In this book, The Power of Habit, the author explains how habits play a major role in our lives, regardless of whether they are good ones, like brushing our teeth and exercising, or unhealthy ones, like smoking.
Using research-based findings and entertaining anecdotes to explain how habits are formed, The Power of Habit offers easy tips for changing habits on a personal and organizational level.
This review will provide you with an overview of everything you can learn from this book.
Without further ado, let’s get started.
Table of Contents
Lesson 1: Habits and routines play a significant role in our daily lives.
Every morning, many of us follow a set routine without much conscious thought. This is because our brains have developed habits, which help us complete tasks efficiently, such as making a cup of coffee. These habits are ingrained in our brain’s basal ganglia, a region located near the spinal cord. Our brain’s ability to create and follow habits enables us to conserve energy and accomplish daily tasks with ease.
Researchers at MIT have investigated the brain’s habit-forming process through studying mice in a T-shaped maze. By tracking their brain activity as the mice learned to find a piece of chocolate, the researchers observed the process known as “chunking.” This process allows the brain to remember how to complete a task without expending much thought, making our daily routines more efficient.
Habits can be broken down into three components: a cue, a routine, and a reward. For instance, when our alarm clock rings, it serves as the cue for us to get out of bed and make coffee (the routine). The hot cup of coffee we enjoy afterward is the reward, reinforcing the connection between the cue (the alarm clock) and the routine (making coffee).
Routines, as described by Charles Duhigg, are actions we perform without much thought, often on a daily basis. It is interesting to ponder how many of our daily decisions are actually based on routines. In fact, habits are actions we do automatically, without much conscious decision-making. A more intriguing question might be, “How many of your decisions do you make without even thinking about them?” Research suggests that at least 40% of our choices are habits.
Understanding the power of these habitual thought patterns is essential for harnessing their potential to improve our daily lives. By recognizing the cues and rewards associated with our habits, we can create new routines that lead to more positive outcomes. For example, replacing an unhealthy snacking habit with a short exercise routine can help promote better health and well-being.
Lesson 2: To break harmful habits, you need to understand the cycle.
To overcome negative habits, it’s crucial to understand and modify the habit cycle. This might involve seeking healthier alternatives or breaking the cycle altogether. Let’s take a look at the story of Ray, a restaurant owner whose behaviors and habits have led to a failing business.
Ray has developed a drinking habit due to long working hours, reaching for a double whiskey at the end of the day to unwind. As his cravings for alcohol intensify, he sometimes indulges in a beer before the day is over. His inability to control his drinking negatively impacts his customers and financial performance. To turn his business around, Ray must change his habits.
The first step to changing one’s behavior is identifying each part of the habit loop. In Ray’s case, the cue is the end of a stressful day, the need is the burn of the whiskey, the routine is drinking a double whiskey, and the reward is the feeling of calm after consuming the alcohol.
According to Charles Duhigg, author of “The Power of Habit,” the “Golden Rule of Habit Change” is to keep the cue and reward the same but modify the routine, which will also change the craving. Altering just one small aspect of your habit loop can make a significant difference in your life.
To break his drinking problem, Ray must change his routine. A possible solution is using the pool in his yard as a replacement for whiskey. Instead of sipping whiskey after work, Ray can swim laps and substitute his drinking habit with swimming. Organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous have successfully utilized this approach, helping participants relieve tension by attending meetings and sharing experiences instead of resorting to alcohol.
In Ray’s case, merely changing his routine might not be enough. Duhigg suggests that he should also focus on developing his new craving – by paying attention to the desires that drive our habits, maintaining them becomes easier.
Lesson 3: Keystone habits drive significant success in both personal and professional life by fostering change.
Change is inevitable, but it can be especially challenging for those who find it daunting to adapt to new policies or shifts in direction, particularly in the context of a large corporation. Mistrust can arise when employees are uncertain about the intentions of new leaders.
A prime example of this occurred when Paul O’Neill took over as CEO of the struggling aluminum company Alcoa in 1987. His decision to prioritize workplace safety over immediate profit and revenue was met with skepticism and backlash. Detractors dismissed him as a “crazy hippie” who would ruin the company, eventually leading to his resignation.
O’Neill’s focus on altering the company’s habits was not initially supported by stakeholders and stockholders. However, Charles Duhigg highlights the importance of keystone habits – those that have a more significant impact on overall behavior than others. By concentrating on one or two keystone habits, rather than attempting to overhaul everything at once, smaller “wins” can be achieved that eventually lead to broader successes and permeate throughout an organization.
