The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg: Book Summary, Review, Notes & Quotes

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  2. Book Review
  3. Book Notes and Quotes

The Power of Habit Summary in 3 Sentences 

Habits are awfully powerful that they can decide the fate not only of an individual, but also of companies, organizations and societies.

To change a habit, identify and maintain the cue and the reward, but change the routine. (Cue, routine and reward form the “habit loop.”)

Fuel your good habits by:

  • developing a craving for things beneficial for you,
  • joining a passionate group having similar objectives as yours, thus reinforcing the belief that change is possible, and
  • knowing that you can regularly exercise your willpower until it becomes a habit itself.

The Power of Habit Review

Book Rating (or How Strongly I Recommend It): 8/10

The Power of Habit takes us into the depths of how our habits can surprisingly affect our lives. It’s well-known that we are creatures of habit to the extent that dangerous—or even deadly—consequences are possible even if only due to habits.

Author and New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg explains how our habits can change cultures or status quos of groups we belong to and ultimately, of societies we live in.

However, I found the second half of the book potentially distorting the true meaning of the word “habit” in that Duhigg somehow uses it loosely in the context of company leadership, social reciprocity, and even possible sleep and mental disorders.

I was (and usually am) looking for ways a book can affect my life in a very personal level and the way he discusses “habits” as a factor of group operation somehow muddles that a bit.

Of course in general, habits should be examined at the level of the individual, taking into account that it usually starts with the person, who may then yield a ripple effect within their families, workplaces, circles of friends, community groups, and so on. But I think it could’ve been more enlightening if it focused more on the basic unit—that one person—before creeping over the whole organizational and societal context.

On the other hand, Duhigg’s examples are instructive and gave me a wider understanding on the topic.

The book has a casual tone that makes it quite an easy read just about to anyone. I enjoy reading anything researched-based and I thought the book didn’t deliver blandly or anything like that.

Quite an eye-opener to me was the part that explains how companies data-mine to predict their customers’ buying habits or more creepily, most of their habits, especially when people go through a critical stage of their life (like having a baby).

It’s cool and all to study psychology and what makes a person tick. But to know the exact day you’re having a baby, or what her sex is, or perhaps how big your house is—based only on your buying habits? You’ve got to be kidding me, right?

My favorite parts taught me that:

  • habits can form even if you’re an amnesiac (Eugene Pauly’s story)
  • good keystone habits can start other good and unrelated habits
  • “sleep terror” is a state in which only your habits guide your actions; you can’t consciously control yourself in such a state

Duhigg ends the book with a nice and very practical four-step framework, although I think it deserves a more in-depth discussion.

All in all, I liked the book. Read this especially if:

  • you need to change your automatic bad/detrimental/unhealthy/annoying/downward-spiral rituals but find it hard to
  • you want to have a deeper understanding on how habits collectively create cultures anywhere
  • you want to excel or get better at a particular trade without mentally or emotionally depleting yourself all the time
  • you want to develop clarity and honesty with yourself
  • you run a team or some sort

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The Power of Habit Notes and Quotes

One set of neurological patterns—her old habits—had been overridden by new patterns. They could still see the neural activity of her old behaviors, but those impulses were crowded out by new urges. As Lisa’s habits changed, so had her brain.

“All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits,” William James wrote in 1892.

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.

One paper published by a Duke University researcher in 2006 found that more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits.

How Habits Work

And within their brains, something unexpected occurred: As each rat learned how to navigate the maze, its mental activity decreased. As the route became more and more automatic, each rat started thinking less and less.

But that internalization—run straight, hang a left, eat the chocolate—relied upon the basal ganglia, the brain probes indicated. This tiny, ancient neurological structure seemed to take over as the rat ran faster and faster and its brain worked less and less. The basal ganglia was central to recalling patterns and acting on them. The basal ganglia, in other words, stored habits even while the rest of the brain went to sleep.

This process—in which the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine—is known as “chunking,” and it’s at the root of how habits form.

