REVIEW: The Power of Habit: How to Change Your Habits and Your Life

The Power of Habit: How to Change Your Habits and Your Life

The Power of Habit: How to Change Your Habits and Your Life

There’s something almost magical about understanding how habits work, because studies show that once you understand, once you think about the structure of a habit, it becomes easier to change that habit. And once you change that habit, you start making these small, incremental adjustments to your day that over a year or over a decade can add up to a huge difference – Charles Duhigg, HBR IdeaCast

 


  • Book Title: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business
  • Author: Charles Duhigg
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks
  • Pages: 371
  • Price: $10.76 on Amazon.com

Charles Duhigg, a reporter for The New York Times, presented the World with a unique gift in 2012. His book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business uncovers the mechanics one of the most important aspects of human life: habits. In fact, the book translates hundreds of academic interviews and scientific articles into a very intuitive language and a handful of principles that can be understood by everyone, academic or not.

The Pulitzer-prize that the author carries definitely adds a layer of credibility and reliability to The Power of Habit, which is confirmed by the fact that the work has stayed in The New York Times best-seller list for more than 60 weeks. The work unites the science of behavior with the art of motivation to uncover the hidden patterns of our daily lives and to offer us practical insights into how to program better habits in our brains.

The New York Times recently called the book “entertaining”, which in my opinion is a mistaken euphemism for the major contributions of the work. Personally, few books have changed my behavior the way The Power of Habit did, and to call the book entertaining simply does not convey the importance of Duhigg’s fundamental contributions.

The review we here present is not a simple summary of the book. Our goal is both to present its content and to build on it to give you the starting point for identifying your habits and being able to substitute them for better ones.

A Deep Dive in the Book: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

Duhigg wisely stays far away from the temptation of resorting to pop psychology in his explanations. The Power of Habit is a well-curated collection of relevant social psychology, clinical psychology, and neuroscience academic works, all flavored with real-life examples that make you instantly connect with several situations of your personal and professional life.

The main topic of the book is the science behind the formation of habits and, more importantly, how we must act should we want to change them. And don’t think habits are a small part of your day: 40 to 45% of our daily lives are made of habits. If we can, therefore, identify and improve them, we might very well be on the verge of a true personal revolution.

The book is divided into four parts: the first one deals with habits in the individual sphere, the second one focuses on organizations, the third one expands the context to the entire society, and the fourth one presents a practical framework for identifying and changing habits. Most of the online reviews claim that the fourth part is the most important, but I argue otherwise. The book forms a cohesive whole, and each part is essential for outlining the underlying pattern of habits in the different levels of our lives. How can we apply the practical framework if we are not finely tuned and able to discern habits? Hence, the importance of each and every chapter. Rushing through the book to quickly read the fourth part will deprive you of the vast body of knowledge acquired through hundreds of different scientific researches on the topic. Here are my thoughts on each of the four sections.

Part One: The Habits of Individuals

Habits are one of the most efficient ways for the brain to save efforts. The organ automates the tasks we do on a regular basis, therefore moving the routines from the prefrontal cortex to a region that requires much less energy and thinking, the basal ganglia. The latter term stands for one of the oldest structures in our brain, and when behaviors happen in the basal ganglia, there is absolutely no need for thought from the rational part of the brain. This is exactly why we feel habits as automatic, because they happen in a part of our brain that is hidden from our conscious mind.

In the first part of The Power of Habit, Duhigg focuses on exploring this concept and on exposing the anatomy of habits, which he calls “the habit loop”. In a nutshell, habits have three main components:

  1. The initial cue: the trigger that sets your brain into the automated routine. It usually falls under one or more of five elements: a moment in time, a location, the presence of specific people, emotions, or rituals.
  2. The routine: the habit itself. It is the series of actions or decisions that your brain does automatically in order to obtain the reward. They can be either mental, physical, or emotional.
  3. The reward: the positive reinforcement received by your brain once the routine is executed.

The repetition of this pattern creates a neurological craving, and we might become addicted to the sensations brought by the reward.

In order to change our habits, we need to understand when and why the cues arise, and which reward we are looking for when we execute the habit. The book makes it clear that it is practically impossible (or that it requires a disproportional amount of effort, usually not worth the cost) to influence the initial cue or the final reward. The only option, then, is to work on the routine itself. By holding the initial cue and the final reward fixed, you must experiment with new habits to identify a better one that leads to the same reward.

Let me give you my own example. I had a fixed destination every day I arrived home from work: my fridge. No matter how much I tried, I would inevitably find myself stealing some unhealthy snack from it sooner or later. After reading The Power of Habit, I started wondering what was the actual reward I was looking for with this behavior. Was I actually craving for the taste of the food? Was I craving for the energy boost from sugar? Or was I craving for the relaxation feeling that comes from it?

The only way to identify the real reward is to experiment with different routines and see which new behavior satisfies your old cravings. In my case, after experiments a few different procedures, I noticed that reading a book completely removed the need for eating. I was not eating for the food, I was eating for the relaxing sensation. Once I identified it, I was finally able to adapt my behavior to a much healthier and positive routine. Today, a cup of tea and a good book are more than enough to keep me away from assaulting the fridge.

The bottom-line is: we cannot extinguish habits. They are an essential part of our human biology, and they are necessary for our survival. The only thing we can do is to substitute our actual habits for new, better routines.

Part Two and Three: Habits of Organizations and Society

The two following sections of The Power of Habit discuss how organizations and society themselves create widespread habits. Even if the individuals work slightly different from each other, the organic interaction between them results in a set of organizational routines that are triggered by a specific cue and target a specific reward, thus fitting the definition of habit presented by the author.

