The Power of Habit – Why we do what we do in Life and Business

Book Review – The Power of Habit – Why we do what we do in Life and Business – by Charles Duhigg

Habits are the foundation of a successful Life

Habits are the invisible architecture of daily life. They are intricately linked to Productivity and Success. If we learn to cultivate good habits, we can easily power up our Productivity and Success.

However, habit formation strategies are neutral. Which implies that we are as likely to develop bad habits, as much as good habits.

Developing good habits and replacing bad habits with good habits are both challenging. But many chronic overeaters, problem drinkers, and obsessive shoppers have successfully remade their lives – in short periods of time. How do they do it? If they can, can’t we?

Charles Duhigg in his powerful book ‘The Power of Habit – why we do what we do in Life and Business’ picks up this topic. He articulates how to change habits through studies and experiments in science.

Through his lucid writing style, he has illustrated the findings through case studies. All of which is in a story format, AND in Science terms; yet he has made it easy for us to consume and grasp their powerful implications for habit formation.

Science (Neuro, Behavioural and Sociological) has made it possible to learn how habits emerge, how they change and their mechanics. It may not be easy or simple, but it is possible to change habits.

Once you understand this well, you can learn and even teach how to eat less, exercise more, work more efficiently and live healthy lives.

Replacing Bad Habits with GoodA Case study

Charles begins the book with a (real-life) story of Lisa, who gets addicted to Smoking, and binge eating after a betrayal by her ex. During a trip to Cairo, she resolves to fight this addiction in a moment of despair.  She decides to replace her smoking with running within a year.

Over the next few months, she takes to intense jogging and then successfully trains for a marathon. With that as a springboard, she goes back to school and gets engaged. She successfully turns her life around.

By focussing on one pattern – “a keystone habit”- Lisa had re-programmed her other routines as well. She became a subject for brain studies by neurologists.

Her brain scan revealed that one set of her neurological patterns, her old habits had been replaced by new patterns. The parts of her brain which are associated with craving were still active. However, there was more pronounced activity in those parts of her brain, where behavioral inhibitions and self-discipline reside (causing her to become more disciplined). In other words, Lisa had changed her brain, by changing her behavior.

Charles has divided the book into 3 Parts.

Part I: The Habits of Individuals

Charles talks about how habits emerge in individuals, the neurology of habit formation, how to build new habits and change old ones.  This section talks about the Habit Loop.

i.e. Habits are formed through 3 elements Cue, Routine, and Reward. Over time, this loop (cue, routine, reward) becomes more and more automatic until a powerful craving emerges to reset this loop.

The Habit Loop
The Habit Loop

We can change habits by understanding this loop and altering the elements. The habit loop reveals that when a habit emerges, the brain stops to fully participate in decision-making. It frees up the brain to divert focus on other tasks.

Charles deals at length with neurological experiments, the evolution of the human brain, and the science of habit formation from a neurological standpoint.

He presents a case study of Eugene and a few other experiments (on rats) to describe how habits are recorded in the human brain.

Eugene’s brain got affected by a rare viral encephalitis, and many brain functions including memory got impaired. However,  he could go for his morning walks on a certain route, and return home by himself.

After numerous studies, the neurologists figured out that a part of his brain called Basal Ganglia, which stores habits, wasn’t affected by the encephalitis. Hence Eugene could resume his habits, based on the Cues he was habituated to.

Interesting habits emerge without our permission. For e.g. families don’t necessarily intend to eat fast food. In course of time, a once a month pattern becomes once a week and then twice a week.

The cues set up by restaurants and the rewards (of taste) creates it as a habit. Restaurant chains like McDonald’s use this clever strategy to setup cues to set you up to eat junk food regularly.

How to create New Habits?

This section starts with the introduction of the popular brand of toothpaste “Pepsodent”, in the early 1900s — when the health of Americans’ teeth was in steep decline.

