Travis Leach’s parents were erratic but outwardly functional heroin addicts. When Travis was nine, his father overdosed in the kitchen, and Travis was the one to call 911. When he was 16, he quit school and moved away. He worked at a car wash, a McDonald’s, and a video store—but he lost control whenever he had to deal with rude customers or managers. But then he got a job at Starbucks. Six years later, he manages two Starbucks, earns a good salary, and gracefully teaches his new employees how to handle abuse from customers.
Readers can easily see the connection between Travis Leach’s difficult childhood and his social issues as an adolescent. This is because people learn their habits from their environments—and most importantly from their families. Travis’s chaotic upbringing taught him poor social and emotional habits, which left him unable to deal with conflict at work. But clearly, something at Starbucks changed Travis. That something, willpower, is the subject of this chapter.
Starbucks’s extensive training program has taught Travis Leach all sorts of essential life skills—including, most of all, willpower. Numerous studies show that willpower is the single most important factor in academic performance, and people with the most willpower learn it as a habit. Starbucks valued willpower because it helps baristas treat customers with more enthusiasm. By teaching its baristas willpower, Starbucks is able to help people like Travis become disciplined workers.
Willpower is an important habit because it determines whether people choose the behaviors that they consciously know are best for them in the long term. Because people with willpower avoid temptations and stick to their goals, willpower is also key to learning and retraining other habits. In other words, willpower is like a keystone habit that makes all other habits easier to achieve. This is why Starbucks put so much emphasis on it. It’s also why Travis Leach improved at everything else after he learned willpower.
In the 1960s, Stanford researchers had showed that kids who delayed gratification (by waiting for marshmallows rather than eating them immediately) later became more academically successful. The researchers also proved that it's possible to teach children willpower.
These Stanford experiments proved two key truths about willpower: it’s learnable and it’s valuable for long-term achievement. This strongly supports Duhigg’s suggestion that people ought to make willpower into a habit if they want to be more successful.
In the 1990s, the PhD student Mark Muraven tried to understand why people’s willpower fluctuates over time. He brought participants into a room with two bowls: one with chocolate chip cookies and one with radishes. Half were told to eat the cookies, and the other half were told to eat the radishes—while sitting right next to the delicious, warm cookies. They were then given an impossible puzzle. The participants assigned to eat the radishes had much less willpower left because they’d been trying hard to not eat the cookies. As a result, they spent less than half as much time working on the puzzle as the participants who ate cookies.
Muraven’s study shows that people’s willpower is limited: if they use it up on some tasks, they won’t have any left over for others. This is similar to the principle of decision fatigue: after making several decisions, people have less energy left over for future ones. Murven’s experiment has obvious applications for everyday decision-making: people should try not to spend willpower on unimportant tasks and conserve it for their most important goals instead. Of course, habits also help save willpower by making good decisions automatic, rather than forcing people to spend energy making them.
Muraven’s experiment showed that willpower is more like a muscle than a skill. But, Duhigg asks, is it possible to strengthen it? A 2006 study in Australia found that people who started exercise, money management, and academic improvement programs also started using more willpower in other areas of their lives. This explains why putting children in activities like sports and music lessons helps them succeed: it teaches them to build willpower. Corporations that employ entry-level workers, like Starbucks, have also focused on building willpower. When its first after-work programs failed, Starbucks looked for a new strategy: it “turn[ed] self-discipline into an organizational habit.”
Willpower is like a muscle because, while people’s total amount of it is limited, they can still increase it over time. Thus, habits don’t just save willpower—they can also help build it. In fact, one way to increase it is through keystone habits. Namely, people can build willpower in one domain (like children in sports or music), then easily transfer it to another. This is why Starbucks trains such successful employees: the willpower they learn in training easily transfers to the challenges they face on the job.
