The Power of Habit [Book Review]

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg

I’ve had this book on my to-read list for a quite a while. Some of my friends have highly recommended it. One of them even said that this book changed his life!

Well, for me it was not exactly all that life-changing experience, but it sure helped me understand more about my behaviors and the patterns that drive my own habits.

The author describes some interesting researches devoted to understanding human habits and some very curious applications of the so called “habit loop”. MIT researchers discovered the habit loop and described it as a three-step process:

“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.” — Charles Duhigg

How habits work. Source:

Scientific researches demonstrated that the part of our brain which stores information about habits is the basal ganglia. It is a very primitive structure, evolutionary speaking, and it was not very well understood until recently. We rely on this structure for many of our daily automatic activities, like driving a car (we do not stop to think deeply about changing gears), riding a bicycle or putting the toothpaste on the toothbrush before sticking it in our mouths. In short, we execute all those actions without even realizing them.

“Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often” — Charles Duhigg

Also, there is an important component of the habit loop, one that can be often related to addictions as well: the craving.

“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”

There is a nice quote in the book exemplifying how the habit loop can work in our daily lives:

“Or take email. When a computer chimes or a smartphone vibrates with a new message, the brain starts anticipating the momentary distraction that opening an email provides. That expectation, if unsatisfied, can build until a meeting is filled with antsy executives checking their buzzing BlackBerrys under the table, even if they know it’s probably only their latest fantasy football results. (On the other hand, if someone disables the buzzing — and, thus, removes the cue — people can work for hours without thinking to check their in-boxes.)”

That is exactly the principle many productivity experts advise in order to increase our concentration: disable all unnecessary notification systems. Today with social networks synchronized everywhere and offering real time updates, we become “addicted” to this checking routine.

The theory behind our habits was (and already is) vastly explored by marketers to influence consumers choices and maximize the power of advertisement, for example. The book tells the story of the man behind a successful marketing and product strategy that created a worldwide habit we have until today: using toothpaste to brush our teeth daily. In the early 1900’s Claude C. Hopkins started working on the campaign of the product called “Pepsodent” and envisioned a way of making this product a part of the Americans daily routine. Back then, brushing the teeth was not a daily habit and that explains the high rates of dental problems in that time. Well, he knew all about the “trigger-reward” formula, and used the craving as a powerful engine to that formula. He sold toothpaste as a product that would remove the “film” that forms on our teeth when we do not brush them and also associate it with beauty (reward). Actually, this “film” is quite natural and harmless, and the toothpaste only removes it shortly. But that was a strong cue/reward fact that people could verify and feel the reward themselves.

“He had identified a cue — tooth film — and a reward — beautiful teeth — that had persuaded millions to start a daily ritual.”

Moreover, how do we keep a habit? Why do we decide to start running in the morning and a week later that habit does not last? We need to create a craving! The author explains:

“If you want to start running each morning, it’s essential that you choose a simple cue (like always lacing up your sneakers before breakfast or leaving your running clothes next to your bed) and a clear reward (such as a midday treat, a sense of accomplishment from recording your miles, or the endorphin rush you get from a jog). But countless studies have shown that a cue and a reward, on their own, aren’t enough for a new habit to last. Only when your brain starts expecting the reward — craving the endorphins or sense of accomplishment — will it become automatic to lace up your jogging shoes each morning. The cue, in addition to triggering a routine, must also trigger a craving for the reward to come.”

There are many other interesting stories in the book about the consequences of the habit loop and examples of how it is related not only to our daily lives, but also to organizations and even societies.

And how do we change a habit? The author points out a 4-steps plan to change, for example, the habit of going to the cafeteria and eating a chocolate cookie in the afternoon at work. When you go to the cafeteria, is it the craving for sugar that drives you? Or is it the time spending with others and chatting? So, here is the scheme:

01) IDENTIFY THE ROUTINE: search for the components of your loop. What triggers that old habit? What do you usually do once the action starts? What is the one thing that makes you feel good afterwards (reward)?

02) EXPERIMENT WITH REWARDS: try different rewards (4 or 5) and take note of the first three things that comes to your mind after you finish the habit (in this example, after you get back to your desk). Then after 15 minutes ask yourself if you still feel the urge for that cookie. The reason? Well, if you still want to eat a cookie, then your habit might be sugar driven, otherwise, it might be only the need for human contact that gets you to the cafeteria.

“Rewards are powerful because they satisfy cravings. But we’re often not conscious of the cravings that drive our behaviors.” — Charles Duhigg

03) ISOLATE THE CUE: When the urge hits you, write down your current status into these five categories:

If you answer these questions routinely after an amount of time observing and testing your habits it is possible to figure out when and where the habit usually starts and what can be driving you towards it. In short, you get to know your habit loop in detail (cue, routine, reward).

04) HAVE A PLAN: now it is time to make a decision. For instance, the author discovered that the sugar craving was not what was driving him to the cafeteria. Instead, he craved the social connection. So, he set up a plan to get up and chat with a colleague at around the same time he used to go to the cafeteria. He used an alarm clock to remind him. The first days weren’t so easy, but he had a plan, and eventually the new habit started to work.

So, to conclude, the book is filled with very useful insights and stories of how habits literally drive our daily lives, the trajectory of enterprises and even large group of individuals.

I would recommend this book to everyone, regardless of area of occupation or age group. It was a very informative and fun read!

Thanks for reading :)

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By Noisy Deadlines Minimalist in progress, nerdy, skeptic. I don't leave without my e-reader.