Hopkins, the master marketer behind several brands (including Quaker Oats) could market Pepsodent effectively, penetrating several markets within a short span, during such a hopeless situation for toothpaste. The secret? Hopkins created a craving.

The cue was a film that is formed in the mouth (regardless of whether one brushes or not). Hopkins asked people to feel the film (to trigger an advertisement). The reward? Beautiful teeth.

However, there is also the third rule, that is to create a craving. Pepsodent did that by creating a cool, tingling sensation in the mouth, to which people developed a craving. That sensation had nothing to do with the cleaning of the teeth itself but was planted to make it a habit.

New habits are created by putting together a cue, a routine, and a reward. Then cultivating a craving that drives the loop. This also explains how we get addicted to bad habits like smoking, checking email frequently.

A study also proved that people who habitually worked out thrice a week, had besides cue and rewards, developed a craving for the “feel good” factor, that is triggered by endorphins and neurochemicals a work out provided.

Why Transformation occurs?

Charles vividly describes how Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) helps millions of alcoholics to achieve sobriety. Alcoholism is much more than a habit. It is an addiction. But AA’s methods run counter to the types of intervention many psychiatrists say alcoholics need.

AA provides methods that attack the habits surrounding alcohol use. AA works on breaking habit loops. It works by interrupting the rewards, i.e. need for escaping out of reality through spirituality instead of through alcohol.

To transform habits, you can adopt a similar strategy. Where the cues and rewards can’t be changed, interrupt and follow a different routine. For e.g. if you want to stop snacking at work, you must question if you are doing it to satisfy your hunger or escape boredom. If you snack for a brief release, you can pick up another routine such as a quick walk, or give yourself three minutes on the internet, that provides the same interruption.

Part II: The Habits of Successful Organizations.

This section starts with the story of Alcoa corporation a manufacturer of Aluminium foil with plummeting fortunes in the year 1987.  Paul O’Neil, a government bureaucrat was appointed the CEO of Alcoa, much to the dismay of the board and employees. But much to everyone’s surprise, Paul turned around the company within a year. The secret?

Paul was unconventional but focused on changing what is called the “keystone” habits of the company (in this case those habits related to the safety procedures in Alcoa at that time).

Keystone habits are those that have the power to change other habits as they move through an organization. They prove that it is not necessary to set every single thing right, but identifying and fashioning a few key priorities, which act as powerful levers. They shift, dislodge and remake other patterns.

Studies have proved that families habitually eating dinner together seem to raise children with better homework skills, higher grades, and greater emotional control. Making your bed every morning is correlated to better productivity, a greater sense of well-being and stronger budgeting skills.

It’s not the family meal or the tidy bed, that causes better grades or greater well-being, but somehow those shifts cause chain reactions to let other good habits to take hold.

When WillPower becomes automatic

This section outlines the story of a man (Travis) with a deeply troubled childhood, who gets a new lease of life through Starbucks — and their education to employees. The focus of Starbucks is on WillPower, and how to make it a habit to strengthen WillPower. That can very likely to decide your success more than IQ. The company spends millions of dollars on curriculum focussed on willpower and self-discipline.

Studies have indicated that WillPower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle just like muscles in arms and legs. It gets tired as it works harder so there is less power left over for other things.

If you want to do something that requires your willpower, (like going for a run after work), you should conserve your willpower during the day. If use your willpower too early in the day doing tedious tasks like writing long emails, or boring expense forms, all the strength will be gone by the time you get home.

However, research also indicates that you can strengthen your willpower muscles by habits They carried out a willpower work out experiment. People who were asked to regularly visit the gym, built willpower as a discipline. This also manifested in a healthy improvement in other areas of life, such as greater willpower at home. The more time people spent in the gym, the less they smoked and ate junk food.

Starbucks devised the LATTE method (Listen to the customer, Acknowledge, Take action, Thank them and Explain) to deal with angry customers when the willpower wasn’t strong enough. This is a written guideline or plan of how to respond to clients when they are angry. This is how WillPower becomes a habit. Choosing a certain behavior ahead of time, and then following that routine when an inflection point arrives.

