In 1992, a British psychologist walked into two of Scotland’s busiest orthopedic hospitals and recruited five-dozen patients for an experiment she hoped would explain how to boost the willpower of people exceptionally resistant to change.
The patients, on average, were sixty-eight years old. Most of them earned less than $10,000 a year and didn’t have more than a high school degree.All of them had recently undergone hip or knee replacement surgeries, but because they were relatively poor and uneducated, many had waited years for their operations. They were retirees, elderly mechanics, and store clerks. They were in life’s final chapters, and most had no desire to pick up a new book.
Recovering from a hip or knee surgery is incredibly arduous. The operation involves severing joint muscles and sawing through bones. While recovering, the smallest movements—shifting in bed or flexing a joint—can be excruciating. However, it is essential that patients begin exercising almost as soon as they wake from surgery. They must begin moving their legs and hips before the muscles and skin have healed, or scar tissue will clog the joint, destroying its flexibility. In addition, if patients don’t start exercising, they risk developing blood clots. But the agony is so extreme that it’s not unusual for people to skip out on rehab sessions. Patients, particularly elderly ones, often refuse to comply with doctors’ orders.
The Scottish study’s participants were the types of people most likely to fail at rehabilitation. The scientist conducting the experiment wanted to see if it was possible to help them harness their willpower. She gave each patient a booklet after their surgeries that detailed their rehab schedule, and in the back were thirteen additional pages—one for each week—with blank spaces and instructions: “My goals for this week are __________ ? Write down exactly what you are going to do. For example, if you are going to go for a walk this week, write down where and when you are going to walk.” She asked patients to fill in each of those pages with specific plans. Then she compared the recoveries of those who wrote out goals with those of patients who had received the same booklets, but didn’t write anything.
It seems absurd to think that giving people a few pieces of blank paper might make a difference in how quickly they recover from surgery. But when the researcher visited the patients three months later, she found a striking difference between the two groups. The patients who had written plans in their booklets had started walking almost twice as fast as the ones who had not. They had started getting in and out of their chairs, unassisted, almost three times as fast. They were putting on their shoes, doing the laundry, and making themselves meals quicker than the patients who hadn’t scribbled out goals ahead of time.
The psychologist wanted to understand why. She examined the booklets, and discovered that most of the blank pages had been filled in with specific, detailed plans about the most mundane aspects of recovery. One patient, for example, had written, “I will walk to the bus stop tomorrow to meet my wife from work,” and then noted what time he would leave, the route he would walk, what he would wear, which coat he would bring if it was raining, and what pills he would take if the pain became too much. Another patient, in a similar study, wrote a series of very specific schedules regarding the exercises he would do each time he went to the bathroom. A third wrote a minute-by-minute itinerary for walking around the block.
As the psychologist scrutinized the booklets, she saw that many of the plans had something in common: They focused on how patients would handle a specific moment of anticipated pain. The man who exercised on the way to the bathroom, for instance, knew that each time he stood up from the couch, the ache was excruciating. So he wrote out a plan for dealing with it: Automatically take the first step, right away, so he wouldn’t be tempted to sit down again. The patient who met his wife at the bus stop dreaded the afternoons, because that stroll was the longest and most painful each day. So he detailed every obstacle he might confront, and came up with a solution ahead of time.
Put another way, the patients’ plans were built around inflection points when they knew their pain—and thus the temptation to quit—would be strongest. The patients were telling themselves how they were going to make it over the hump.
Each of them, intuitively, employed the same rules that Claude Hopkins had used to sell Pepsodent. They identified simple cues and obvious rewards. The man who met his wife at the bus stop, for instance, identified an easy cue—It’s 3:30, she’s on her way home!—and he clearly defined his reward —Honey, I’m here! When the temptation to give up halfway through the walk appeared, the patient could ignore it because he had crafted self-discipline into a habit.
There’s no reason why the other patients—the ones who didn’t write out recovery plans—couldn’t have behaved the same way. All the patients had been exposed to the same admonitions and warnings at the hospital. They all knew exercise was essential for their recovery. They all spent weeks in rehab.
But the patients who didn’t write out any plans were at a significant disadvantage, because they never thought ahead about how to deal with painful inflection points. They never deliberately designed willpower habits. Even if they intended to walk around the block, their resolve abandoned them when they confronted the agony of the first few steps.
