The Power of Habit: A Review
Author Charles Duhigg is a graduate of Harvard Business School (MBA) and Yale University (history major), and is a “Pulitzer-prize winning, investigative reporter for The New York Times” (1) since 2006 (2). Since writing The Power of Habit (New York Times Bestseller List for over 60 weeks!1), Duhigg has written another book, Smarter Faster Better, has appeared on NPR, as well as other well-known media platforms, and has spoken at colleges (including MIT), companies (like SC Johnson), and is available to speak at events by request (2).
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business, is a book written for consumers to figure out how to change habits they do not like, such as smoking, or create new habits, like daily jogging after work. The book uses a simplified “habit loop” to teach readers how to break down their habit into three sections – the “cue” or trigger, the “routine” or habit, and the “reward” or reason for doing the routine. Duhigg uses examples of famous people and companies to illustrate why certain patterns develop, and how changing certain patterns can influence more than one area of work or life.
In Chapter 1, Duhigg describes “The Habit Loop”: where a “cue” triggers us into our “routine” which produces the “reward” (1).
The habit is built from doing something that gives us a “reward” (positive reinforcement). Once someone has experienced the “reward” in correlation to the “cue,” memory starts to connect the two in the basal ganglia of the brain (a primitive part of the brain near the spinal cord). The “routine” part of the equation (how we get from the cue to reward) is formed into habit that requires less and less thought every time we do it. This is how fast-food chains get us. They keep everything the same so every time you visit the restaurant, whether in Minnesota or Tennessee, you have the same visual, auditory, and verbal “cues” prompting a sense of routine or habit to the reward of cheap/ easy/ tasty food.
Chapter 2, discusses how marketing moguls created new habits to sell mass quantities of products like toothpaste and Febreze. Creating new habits comes from creating a “craving” as the “cue” or trigger.
By creating a trigger to do something you can create a habit every time that trigger emerges. Duhigg uses the example of marketing toothpaste: the trigger is removing the “film” of plaque you notice as time elapses (usually over several hours, or a day), feeling this film (which naturally occurs) causes a cue to want to clean it off. The action? – Brushing your teeth. The reward – clean, film-free, teeth. This is the habit loop as explained in chapter 1. While people had always had this “film” on their teeth, the advertiser brought attention to it, and made a craving for “clean.”
The moral of this? Find a cue that comes up naturally to elicit a habit response. The author makes the example of: after work you put on your running shoes and go run, afterwards you reward yourself by watching tv. By choosing a specific cue (after work = run) and reward (run = tv), the habit is more likely to occur.
Chapter 2 also covers the anticipation of rewards being a driving force to action. When one has experienced a reward for doing something enough times, the anticipation of reward makes the action automatic. The anticipation of the endorphin rush can make it easier for someone to continue exercising on a regular basis, but the first time it occurs will not be enough to develop the reward loop to create the habit. This must be repeated several times before the reward is worth the action. The expectation of the reward must be great enough to drive the action when the cue is presented.
Chapter 3 shows that to change a habit, the cue and the reward are kept the same, and the routine is changed. Routines are hard to change, so what makes it possible? Believing. Chapter 3 details how Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) works, not through scientific method, but through belief in a power greater than oneself to change the routine of an old cue. This is done by creating a list of triggers for the old routine (like triggers to drink, example: get off work), and the reward desired (example: socializing) and change the routine by addressing the desire for socializing by meeting up to talk to their sponsor. Belief that God (“as we understand him”/ a belief that things can get better/ belief there is something bigger than ourselves) will give strength to change the routine, when the triggers arise, is the premise of AA.
Groups are another major catalyst for maintaining change in routine. Whether it is seeing something as being for the greater good of the group, having accountability, or changing the status quo of life, groups give people a network of like-minded individuals to help them stay on course. As Duhigg put it,” Belief is easier when it occurs within a community”(1).
Chapter 4 looks at “keystone” habits that influence everything else. By finding the small habit that affects others, and changing it, you can make huge waves in the system. By creating a routine that builds on other routines, you can prepare yourself with small “wins” that make the bigger “victory” just the logical next step. This chapter uses Michael Phelps, Gay Pride, and safety in the workplace as examples of changing one, seemingly tiny, action to create big victories.
Another example from this chapter is writing down what you eat to lose weight. As people make food journaling a habit, without being asked to do anything else, they start changing their diet to be healthier because they notice patterns emerging.
Chapter 5 tells us that self-discipline (willpower) is a learnable skill but, like a muscle, can be worn out over the course of a day and works best when rested. This means that we have less willpower to do hard things/ detailed work after a long day of using willpower and making decisions, than if we had a day where we did not have to think too hard. Strengthening willpower and discipline in one area of life makes that more automatic, and will spill over to other areas of life. A favorite quote from this chapter is, “That’s why signing kids up for piano lessons or sports is so important. It has nothing to do with creating a good musician or a five-year-old soccer star, when you learn to force yourself to practice…you start building self-regulatory strength”(1).