This process within our brains is a three-step loop:

  • cue,a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use
  • the routine,which can be physical or mental or emotional
  • reward,which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future

When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making.

“…Habits never really disappear. They’re encoded into the structures of our brain, and that’s a huge advantage for us, because it would be awful if we had to relearn how to drive after every vacation. The problem is that your brain can’t tell the difference between bad and good habits, and so if you have a bad one, it’s always lurking there, waiting for the right cues and rewards.” – Ann Graybiel, a scientist at MIT who oversaw many of the basal ganglia experiments

Without habit loops, our brains would shut down, overwhelmed by the minutiae of daily life. People whose basal ganglia are damaged by injury or disease often become mentally paralyzed.

Here was the proof Squire was looking for. The experiments demonstrated that Eugene had the ability to form new habits, even when they involved tasks or objects he couldn’t remember for more than a few seconds.

It’s possible to learn and make unconscious choices without remembering anything about the lesson or decision making.

Researchers have learned that cues can be almost anything, from a visual trigger such as a candy bar or a television commercial to a certain place, a time of day, an emotion, a sequence of thoughts, or the company of particular people.

Habits are powerful, but delicate.

They shape our lives far more than we realize—they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense.

Every McDonald’s, for instance, looks the same—the company deliberately tries to standardize stores’ architecture and what employees say to customers, so everything is a consistent cue to trigger eating routines. The foods at some chains are specifically engineered to deliver immediate rewards—the fries, for instance, are designed to begin disintegrating the moment they hit your tongue, in order to deliver a hit of salt and grease as fast as possible, causing your pleasure centers to light up and your brain to lock in the pattern. All the better for tightening the habit loop.

“The brain has this amazing ability to find happiness even when the memories of it are gone…” – Squire

How to Create New Habits

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.

This is how new habits are created: by putting together a cue, a routine, and a reward, and then cultivating a craving that drives the loop.

The Golden Rule of Habit Change: Why Transformation Occurs

Dungy recognized that you can never truly extinguish bad habits.

You Can’t Extinguish a Bad Habit, You Can Only Change It.

How it works:

  • Use the same cue
  • Provide the same reward
  • Change the routine

The Golden Rule has influenced treatments for alcoholism, obesity, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and hundreds of other destructive behaviors, and understanding it can help anyone change their own habits.

Asking patients to describe what triggers their habitual behavior is called awareness training, and like AA’s insistence on forcing alcoholics to recognize their cues, it’s the first step in “habit reversal training.”

Then the therapist taught Mandy what is known as a “competing response.” Whenever she felt that tension in her fingertips, he told her, she should immediately put her hands in her pockets or under her legs, or grip a pencil or something else that made it impossible to put her fingers in her mouth. Then Mandy was to search for something that would provide a quick physical stimulation—such as rubbing her arm or rapping her knuckles on a desk—anything that would produce a physical response.

“It seems ridiculously simple, but once you’re aware of how your habit works, once you recognize the cues and rewards, you’re halfway to changing it,” Nathan Azrin, one of the developers of habit reversal training, told me. “It seems like it should be more complex. The truth is, the brain can be reprogrammed. You just have to be deliberate about it.”

Today, habit reversal therapy is used to treat verbal and physical tics, depression, smoking, gambling problems, anxiety, bedwetting, procrastination, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and other behavioral problems.

For some habits, however, there’s one other ingredient that’s necessary: belief.

Over and over again, alcoholics said the same thing: Identifying cues and choosing new routines is important, but without another ingredient, the new habits never fully took hold.

The secret, the alcoholics said, was God.

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. Belief was the ingredient that made a reworked habit loop into a permanent behavior.

“There’s something really powerful about groups and shared experiences. People might be skeptical about their ability to change if they’re by themselves, but a group will convince them to suspend disbelief. A community creates belief.” – Lee Ann Kaskutas, a senior scientist at the Alcohol Research Group

In a 1994 Harvard study that examined people who had radically changed their lives, for instance, researchers found that some people had remade their habits after a personal tragedy, such as a divorce or a life-threatening illness.