When Starbucks’s attempts at boosting workers’ willpower through gym memberships and diet workshops faltered, executives decided they needed to take a new approach. They started by looking more closely at what was actually happening inside their stores. They saw that, like the Scottish patients, their workers were failing when they ran up against inflection points. What they needed were institutional habits that made it easier to muster their selfdiscipline.
Executives determined that, in some ways, they had been thinking about willpower all wrong. Employees with willpower lapses, it turned out, had no difficulty doing their jobs most of the time. On the average day, a willpower-challenged worker was no different from anyone else. But sometimes, particularly when faced with unexpected stresses or uncertainties, those employees would snap and their self-control would evaporate. A customer might begin yelling, for instance, and a normally calm employee would lose her composure. An impatient crowd might overwhelm a barista, and suddenly he was on the edge of tears.
What employees really needed were clear instructions about how to deal with inflection points—something similar to the Scottish patients’ booklets: a routine for employees to follow when their willpower muscles went limp. So the company developed new training materials that spelled out routines for employees to use when they hit rough patches. The manuals taught workers how to respond to specific cues, such as a screaming customer or a long line at a cash register. Managers drilled employees, role-playing with them until the responses became automatic. The company identified specific rewards— a grateful customer, praise from a manager—that employees could look to as evidence of a job well done.
Starbucks taught their employees how to handle moments of adversity by giving them willpower habit loops.
When Travis started at Starbucks, for instance, his manager introduced him to the habits right away. “One of the hardest things about this job is dealing with an angry customer,” Travis’s manager told him. “When someone comes up and starts yelling at you because they got the wrong drink, what’s your first reaction?”
“I don’t know,” Travis said. “I guess I feel kind of scared. Or angry.”
“That’s natural,” his manager said. “But our job is to provide the best customer service, even when the pressure’s on.” The manager flipped open the Starbucks manual, and showed Travis a page that was largely blank. At the top, it read, “When a customer is unhappy, my plan is to … ”
“This workbook is for you to imagine unpleasant situations, and write out a plan for responding,” the manager said. “One of the systems we use is called the LATTE method. We Listen to the customer, Acknowledge their complaint, Take action by solving the problem, Thank them, and then Explain why the problem occurred.
“Why don’t you take a few minutes, and write out a plan for dealing with an angry customer. Use the LATTE method. Then we can role-play a little bit.”
Starbucks has dozens of routines that employees are taught to use during stressful inflection points. There’s the What What Why system of giving criticism and the Connect, Discover, and Respond system for taking orders when things become hectic. There are learned habits to help baristas tell the difference between patrons who just want their coffee (“A hurried customer speaks with a sense of urgency and may seem impatient or look at their watch”) and those who need a bit more coddling (“A regular customer knows other baristas by name and normally orders the same beverage each day”). Throughout the training manuals are dozens of blank pages where employees can write out plans that anticipate how they will surmount inflection points. Then they practice those plans, again and again, until they become automatic.
This is how willpower becomes a habit: by choosing a certain behavior ahead of time, and then following that routine when an inflection point arrives. When the Scottish patients filled out their booklets, or Travis studied the LATTE method, they decided ahead of time how to react to a cue—a painful muscle or an angry customer. When the cue arrived, the routine occurred.
Starbucks isn’t the only company to use such training methods. For instance, at Deloitte Consulting, the largest tax and financial services company in the world, employees are trained in a curriculum named “Moments That Matter,” which focuses on dealing with inflection points such as when a client complains about fees, when a colleague is fired, or when a Deloitte consultant has made a mistake. For each of those moments, there are preprogrammed routines—Get Curious, Say What No One Else Will, Apply the 5/5/5 Rule—that guide employees in how they should respond. At the Container Store, employees receive more than 185 hours of training in their first year alone. They are taught to recognize inflection points such as an angry coworker or an overwhelmed customer, and habits, such as routines for calming shoppers or defusing a confrontation. When a customer comes in who seems overwhelmed, for example, an employee immediately asks them to visualize the space in their home they are hoping to organize, and describe how they’ll feel when everything is in its place. “We’ve had customers come up to us and say, ‘This is better than a visit to my shrink,’ ” the company’s CEO told a reporter.
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