By prioritizing worker safety, O’Neill and his team were able to make Alcoa’s production process safer and more profitable. Despite the initial reservations, his approach ultimately led to a fivefold increase in the company’s annual net income before he retired in 2000.
The power of keystone habits extends beyond the business world. Olympic Gold Medalist Michael Phelps attributes his success in the pool to his visualization and relaxation practices. These habits enabled him to remain focused and composed under pressure.
Research supports the idea that developing keystone routines, such as keeping a food journal, can be instrumental in cultivating long-term healthy habits. Consistently journaling one’s food intake can lead to more significant lifestyle changes over time. These seemingly small victories can act as catalysts for even more positive transformations.
Lesson 4: Cultivating willpower and being equipped to handle challenges can ultimately aid in overcoming negative habits.
Transitioning from detrimental habits to beneficial ones can be a daunting task, even though it appears to be a sound idea. Replacing a glass of whiskey with a swim, a cigarette with a piece of gum, or weekend television sessions with a hike may sound simple, but the reality is often more challenging.
If you have ever attempted to quit smoking or shed a few pounds, you understand how arduous it can be to establish new habits. This difficulty arises because cultivating crucial behaviors requires willpower. According to Duhigg, willpower is the most significant keystone habit of all.
Stanford University conducted a renowned study in the 1960s, in which they observed four-year-old children individually in a room with a table bearing a tempting marshmallow. The children were given a choice: they could either eat the marshmallow immediately or wait for a few minutes and receive two marshmallows. Only around 30% of the children managed to resist eating the marshmallow during the researcher’s 15-minute absence.
When the researchers followed up with the participants years later, they discovered that those who had waited for two marshmallows had achieved better grades, were more successful on average, and were less likely to develop harmful habits such as drug addiction.
Similar results have emerged in other studies, such as a 2005 study of eighth-graders, which revealed that those with higher willpower levels attained better grades and were more likely to be admitted to highly selective colleges.
Contrary to popular belief, willpower is not an innate trait but a skill that can be honed through practice. Researchers at Case Western Reserve University demonstrated this by asking participants to abstain from eating cookies or consuming them.
Those who refrained from eating cookies experienced difficulty concentrating on a subsequent puzzle, indicating that their willpower had been exhausted. However, as with any skill, willpower can be enhanced through practice and experience.
Starbucks discovered that while many of its employees were generally friendly and courteous, they struggled to maintain composure and politeness when faced with stressful situations, such as dealing with irate customers.
Research revealed that employees were better equipped to manage disruptive customers and challenging scenarios if they were mentally prepared. Consequently, Starbucks devised the LATTE technique – “consider, acknowledge, take action, thank, and explain” – which enabled baristas to better handle stress and maintain their composure under pressure.
The LATTE method can also be employed in daily life. Duhigg discussed hip replacement patients who needed to undergo painful activities during their recovery. It was found that patients who had devised a plan to surmount these challenges were more likely to succeed. Thus, to prevent resorting to the LATTE approach, it is beneficial to develop a strategy and mentally prepare for potentially difficult situations.
Lesson 5: To form enduring habits, seek a supportive community and foster a strong belief in the goal.
Creating new habits can be a challenging task for many individuals, especially when attempting to make significant lifestyle changes. One common example is trying to establish a consistent workout routine after a long day at work. This task might seem daunting when faced alone, but having a gym companion can make it significantly more manageable. Similarly, the implementation of new policies at work becomes smoother when everyone is on board and supports the change.
According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, belief plays a crucial role in forming new habits. In some cases, replacing a harmful habit with a healthier one, such as attending group meetings instead of frequenting bars, can lead to significant improvements in a person’s life. Organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) promote the idea of relying on a higher power for support and fostering belief in something greater than oneself.
The group setting of AA meetings has proven to be a critical factor in the success of many members. Research suggests that groups tend to think and act collectively, leading to more effective habit formation. A historic example of the power of group dynamics can be seen in the American civil rights movement. Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man in 1955 sparked widespread protests and boycotts, eventually leading to substantial societal changes.
Rosa Parks’ success in inspiring such a strong reaction was due in part to her well-known and respected status within her community. Her various roles and strong social connections allowed her to influence those around her through peer pressure. To truly believe in a cause, it is essential not only to support it but also to take action in furthering those beliefs.
