the cover of the book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, featuring little people running around a stylized red hamster wheel on a constrasting yellow background

Book Review: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business by Charles Duhigg

How can we build better habits?

Do you want to build better habits?

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains how individuals, organizations, and societies form habits, and how they can change those habits.

Why it matters: Habits are the backbone of daily life. Habits explain much of what we do and why we do it. But, critically, Duhigg argues that once you have a habit, you can never eradicate it—it can only ever be transformed. So if you want better habits, you have to learn how to change the habits you already have. Duhigg writes,

"Most of the choices we make each day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making, but they're not. They're habits."

Throughout the book, Duhigg shares stories of successful habit change, drawing wisdom from an NFL coach who got a loser team to the Superbowl; the successes of Alcoholics Anonymous; Target's data analytics; the civil rights movement; the growth of a mega-chuch; and many others. He breaks down what forms a habit, and the steps to habit change.

(Read: Forming Good Habits and Breaking Bad Habits: Aristotle's 4 Levels of Virtue)

Diving in: What is a habit?

Duhigg begins the book by explaining the habit loop:

"This process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future"

Habits can easily be built unconsciously, like fast food consumption. We often don't realize we're building a routine upon seeing certain cues. And it's a powerful loop, but delicate—if you mess with the cue, the routine won't follow. Duhigg writes,

"When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines— the pattern will unfold automatically."

Once a habit is in place, your brain starts to anticipate the reward upon seeing the cue. You crave the reward. Craving powers the habit loop. As an example, people who start exercising often start on a whim, such as the desire to be fit, having more free time, or to deal with stress. People who continued exercising had a craving—for the "feel good" endorphins generated by exercise, or for the sense of accomplishment from recording the workout or tracking increasing performance. As Duhigg writes,

"This explains why habits are so powerful: they create neurological cravings. Most of the time, these cravings emerge so gradually that we're not really aware they exist, so we're often blind to their influence. But as we associate cues with certain rewards, a subconscious craving emerges in our brains that starts the habit loop spinning."

To build a habit intentionally, match a specific cue (such as the time of day, arriving home from work, laying out exercise clothes in the morning) with a clear reward (exercise endorphins, a beer after dinner, a favorite show while working out, tracking your progress). Then do it a lot (this is the hard part), until the craving kicks in and helps the routine become automatic.

How do you change a habit?

Habits can never be eradicated—they can only ever be transformed. To change a habit, you keep the cue and reward, and change the routine.

The first step is noticing your habits. When you can notice the cues and rewards, you can begin changing the associated routines.

Duhigg has plenty of suggestions to make habit change succeed. For instance, you'll be more motivated if you find a habit you must change in order to achieve a more important goal, such as quitting smoking so you can run a marathon. Or, find a keystone habit—a habit that, when you change it, other patterns and routines shift, too. One example is exercise. When people start exercising, they often have more energy, and change other parts of their diet and lifestyle.

Another key aspect of habit change is belief: the belief that you can change. Duhigg tells the story of Alcoholics Anonymous, and how instead of attacking the biochemical and psychiatric issues behind alcoholism, AA attacks habits around alcohol use. The steps include making lists of alcohol triggers or cues, and the rewards people get from alcohol, what cravings are underlying the habit loop.

AA also targeted belief. The group has a big spiritual or God aspect; it helps people learn to believe that they can change, that things can get better. Communities and groups are key to the belief that you can change—whether a support group like AA, a couple friends who are also training for a marathon, or an accountability partner for your writing goals. Duhigg writes,

"Once people learned how to believe in something, that skill started spilling over to other parts of their lives, until they started believing they could change."

Habits make or break organizations and society

The latter sections of the book explain how habits function within organizations and in society more broadly. They're about what happens when a bunch of people develop similar social habits or work habits, and how it affects things on a larger scale than the individual.

Duhigg gives examples of how companies use keystone habits to change company culture and direction. For instance, a new CEO of Alcoa, the aluminum company, decided to focus on safety—everyone could agree that safety mattered, the managers and the workers and the unions. The focus on improving safety meant a bunch of other things changed and improved too, such as communication, efficiency, and productivity. Safety was a keystone habit.

He also discusses how companies influence your purchasing habits. They use data analytics to determine what you might buy, and send targeted ads and coupons to encourage you to buy it. The key is not to spook people by knowing too much, e.g., by showing a customer the analytics says is pregnant ads for baby gear before they've created a registry. Instead, sandwich the ad for diapers in between other items that aren't baby related.

Habits and willpower

Duhigg spends a chapter talking about willpower, and how you can make willpower a habit. I found this interesting, because I'm interested in motivation and discipline. Duhigg argues that autonomy—one component of motivation—is critical to willpower. When you have a sense of control, things are easier; if you don't, it's taxing and it feels like your willpower gets used up.

The big thing was that you can improve your willpower through practice. If you learn to do the hard work in one area, resist temptations, control impulses, it's generalizable. It spills into other areas of your life. In studies, as people were taught skills requiring willpower—exercise, money management, study skills—they also exerted more willpower in other areas of their lives—smoking less, drinking less, eating healthier, watching less tv, exercising more, and so on.

One key strategy people used to stick with tasks was pre-commitment. They decided ahead of time how they would respond to a certain cue, and took steps to make it easier to hold to that decision.

(Read: How to Procrastinate Less by Increasing Your Motivation and Decreasing Temptations)

This chapter felt like it was less about habits or willpower, and more about autonomy and the ability to deal with temptations. E.g., Duhigg was arguing that pre-deciding what actions to take was making self-discipline a habit; it seems to me that's not really the same as the other habits discussed in the book. Maybe some of the definitions weren't clear enough; maybe I've read enough on these subjects to notice when people use the same terms in different ways. It was interesting regardless.

(Read: How Autonomy Will Help You Flourish)

Societal habits and social behavior

The chapters about society covered social movements and social behavior. Duhigg discusses social capital, peer pressure, and the power of weak ties—of friends of friends—and the social status you gain or lose by going along with the crowd.

These sections had me wondering what the difference between a habit and a social behavior is—if any? I'd think a habit is learned: cue-routine-reward. Some human social behavior is innate, developed over human history; some of it is learned, too, but is it necessarily a habit? Anyway, like with the sections on willpower, it felt a little like the author was trying to fit as much as possible under his definition of habit just to make habits seem more important.

Who should read this book?

I found the earlier chapters on individual habits more useful than the later sections on organizational and societal level habits. It was harder to see how to apply the later chapters—the stories were interesting, though.

Read this book if you want to learn how habits are formed and how to change them. I read it because I realized one piece of the puzzle of how and why we do what we do and how to be successful is habit formation. I've read books on other parts of the puzzle—motivation, goals, learning, discipline—but not habits, until this one!

tags: books habits work

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