The Power of Habit


The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. Right off the bat I would say that this book is well written. However lot of the content is case studies and I had the feeling that that was in order to fill more pages. That being said the stories often had their “aha” moment where it dovetailed with the lesson of the chapter. Quite classy. I also noted that each chapter was very close to 30 pages which was quite satisfying actually. So there you have the most salient quality of this book: its excellent construction. A good example of a successful non-fiction book if ever one was to try and write one, in my opinion.

Onto the content itself. This is a rare book that bears directly on the reader’s behaviour. Often that’s what you hope from this genre. Among many ideas in the book; one sticks out as being central. You might even say the whole book revolved around just one idea. I’m referring to the theory that all habits are composed of three distinct parts:

Cue -> routine -> reward

I’ve found this very memorable and easy to apply to my own life. I even have the sense that it’s become a key part of my mental toolbox, if ever anything has. However, I’m yet to see if any positive behavioural changes will stick over the long term with this method (because I’ve only known about it for a week).

The way to “hack” your psychology, if you will, in order to change your behaviour, is to identify the three parts of the habit. Often a habit you’re trying to change. Once you’ve identified the cue then you must choose a different routine: a competing response. I’ve found that the effectiveness of this book breaks down with the selecting of a new reward. Or at least this is where the challenge lies. For example, it seems that sometimes any reward you could give yourself is just as bad or worse. For example if you’re trying to replace internet addiction and the steady dopamine rush you get from it, then what more innocuous reward can you replace it with? Marijuana? Sugary foods? Not all rewards are created equal. Over the long term it seems to me you have to learn how to delay gratification. There is a subtle balance there that this book doesn’t address.

Some things that I noted down from the book are:

  • A keystone habit is one which leads to other positive habits emerging. For example I identified a keystone habit for me as avoiding the snooze button.
  • The basal ganglia is the key part of the brain involved with habits. Brain scans show that over time the brain activity drops while doing the same activity. I.e. it becomes easier, more automatic, you can focus on other things while doing it even.
  • Apparently you can’t truly extinguish a bad habit you can only change it. I quit smoking so I’m not sure about this. Noticing what triggers habitual behaviour is known as awareness training.
  • It’s known as a competing response when you design a new response to the old cue e.g. chew gum when you crave a cigarette.
  • Many new habits have a tendency to break down in high stress situations. Duhigg drew an analogy of Alcoholics Annonymous to show how they deal with this. Apparently putting faith in a higher power is the key to maintaining a habit in tough times.
  • Willpower is a muscle not a skill. Build willpower through your habits and it can spill over into other things as well.
  • Organisational habits. Starbucks turned self-discipline into an organisational habit by identifying and drilling on inflection points. Inflection points are challenging scenarios. People are more likely to stick with a desired behaviour if they have a definite plan for how to deal with inflection points.
  • If you dress something new in old habits it becomes easier for people to accept. This is why new music on the radio sounds similar to last months. If it sounded too new people would be put off by it
  • Effective social movements are driven by a combination of strong ties between people (close friends and family) and weak ties (larger community). This point didn’t seem to fit well with the central thesis of the book. He was trying to discuss societal habits (having already discussed individual and organisational habits).
  • Most cues fall into one of five categories: location, time, emotional state, other people and immediately preceding action.

Reading this book has made me think a lot more about cues, routines and responses. Now I use cues as a way of anchoring certain behaviours that I’ve always wanted to employ – it does work well because cues are easy to remember. I’ve also started trying out rewarding myself for doing good things. It’s a bit of shock to my reward system. It’s like dopamine is generally a bit lower but then a big hit comes when I celebrate doing something important. For a long time I’ve been used to a very steady stream of dopamine and that pattern has been disturbed recently.

Usually books influence little more than your thoughts and feelings. All in all though I feel confident in saying that no book has had a more direct impact on my actions than this one.