As the circle of friends and acquaintances grew around the cause, the decision not to join the boycott became increasingly difficult for many. However, participation in the demonstrations began to decline over time, leading to the need for a new approach. This is when Martin Luther King Jr.’s advocacy for non-violent protests and his call to forgive oppressors became crucial. By organizing church meetings and peaceful protests, people started to establish new habits and believe that change was possible.
1. Compelling Stories of Corporate Manipulation
One of the most persuasive parts of Duhigg’s book is his stories of corporate manipulation, particularly at Harrah’s casino and Target department stores. He tells the story of an Iowa housewife who became addicted to gambling and how Harrah’s used her habit to their benefit by showering her with personal attention and offers of benefits she could not refuse, even after she went bankrupt.
Similarly, Target used computer technology to track consumer spending habits to determine which coupons they should send to customers, so they could sell them products they will want in the future, even before they know they want them. These stories illustrate the power of habit and how it can be exploited for profit.
2. A Nuanced Discussion of Habit Formation and Change
Duhigg’s book is divided into three sections, with the first part dealing with habit formation. He breaks down the process into four stages: cue, craving, routine, and reward. He also provides an appendix on how to change habits.
While the program is a bit reductive and similar to cognitive behavioral therapy, Duhigg does offer a nuanced discussion of habit formation and change. He also discusses higher functions of habit change, such as belief, and how it can assist addicts who suffer stress or temptation.
3. Fascinating Stories of Societal Habits
In the last two chapters of the book, Duhigg examines societal habits through the growth of the Saddle Back Church and the Montgomery bus strike involving Rosa Parks. He shows how personal connections and weak links, or loose associations, can invoke change.
The Saddleback Church focuses on small weekday study groups that meet in people’s homes with or without the pastor. In the Montgomery Bus strike, it showed the power of personal connections and peer pressure to invoke change. These stories offer fascinating insights into how societal habits can be changed.
1. Oversimplification of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)
One of the significant issues with the book is its oversimplification of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Duhigg attempts to fit AA into his “habit loop” formula, which reinforces the mistaken view that AA is only group therapy and only concerned with drinking.
However, AA is much more than that. It has rescued millions from the ravages of alcoholism and helped millions more through the influence of its 12 Steps. AA is a spiritual fellowship that offers a solution to alcoholism, which is understood to be spiritual.
Duhigg’s description of AA is quite acceptable as part of the truth. However, he presents it as the whole truth and dismisses or diminishes AA’s spiritual aspect as being unscientific. This scientism sets up a conflict between science and AA, which reduces the latter to group therapy. It is an oversimplification that distorts and trivializes what AA does.
2. Conflation of concepts
Another significant flaw in the book is the conflation of several concepts that do not belong in the “habit” bucket, most notably process and culture. While these concepts are habit-adjacent, they are not one and the same. The author would have readers believe that this is a book about habits, but the conflation of concepts obscures the real meaning of habit.
Furthermore, the author knew the point they wanted to make and found stories to evidence their point instead of writing from first principles. This approach is common in business writing and pop science, but it is not conducive to rigorous and thoughtful analysis. It is impossible to know the actual root of success or failure because there is no counterfactual. Therefore, relying solely on anecdotes and cherry-picked stories to make a point is flawed and can lead to erroneous conclusions.
3. Uninteresting chapters
Finally, several chapters in the book are uninteresting and add little to the overall value of the book. For instance, the chapter on the gambling addict and the man with night terrors was not compelling. The comparison between the two cases did not make much sense, and the author’s attempt to draw a moral from the story was weak. Similarly, the chapter about Rick Warren founding his mega-church did not pique the reader’s interest.
“The Power of Habit” is a compelling and informative read that offers insight into how small changes in our daily routines can lead to significant improvements in our lives.
Through a combination of engaging anecdotes and scientific research, Duhigg illustrates how habits shape our behavior and how we can change them to achieve our goals.
Whether it’s quitting smoking, improving workplace efficiency, or simply becoming more productive in our daily lives, this book provides valuable insight into how habits can be harnessed to achieve success.
While it may not provide all the answers, it does provide a thought-provoking look at the power of habit in our lives.
New York Times investigative reporter Charles Duhigg is a Pulitzer Prize nominee.
Many of his works have won awards, and he has appeared on shows like Frontline and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.
Buy The Book: The Power of Habit
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