Planning ahead is another skill that foresees progress towards a goal. People who think through potential obstacles and how they will deal with them, in detail, are able to push through hard times and make the most progress toward their goal. Likewise when people are empowered to do something because they enjoy it or have it explained how it will help someone else, they use less willpower than if they were forced into doing something.
Chapter 6 shows how crisis situations can change organizational habits. Vignettes of companies that had major crises showcase how big problems can lead to big changes.
Chapter 7 shares how companies like Target gather data on individual customers to drive marketing and sales. Retailers note that people tend to change brands of products when they are going through a life change such as marriage or divorce. The biggest life event for change in purchasing? A new baby. New parents will buy anything the need/want in one place because it is easy. If a company can get them to start buying diapers at their store, they know they can get them to buy other things because they are already in the store. Target looks at purchases made and, by looking at common trends, can determine fairly accurately when a woman is pregnant and due. What do they do with this information? Slip in subtle marketing cues next to the familiar. If a woman received coupons for just baby stuff she would get suspicious as to how the company knows, but mixed in among common items it does not see as personalized.
Chapter 8 explains how personal ties and social peer pressure can influence people to do things that they would find hard to choose on their own, at the risk of losing social benefits. “Weak social ties,(1)” as opposed to close friends, tend to have the strongest pull on obligation. An acquaintance could tell unfavorable comments about you to others for not fulfilling an obligation, where a close friend might understand why you would pull out of a commitment.
Chapter 9 looks at the neurobiology of habits and what is free will. Examples are sleep-terrors and gambling addiction. Do people have choice in these scenarios? It comes down to the primitive brain and ingrained habits. The parts of the brain (basal ganglia and brainstem) where habits form are the same parts where sleep terrors stem from. Duhigg believes that any habit that is cognizant can be changed with the decision to change it, and the knowledge of what your cue or trigger is.
The “Afterward” shares stories from people who contacted the author after the initial publication of the book on how it helped them. This chapter discusses lapses and relapses, and not looking at them as failure but as learning experiments.
The “Appendix: A Readers Guide To Using These Ideas” is a step-by-step guide to figuring out your own habit loop and how to make a plan to change the habit.
This book is aimed at readers who are looking to change a “bad” habit they have. It gives real-life case-studies of companies and people that readers have heard of, to explain how a habit change works. By breaking down how habits form, the author explains how habits can be broken and changed into more desirable habits that will get the reader to their goal. The design of the book is similar to a “business-help” book, which might draw in more readers that are in either a traditional corporate or entrepreneurial business sector.
Personally, I loved this book. It was engaging to read how prominent public figures from Michael Phelps to Rosa Parks made small habits work towards bigger goals, as well as how every-day habits, like eating an afternoon snack, are a summation of cues, routines, and rewards.
The strengths I identify in this book are: extensive research – mostly in personal interviews and scientific articles; easy-to-read format; a singular focus throughout the entire book; and the idea of “classical conditioning,” as Ivan Pavlov explained, to describe Duhigg’s “habit loop.” The ideas of “habit loop” and “classical conditioning” are very much the same in a stimulus or cue eliciting a routine that leads to a reward or positive reinforcement(3). Another factor Duhigg lists is obligation towards an outside influencer (chapter 8), which authors Rowland and Splane liken to reasons of success in dietary restraint often stemming from religious “diets” such as Lent or Ramadan, or ethical reasons (Ex: vegetarian for animal rights)(3).
Duhigg is very effective at making his main point – the habit loop- clear, through writing that is both engaging, and easy to follow. His extensive background as an investigative journalist allows him to be an effective writer and good at finding necessary information. He shows how to take action on research already known, like the fact that overeating is typically due to cues in our environment triggering intake (4).
The weaknesses I see in this book are mainly from credentials and my perception of potential bias. As a journalist, Duhigg is trained to pick up a story and flush it out to make something people want to read. Science is not usually fascinating to the general public, so I wonder if he took any liberties to elaborate where there was not enough information. Additionally, Duhigg is not a science or health professional. Many of the topics he covers are in neurobiology and psychology, of which, I would assume he has not had formal training.
Overall, I highly recommend this book to anyone, professional or consumer, that wants to make a change in a habit they do, or help someone else figure out their habit loops. It brings insight into why we do what we do, and offers a way to pick and choose which habits we keep and change. It is not specific to any one type of change (such as weight loss), but rather encompasses the skills and case-studies to change any habit. I will be re-reading The Power of Habit soon.
- Duhigg, C. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We do In Life And Business. New York, NY; St. Martin’s Griffin, a division of MacMillan Publishers, 2012.
- www.Charlesdughigg.com. Charles Duhigg, 2016. Accessed September 24, 2016.
- Rowland, N., and Splane, E. Psychology of Eating. Boston; Pearson Education, 2014.
- Wansink, B. Mindless Eating, Why We Eat More Than We Think. New York; Bantam Books, 2006.