Duhigg brings the example of Alcoa to show how companies can shape habits for success. Previous to Paul O’Neill, Alcoa had a serious security problem, with high rates of incidents on a monthly basis. Once O’Neill assumed his post as CEO, he observed the current routine of the company in dealing with incidents and noticed that it was considerably inefficient. By holding the cue (an accident) constant, O’Neill linked a desirable reward (promotion and pay rise) to the routine of filling security reports as soon as the accident had occurred. If the routine was not executed, the reward would not be obtained. This simple change in the routine brought the accident rates considerably down and led to a stronger commitment from the employees and higher profits for the company. Charles Duhigg names these habits that start a chain effect as “keystone habits”, and we will talk more about them later on.

In the third part, the book discusses how habits affect societies as a whole. These routines are harder to change because they are widespread and normally engraved in years or centuries of tradition. Nonetheless, history has shown that there is hope for bad social habits: slavery has been extinguished in almost every country, gender and race equality are in quickly improving throughout many regions, and civil rights movements are being fairly successful. The mechanism is the same: as a specific cue arises and a reward is desired, society implements a specific routine to achieve it. Once this routine is identified as harmful, the members of society must develop a new one instead of executing the previous one.

The Hidden Gems: Keystone Habits and Small Wins

Before finalizing with the last part, I would like to dedicate a few lines to what I consider one of the most important concepts in The Power of Habit. A big round of applause to Charles Duhigg by putting the notion of keystone habits in such simple terms. The author defines them as good habits that trigger other good habits in a natural, unforced way, creating a chain effect that is highly beneficial for the individual or the organization.

In case of Alcoa, the stronger concern for their employee safety naturally led to higher quality and better profits. In the case of individuals, we can think of many examples. I remember when I started exercising regularly (true story, although it sounds like cliché). Two or three weeks later, I experienced a huge increase in energy, not only during my runnings but also during the other parts of my day. One to two months later, I had changed my eating habits without even noticing it. I didn’t try to force myself out of chocolate: I just didn’t feel like eating it. Three or four months after starting exercising, the pain on my back was gone, and I could enjoy my days much better without that constant burden. One year later, I had lost more than 30 kilos and my life was on a completely different track.

Keystone habits work even better if we combine them with the concept of small wins. Every day I exercised was a small win on my calendar. Every day I read instead of eating when I get home is a small win on my calendar. As I build up small wins, I build up more powerful habits. We cannot expect to build a new habit from night to day: it takes time to change those behaviors engraved in our basal ganglia. But by uncovering keystone habits and small winds, we are sure to be on the right track for a great behavioral and personal change.

The Best Comes at the End: A Practical Framework for Change

The Power of Habit would be awfully useless if this appendix was left out of the volume. But the book would also be awfully useless had Duhigg not included the previous discussions. The appendix brings a practical framework for us to identify, change, and solidify new habits. Let me present it to you intuitively.

Step 01: Identify the Routine

This is not always easy, but you must identify which routine is causing you harm and why you want to change that. When the cue triggers the need for a specific reward, what is the usual path you take? That is your routine, as simple as that.

Step 02: Experiment with Rewards

A very interesting point made by Duhigg in his interview with HBR is that routines don’t usually lead to one single reward. Eating a cookie, for example, is a pack of five or six different rewards (it satisfies hunger, it makes you spend a few moments away from your task, it gives you a sudden burst of energy, it might make you walk a bit if you have to get it somewhere, etc.), and only one of them is the specific compensation you are looking for.

Experimenting with rewards is exactly about pinpointing one reward at a time and trying different routines. If you eat a cookie because you are hungry, then an apple or a cereal bar would suffice. If you eat a cookie because you need a break from work, then five minutes walking down the hall will bring you the same benefit.

When experimenting, you want to closely monitor which new routine satisfies your need for the reward. After which behavior is your urge for cookies completely gone? This is the new routine you have to implement.

Step 03: Isolate the Cue

We already discussed that cues come under one or more of five categories. Understanding when exactly that habit is triggered is as important as figuring out a better routine to fulfill it. You might want to keep a log of where you are, the time of the day, your emotional state, the people around you, among other factors, when you notice a habit is triggered.

Step 04: Have a Plan

Last but not least, create a plan. Your brain is already wired for specific routines, so introducing a new behavior requires effort and commitment from your side. If you identify that reading when arriving from work gives you the exact same reward as eating, put a plan in place to read for 30 minutes every day once you are at home. Dedicate effort and stick to the plan until the new routine becomes a habit for you.

Is the Book Always Right?

It is undeniable that Charles Duhigg’s contributions have the potential to deeply change our lives. But by keeping things simple and by applying a unified framework to everything, the author runs into the problem of being simplistic. Habits are not easy to change, and reading the success cases in the book might make you underestimate the true effort needed to change your routines. If you read a book only with stories of Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs, suddenly being a multibillionaire creative genius seems not so difficult. If it was that easy, why are there so few people like them?

The New York Time’s review of The Power of Habit touches upon this topic by exploring a flaw in Duhigg’s framework: that habits arise only by repetition. The article provides great insights into other drivers of behaviors such as compulsions, addictions, social norms, and personal interpretations of the reality. Repetition is indeed a major key to understanding how habits are formed, but it is not the only one.

This doesn’t mean, however, that you should not read The Power of Habit. In fact, the article complements the book by offering more information and by making the reader even more aware of the different ways habits can be established.

My Final Advice: Definitely Read The Power of Habit

What I presented here barely scratches the surface of the deep and highly enriching discussions that take place in the book. It was only be reading the book that I was able to extract its full power and assume a strong posture in improving my own habits.

Purchasing the book is not a cost: it is an investment (and one of the best ones) you do in yourself. And if read with the right mindset, The Power of Habit definitely brings an extremely high Return on Investment for your personal and professional life.

 

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