Belief is easier when it occurs within a community.

Which Habits Matter Most

Keystone habits say that success doesn’t depend on getting every single thing right, but instead relies on identifying a few key priorities and fashioning them into powerful levers.

Take, for instance, studies from the past decade examining the impacts of exercise on daily routines. When people start habitually exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, they start changing other, unrelated patterns in their lives, often unknowingly. Typically, people who exercise start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. It’s not completely clear why. But for many people, exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change.

Keystone habits offer what is known within academic literature as “small wins.”

A huge body of research has shown that small wins have enormous power, an influence disproportionate to the accomplishments of the victories themselves.

This is the final way that keystone habits encourage widespread change: by creating cultures where new values become ingrained.

When Willpower Becomes Automatic

Dozens of studies show that willpower is the single most important keystone habit for individual success.

“Highly self-disciplined adolescents outperformed their more impulsive peers on every academic-performance variable,” the researchers wrote. “Self-discipline predicted academic performance more robustly than did IQ. Self-discipline also predicted which students would improve their grades over the course of the school year, whereas IQ did not.… Self-discipline has a bigger effect on academic performance than does intellectual talent.”

By the 1980s, a theory emerged that became generally accepted: Willpower is a learnable skill, something that can be taught the same way kids learn to do math and say “thank you.”

“Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like the muscles in your arms or legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there’s less power left over for other things.”

“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,” said Heatherton. “When you learn to force yourself to practice for an hour or run fifteen laps, you start building self-regulatory strength. A five-year-old who can follow the ball for ten minutes becomes a sixth grader who can start his homework on time.”

But the patients who didn’t write out any plans were at a significant disadvantage, because they never thought ahead about how to deal with painful inflection points. They never deliberately designed willpower habits.

This is how willpower becomes a habit: by choosing a certain behavior ahead of time, and then following that routine when an inflection point arrives.

The Power of a Crisis: How Leaders Create Habits Through Accident and Design

Companies aren’t families. They’re battlefields in a civil war.

Creating successful organizations isn’t just a matter of balancing authority. For an organization to work, leaders must cultivate habits that both create a real and balanced peace and, paradoxically, make it absolutely clear who’s in charge.

When Companies Predict (and Manipulate) Habits

But as marketers and psychologists figured out long ago, if we start our shopping sprees by loading up on healthy stuff, we’re much more likely to buy Doritos, Oreos, and frozen pizza when we encounter them later on. The burst of subconscious virtuousness that comes from first buying butternut squash makes it easier to put a pint of ice cream in the cart later.

People’s buying habits are more likely to change when they go through a major life event.

“Changing residence, getting married or divorced, losing or changing a job, having someone enter or leave the household,” Andreasen wrote, are life changes that make consumers more “vulnerable to intervention by marketers.”

Whether selling a new song, a new food, or a new crib, the lesson is the same: If you dress a new something in old habits, it’s easier for the public to accept it.

How Movements Happen

And the reason why social habits have such influence is because at the root of many movements—be they large-scale revolutions or simple fluctuations in the churches people attend—is a three-part process that historians and sociologists say shows up again and again:

  • A movement starts because of the social habits of friendship and the strong ties between close acquaintances.
  • It grows because of the habits of a community, and the weak ties that hold neighborhoods and clans together.
  • And it endures because a movement’s leaders give participants new habits that create a fresh sense of identity and a feeling of ownership.

When Parks was arrested, however, it sparked something unusual within the city. Rosa Parks, unlike other people who had been jailed for violating the bus segregation law, was deeply respected and embedded within her community.

Parks’s friends, in contrast, spanned Montgomery’s social and economic hierarchies. She had what sociologists call “strong ties”—firsthand relationships—with dozens of groups throughout Montgomery that didn’t usually come into contact with one another.

And the power of those friendships became apparent as soon as Parks landed in jail.