Based on experiments, it was also determined that organizations which empowered employees to make decisions, strengthened their willpower.

How great leaders Create Habits Through Accident and Design

In this section, Charles compares Organizations to Battle-fields rather than families. He illustrates the strategies that can help organizations create institutional habits (such as standard operating procedures), routines, and truces to make sure their internal rivalry doesn’t destroy them.

He takes up the case of Rhode Island Hospital and its dysfunctionality in early 2000 and how they turned around.

During turmoils, organizational habits become malleable enough to both assign responsibility and create a more equitable balance of power. Leaders such as Paul O Neil exploited these crises as opportunities (for Alcoa), and Howard Schultz for Starbucks in 2007 and changed the culture of organizations.

When Companies Predict (and Manipulate Habits)

This starts with an interesting case study of Target and Andrew Pole (in 2002) a data expert who started working for Target. Pole came up with Statistical models of what people are likely to buy, based on what they already bought in the stores.

Consumers were creatures of habits, buying potentially the same brand of products every time they shopped. However, there was an extreme divergence in the way each person shopped (based on the observation of shopping patterns).

People’s buying pattern also changes when they go through major life changes.  For e.g. When someone gets married, it is more likely that they buy a different brand of coffee.

The concept of Guest id to track the shopping patterns and how statisticians put the data together to predict the buying patterns is child’s play now (with Bigdata and Analytics). However, it wasn’t — at that time.

Pregnant women are always potential targets for retail stores. Pole started predicting women who were pregnant through gift registry data, and shopping cards. The idea was to send targeted, personalized coupons, that would drive the revenue up. That resulted in an embarrassing situation when a pregnant teenager got exposed to her family.

Charles also explains why we develop listening habits, and why we love certain types of songs, and how DJ’s exploit that.

To not cross the border of personal privacy through accurate predictions of buying, companies mix up the coupons of what someone is likely to buy — along with what they may not buy so that it appears random.

Charles concludes:

“If you dress a new something in old habits, it’s easier for public to accept”

Part III: The Habits of societies

Charles talks about the Rosa Park, Montgomery bus boycott incident in 1955, that became the epicenter of Civil Rights Campaign in the USA, through Social Patterns. What started off as a protest by Rosa, was completely identified by the community, which started the boycott movement.

This is about how social habits of friendship and the strong ties between close acquaintances, how it strengthens the weak ties between a community through habits. The movement endured by giving new habits that create a fresh sense of identity and feeling of ownership.

Charles also talks about the growth of Churches and their fundamental belief in the power of social habits. That if you are likely to see your friends in a Church, you are more likely to attend it.

Are We Responsible for Our Habits?

Charles talks about the role of free will. This is a case study of a woman Angie Bachmann, who takes to gambling at Casinos, and gets addicted. She is carried away by the high of winning, trivializing the pain of losing. In the process she gets into deep financial troubles, raking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.

Her lawyer argued that she gambled not by choice, but out of habit, and thus shouldn’t be punished. But her argument didn’t stand the test of law.

However, in another case of murder during sleepwalking —  the law acquitted Thomas a man, who could establish that he killed his wife that he so dearly loved, in a state where he wasn’t in control.

That Thomas never knew the patterns that drove him to kill existed in the first place. Whereas, Angie was aware of her habits, but still indulged.

Therefore, when we are aware of the patterns that exist in our lives, such as how we eat or read or talk to kids – we are conscious of those habits. We can always change them. Habits can be changed.

Charles has written this book after intense research. He has crafted each of the case-studies as a riveting read. He logically links and brilliantly correlates them to the underlying message about Habits. You need to take it slow, perhaps not more than one chapter at a time and reflect on it, to internalize the message.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the importance of Habits and its implications for Productivity and Success in life.


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