Great Advice from Great Minds: Habits Can Be Changed


If we understand how they work, says Pulitzer Prize winner and NYT best-selling author Charles Duhigg

By Jill Donahue, Managing Director, EngageRx

When you woke this morning, what was the first thing you did? What habits helped or hindered you? It’s the small habits over time that decide your future.

Now think about what habits of healthcare professionals help or hinder patient outcomes. What habits can you help them change to create optimal patient outcomes?

“In the end, by helping improve patient outcomes you will achieve greater sales. We call this patient-centered engagement—the necessary evolution of the old sales habit.”

“But it’s hard to change habits!,” you say. And I couldn’t agree more. There is a science to it. Charles Duhigg has studied how habits work and how to change them in ourselves and others. He is a Pulitzer Prize winner and author of two New York Times best-selling books: The Power of Habit and Smarter, Faster, Better.

Habits are not easy to understand, but by drawing on hundreds of academic studies, interviews with over three hundred scientists and executives, and research conducted at dozens of companies, Duhigg illustrates why habits exist and how you can change them.

We had a chance to sit down with him to ask him how his lessons apply to us in healthcare. While Duhigg admits that changing habits might not be fast and is certainly not easy, he believes that with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped. Habits cannot be eradicated but they can be replaced. His Golden Rule of Habit is to keep the same cue and same reward but replace the routine.

The key element is the craving. Marketers at Proctor & Gamble studied videos of people making their beds. Why? They were trying desperately to figure out how to sell Febreze, a product which seemed to have tremendous benefits but was on track to be the biggest flop in company history. Suddenly, one of the researchers detected a subtle yet important pattern. After people sprayed the room, they stopped and seemed to enjoy the smell of their newly cleaned room. The reward was the smell. The marketers made some adjustments, and Febreze went on to earn a billion dollars a year.Pc0410100

“This is how new habits are created: by putting together a cue, a routine and a reward, and then cultivating a craving that drives the loop.” ~From “The Power of Habit”

Think of your efforts to change your own habits (anyone else struggling to break their afternoon cookie habit?) or the habits of healthcare professionals. How could you dissect the habits? What is the cue, routine and reward of the habit you most need to break? As an industry, the one habit we desperately need to change is the traditional sales call.

Let’s apply Duhigg’s four steps to help us:

How would the routine be changed if your reward from a call was determined by how much you helped the doctor treat patients?

Identify the routine. The old habit is sitting down in front of a doctor, telling him/her what you know, then checking the box of one more call completed.

Experiment with different rewards. Rewards satisfy cravings. But the tricky part is that we are often not conscious of the cravings that drive our behaviors. The sales reward typically has been achieving reach and frequency goals. That drives the traditional routine described above. That approach worked for many years in pharma selling—but not anymore! Imagine if we adjust that reward. How would the routine be changed if your reward from a call was determined by how much you helped the doctor treat patients (who are helped by your product or device)?

Isolate the cue. What is the goal you have in mind when you get in your car in the morning? What are you thinking the moment the doctor says “What’s new?—I have one minute.”?

Have a plan. Decide exactly what you will think and do when the cue appears, then follow your plan. In your old habit, you thought about how quickly you could rhyme off your features and benefits to check the box of one more call complete. In this new habit, your mindset will be on how to help the doctor become more effective at improving patient outcomes. You will ask great questions, listen and respond to the doctor’s needs. You will get more time. You will be more engaging and inspiring.

In the end, by helping improve patient outcomes you will achieve greater sales. We call this patient-centered engagement—the necessary evolution of the old sales habit. We have seen incredible results when people feel rewarded by helping the doctor help patients. Empowering our people with their purpose may be the most significant thing we can do to evolve our out-dated and ineffective sales-call habits.

In the video interview with Charles, we find some of his top insights:

• His #1 tip for pharma reps to change habits of HCPs to make better choices for patients: creating rewards in advance that the doctor will respond to

• Help physicians reflect on the choices they make. Ask questions that will reveal the rewards they perceive or expect

• Who is the best person to make a decision about a treatment path—the doctor, nurse, PA, med tech? It’s the person closest to the problemPc0420100

See more from Charles Duhigg in this video interview.

• The relative benefits of multitasking vs. focused contemplation: stop and think

• How to prioritize your agenda and be better at meeting stretch goals and smart goals: have a system!

• Why busyness and productivity are NOT the same thing

• His biggest take-away from writing his book—the most productive people aren’t the ones who work hardest, or go to the right schools or work for the largest companies, but those who balance their agendas. •


Read the Actionable Books summary of Duhigg’s books: The Power of Habit and Smarter, Better, Faster




Jill Donahue, HBa, MAdEd is on a mission to lift our industry, building purpose-driven, influential people. Through her keynote talks, workshops and award-winning mobile-learning programs, she is helping pharma people build trust, open doors and make a bigger impact. She trains people why and how to engage instead of sell.

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