other times we need to track our habits (by, say, carrying around an index card to tick  off each Parliament, notice what we were doing beforehand, and how we feel afterwards). If we’re looking to change the habit, however, we’re focusing on one key part of this loop. Which brings us to takeaway #2.

2. Changing a habit means changing one key aspect…

We can try to change the environmental triggers that set off our habits (though good luck with that). We can try to change out the reward, but that is an equally zero-sum game. Where we see success with changing habits effectively and systematically is in changing the routine. I’ll say that again: Change your routine, change your habits.

Let’s go back to the smoking example. If you work in a stressful environment and your daily 3pm cigarette gives you the relief to make it through the last 3 hours of your day with a bit of a lighter mental load, then we can see that there are many routines that can mitigate a stressful situation to make it more manageable. You could go for a walk with a coworker and get some fresh air. You could replace your smoke break with a coffee break. You could even do a 5-minute meditation. All of these will give you that same reward, so that your body doesn’t feel the need to reach for the same old routine.

How can this work with nonprofits? Chances are, if you’re working towards some area of social impact, you have an environment that gives cues that you are hoping to change. That long-term change, your vision as an organization, is the reward. How you get there is bound to shift over time. Isolate that area and ask yourself, “Is the routine that our organization is currently using still getting us the same reward? Is there a way to get us there more efficiently?”

3. …and changing one habit can change a lot of things

I’m going to go back to the example of a smoker one more time, because Duhigg starts off The Power of Habit with an, ahem, powerful case study: Lisa Allen was a 34-year-old woman who had started smoking and drinking when she was 16. Obese, chronically unemployed, and with $10,000 in debt, she fell into a deep depression when her husband announced that he was leaving her. Lisa didn’t know what else to do, so she went to Egypt. While there, she had an experience in the desert that changed her life: She decided she would return to the country in one year and travel across the desert. In order to reach this goal, she decided she would need to quit smoking.

Yes, this is a small detail amid many other factors that would have to be considered towards reaching such a goal. Money, time off, health issues were also all important here, but Lisa focused on one habit to start. She replaced smoking with jogging to give her the same sense of reward after each run (thanks, endorphins). While Lisa met her goal one year later, it wasn’t a hike as she’d initially planned. But she met her goal, and at that point had already seen the transformative nature of changing one habit. From there, Lisa lost 60 pounds, bought a house, received her degree, landed a job that she held for over 3 years, and became engaged. Scientists studied her change, viewing images of Lisa’s brain that showed her old habits as neurological patterns that were gradually being overridden by new habits and urges.

tl;dr? Changing one keystone habit has a domino effect. When we become aware of how fluid certain routines that seem set in stone actually are, it opens us up (consciously or subconsciously) to considering changes in other aspects of our life. Change becomes less scary, and more of a curiosity. And that’s how we turn the boat around.

4. Willpower is a muscle

One of the most important habits Duhigg brings up in The Power of Habit is willpower. Willpower is shown to be a muscle, such that we can strengthen it over time but we will also at certain points exhaust it. It’s a good idea, therefore, to pick your battles when it comes to discipline and use your willpower wisely as you would any other resource. Trying to stick to an extreme diet in the same week that you need to prepare your annual report, for example, may be spreading the resource too thin.

Planning ahead is one way of strengthening willpower. Duhigg singles out the management training Starbucks has in place as one method to follow: Imagine every worst-case scenario. Some may not happen, but many probably will (a customer getting snappy over an incorrect order, for example, is a given at Starbucks). Knowing how you’ll handle each roadblock is as important as knowing how you’ll get from Point A to Point B — in fact, it may be even more important, because planning these out in advance means that you won’t have to double down on the effort if you meet any adversity without having considered it beforehand. An ounce of prevention is worth the proverbial pound of cure.
How do we create new habits? Same way we get to @CarnegieHall… #ThePowerOfHabit by @CDuhigg, now on the #NonprofitBookshelf. Share on X

5. Practice, practice, practice

No change is going to happen overnight, much as we would like it to. If you’re looking to switch over to a new CRM or email provider, or you’re finally starting to use Google Analytics, there is going to be a learning curve. You’ll make mistakes. You’ll think it will be easier to go back to the old way of doing things. But this is why keeping the reward in focus is helpful: With practice, reaching that reward will become much easier and quicker with each cycle of the habit loop. Be aware when roadblocks come up and be on the lookout for icebergs, but hold fast to your new habits. Pretty soon they’ll become, well, habitual. (Just in time to change out a new habit.)

What’s on your #NonprofitBookshelf? Tweet us @WholeWhale!


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