In 1992, a Scottish study tried to build willpower in elderly, low-income people after knee and hip replacement surgeries. Recovering from these surgeries requires regular, painful rehabilitation sessions. Patients who simply wrote out their goals and plans in a notebook recovered twice as fast as those who didn’t. In their writing, they focused on how they would deal with pain—the key point that would test their willpower.
Just like Michael Phelps visualizes his races the night before he swims them, the Scottish patients learned to rehearse painful experiences before actually living them out. In other words, they practiced exercising willpower before they actually needed it. In doing so, they turned willpower into a habit. This is one path to building willpower over time—especially when preparing for challenging but relatively predictable situations.
Starbucks found something similar: their workers’ willpower fell apart during stressful “inflection points.” The company taught employees to deal with these situations by developing automatic routines for them. In training, they learn routines like “LATTE” (which means listen, acknowledge, take action, thank, and explain). Employees write out and practice plans for dealing with difficult customers. Companies like Deloitte Consulting and The Container Store use similar training programs to help employees deal with inflection points.
Like Tony Dungy’s football teams, Starbucks employees most needed effective habits in the same stressful moments when they were least able to exercise them. Willpower was the key to effectively handling these situations, and Starbucks employees built this willpower through rehearsal (just like the Scottish surgery patients). Thus, not only is willpower an important habit in its own right—it’s also key to making other habits succeed at these “inflection points.”
Like Travis Leach, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz grew up in a troubled family. His father struggled to hold a job, and Howard became extremely competitive on the sports field. While working for a plastic company in the early 1980s, he saw that the small Seattle coffee brand Starbucks was ordering lots of equipment, so he went to check out the company—he bought it seven years later and expanded it on a grand scale. Schultz attributed his willpower to his mother, who constantly pushed him to set and achieve goals. He ran Starbucks until 2000, but quality started to fall after he quit, so he returned in 2008, at which point he started focusing on willpower.
Schultz and Leach both developed their early habits in response to the difficult circumstances of their childhoods. But while Leach learned that he had little control over his drug-addicted parents’ behavior, Schultz learned that his own willpower and perseverance would be the key to his success in life. Duhigg attributes Schultz’s effective management at Starbucks to these early lessons about willpower. While readers may consider this explanation for Starbucks’s success too anecdotal and simplistic, it’s still clear that Schultz’s interest in willpower at least affected the way he trained his employees.
Meanwhile, in another experiment, Mark Muraven again gave participants chocolate chip cookies and asked them not to eat them. But he asked half kindly and half rudely. Then, he measured their willpower by making them focus on a series of numbers. The students he treated kindly exercised more willpower because they felt like they had chosen self-control. This experiment shows that organizations function better when their employees feel like they have agency, or genuine control over their decisions. Starbucks does this by consulting employees on decisions about how to design their stores, how to greet customers, and more. This has increased satisfaction among both customers and employees.
In this experiment, unlike his previous one, Muraven forced all of his subjects to exercise willpower. He learned that people deplete their willpower more slowly if they feel a sense of autonomy, or freedom in their decisions. Duhigg uses Muraven’s results to suggest that autonomy reinforces willpower. In organizations, this means that making autonomy a habit can help make willpower a habit. Again, Duhigg believes that Starbucks has cracked the code to success as a company by promoting both willpower and autonomy among its employees.
Travis Leach was 16 when his mother admitted that she thought about getting an abortion instead of having him. But she didn’t, she explained, and having him was one of the best decisions she ever made. She died a few years after telling him this. By the time Travis made it to the hospital, she was already unconscious. A week after that, his dad died too. Travis didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to his dad, either—the nurse wouldn’t let him in. But when he started working at Starbucks a year later, he learned the social skills that he would have needed to convince the nurse otherwise.
Duhigg uses Travis Leach’s reaction to his parents’ tragic deaths to illustrate why effective organizational habits can make such a difference in people’s lives. If Starbucks had gotten to him earlier, Duhigg implies, he would have been able to spend a few precious final moments with his family. Duhigg suggests that organizations like Starbucks can even become surrogate families for people like Leach, who do not learn good habits at home.