Studies show that people have no problem ignoring strangers’ injuries, but when a friend is insulted, our sense of outrage is enough to overcome the inertia that usually makes protests hard to organize.

In fact, in landing a job, Granovetter discovered, weak-tie acquaintances were often more important than strong-tie friends because weak ties give us access to social networks where we don’t otherwise belong.

When sociologists have examined how opinions move through communities, how gossip spreads or political movements start, they’ve discovered a common pattern: Our weak-tie acquaintances are often as influential—if not more—than our close-tie friends.

If you ignore the social obligations of your neighborhood, if you shrug off the expected patterns of your community, you risk losing your social standing. You endanger your access to many of the social benefits that come from joining the country club, the alumni association, or the church in the first place.

On a playground, peer pressure is dangerous. In adult life, it’s how business gets done and communities self-organize.

This is the third aspect of how social habits drive movements: For an idea to grow beyond a community, it must become self-propelling. And the surest way to achieve that is to give people new habits that help them figure out where to go on their own.

The Neurology of Free Will: Are We Responsible for Our Habits?

Society, as embodied by our courts and juries, has agreed that some habits are so powerful that they overwhelm our capacity to make choices, and thus we’re not responsible for what we do.

Most of the time, as our bodies move in and out of different phases of rest, our most primitive neurological structure—the brain stem—paralyzes our limbs and nervous system, allowing our brains to experience dreams without our bodies moving. Usually, people can make the transition in and out of paralysis multiple times each night without any problems. Within neurology, it’s known as the “switch.”

However, these habits, when they occur during sleep terrors, are different in one critical respect: Because sleep deactivates the prefrontal cortex and other high cognition areas, when a sleep terror habit is triggered, there is no possibility of conscious intervention.

“But what was really interesting were the near misses. To pathological gamblers, near misses looked like wins. Their brains reacted almost the same way. But to a nonpathological gambler, a near miss was like a loss.”

However, to modify a habit, you must decide to change it. You must consciously accept the hard work of identifying the cues and rewards that drive the habits’ routines, and find alternatives. You must know you have control and be self-conscious enough to use it…

Habits, he noted, are what allow us to “do a thing with difficulty the first time, but soon do it more and more easily, and finally, with sufficient practice, do it semi-mechanically, or with hardly any consciousness at all.”

This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be.

A Reader’s Guide to Using These Ideas

The Four-Step Framework:

Step One: Identify the Routine

Step Two: Experiment with Rewards

As you test four or five different rewards, you can use an old trick to look for patterns: After each activity, jot down on a piece of paper the first three things that come to mind when you get back to your desk.

Then, set an alarm on your watch or computer for fifteen minutes.

The reason why it’s important to write down three things—even if they are meaningless words—is twofold. First, it forces a momentary awareness of what you are thinking or feeling. … What’s more, studies show that writing down a few words helps in later recalling what you were thinking at that moment.

Step Three: Isolate the Cue

In other words, when environmental cues said “we are friends”—a gentle tone, a smiling face—the witnesses were more likely to misremember what had occurred. Perhaps it was because, subconsciously, those friendship cues triggered a habit to please the questioner.

Our lives are the same way. The reason why it is so hard to identify the cues that trigger our habits is because there is too much information bombarding us as our behaviors unfold.

To identify a cue amid the noise, we can use the same system as the psychologist: Identify categories of behaviors ahead of time to scrutinize in order to see patterns. Luckily, science offers some help in this regard. Experiments have shown that almost all habitual cues fit into one of five categories:

  • Location
  • Time
  • Emotional state
  • Other people
  • Immediately preceding action

Step Four: Have a Plan

Within psychology, these plans are known as “implementation intentions.”

Obviously, changing some habits can be more difficult. But this framework is a place to start. Sometimes change takes a long time. Sometimes it requires repeated experiments and failures. But once you understand how a habit operates—once you diagnose the cue, the routine and the reward—you gain power over it.

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