The Power of Habit: Summary & Review

the power of habit book cover

The Power of Habit explores the science behind habit creation and change, including tips and advice on how to change our habits and make them stick.

Bullet Summary

  • Habits are around 40% of your life. They have 3 parts: cue, routine and reward
  • You can change your habit more easily by just changing the action part: the routine
  • Willpower is a habit you can grow. And it will change your life.

Full Summary

About The Author: Charles Duhigg is a report, so technically not a scientist or psychologist himself. Howeer, he makes a good job here at condensing lots of science in a way which is accessible and practical.

Introduction

Charles Duhigg opens the book with the example of Lisa. Lisa changed her smoking habit when she felt she had to change to accomplish her goals (what Tony Robbins calls “leverage”).

When she switched smoking with jogging a cascade of positive changes started, including eating healthier.
The change of one single major pattern -known as keystone habit- taught Lisa how to change the other habits as well.

Lisa still has powerful cravings to overeat when she sees images of food, but there’s new brain activity in what’s supposedly the region of inhibition and self control.

Charles Duhigg says habits can be changed -if we understand how they work-.
And that’s what The Power of Habit sets out to do.

Part One: The Habits of Individuals

Chapter 1: The Habit Loop – How Habits Work

Charles Duhigg explains that habits emerge because the brain looks for ways to save effort.

The Basal Ganglia stores habits for us, and once stored we don’t need to use our rational part of the brain to execute.
We just access our habits in “automated mode”, and it all goes very quickly.

The process of making a routine into a habit is called “chunking”.

The brain activity spikes at the beginning of a habit, when it’s looking for a cue. And spikes again at the end, when a reward is usually present.
In between spikes, the brain relinquishes control to the habit.

The habit then consists of three steps:

  1. Cue: a trigger telling the brain to go into automatic mode. Depending on the trigger the brain selects a specific routine
  2. Routine: physical, mental or emotional behavior that follows automatically
  3. Reward: positive result telling our brain if this loop is worth memorizing

the habit loop

Habits are automated, but they are not destiny.
They can be changed, ignored or replaced.

Old habits stay inside our head, but as we develop and use new ones, the new ones become stronger (read The Brain That Changes Itself for more on neuroplasticity).
Understanding how they work is your first step in choosing the habits you want.

Companies (Ab)Using Habits

The author explains how McDonald uses the power of habit by standardizing everything.

The shop architecture, the food, and what the employees say.
All designed to deliver the exact same feeling any time, anywhere.

Habits are delicate though, and even small shifts can change them. If the place closes for example, the family can start having dinner at home.

Also read:

Chapter 2: The Craving Brain – How to Create New Habits

Charles Duhigg introduces the famous advertising pioneer Charles Hopkins.

Charles Hopkins Rules

  1. Find simple and obvious cues
  2. Clearly define a reward

Hopkins says when you identify those two points, products will sell like magic.

However, Hopkins was wrong.
He didn’t sell Pepsodent toothpastes because of the “clean teeth reward”.
That was what everyone else said too.

The difference was that Pepsodent had a chemical that made the toothpaste foamy and tingling in the mouth.
That was the cue: the tingling sensation.

Similarly Febreeze from P&G failed at the beginning as an odor remover. People don’t have any craving for “no odor”.
But it exploded when P&G marketed it as an air freshener. After they used it people craved for that fresh smell.

Charles Duhigg adds then the missing third step: craving.

Craving drives habits.
When there’s a craving, creating a habit becomes much easier. The endorphin rush of work out, for example, fuels the habit of working out.

Chapter 3: The Golden Rule of Habit Change

Charles Duhigg discusses American football coach Tony Dungy.

Dungy wanted to change the habits of his player, but want to do it quick and easy.
The idea behind it is ingenious indeed.
Instead of changing the whole habit, Dungy set out to change the habits by changing the routine between the cue and the reward.

It’s much easier indeed to change behavior if cue and reward stay the same. If there’s something familiar at the beginning and at the end, changing what really matters, the routine, becomes much easier.

Stopping Nail Biting

Any time the patient felt the need to bite her fingers, she was advised to grab a pen, or put her hands in her pockets.

Then she should search for something to provide quick physical stimulation, such as rubbing her arms.

The cues and reward should stay the same, just the routine changed.
And little by little she replaced the old habit with the new one.

The author adds though that changing any habit is easily described but not easy to do.

It requires determination and understanding why you do what you do (understand cues and rewards).

The patient, for example understood that nail biting was her craving for physical stimulation.
And studies show that smokers who found out what their cue and rewards were and then changed the smoking routine with something else were more successful at quitting.

For example ask yourself: if you eat unhealthy snacks at work, might it be it’s your way to get away from the desk?

Belief: The Key Ingredient for Changing

Charles Duhigg then discusses AA (anonymous alcoholics) and its efficacy in dealing with alcohol addiction.

The author says AA attacks the habits that surround alcohol usage.

Research shows that alcoholics with faith and belief in God stayed sober the most. It wasn’t a specific faith in God that helped though, but more a general belief they could change.

You need to believe things will get better.

Small wins are particularly useful in that realm. Small wins galvanize us and show us that bigger wins are possible, as long as we stay constant.

Habits That Win Gold Medals

Charles Duhigg says that Michael Phelps, like many elite athletes, has the capacity for obsessiveness.

The author says what sets him apart were his daily habits.
Phelps had all his days down to routines.
No matter if it was an Olympic race or a normal day, he has his habits, always all the same, that would ground him and keep him calm and focused.

My Note:
This is pure speculation on the part of the author. We don’t know whether that’s true or not.
Who says that Phelps might simply not be a guy who naturally does not get stressed?

Part Two: The Habits of Successful Organizations

Chapter 4: Keystone Habits

Charles Duhigg describes Paul O’Neill stewardship of Alcoa.

O’Neil changed the habits of the organization to revolve around the importance of safety.

My Note:
I didn’t find the Alcoa that great, but O’Neil taking the responsibility when a tragic accident took a worker’s life reminded me of true ownership as exemplified in Extreme Ownership.

The idea of a keystone habit is that of a crucial habit you can change that will change your whole life.

For example, the habit of exercising will also lead to better eating habits, better mood etc.

Chapter 5: Habit of Success – When Willpower is Automatic

Self discipline predicts academic results more than IQ (check Emotional Intelligence). And the best way to strengthen willpower is to make it into a habit.

It seems indeed that students with a high willpower aren’t working hard, says Duhigg quoting Angela Duckwort, and that’s because they made it into a habit (check Grit by Angela Duckworth).
It’s normal for them.

Willpower Is Learnable: Like a Muscle

Willpower is learnable, and works a bit like a muscle.

If you use it a lot it gets tired and then you run out of it the rest of the day. Like a muscle though, it also builds over time.

The author says that patients in rehab who had written plans and a plan to cope with pain to get healthy quicker, did so twice as fast as those without plans.
It’s because they had plans and solutions in advance to deal with what Duhigg calls “inflection points”. Inflection points are those points when pain, emotions or fatigue hits us.
And the patients who healed quickest had cues and rewards to deal with inflection points (example: walking to the bus stop and say hi to their wives).

The author says that’s what Starbucks does with its employees: it provides them with routines to use when they hit an inflection point and a customer screams or is rude (check Onward by Starbucks CEO).
And of course, as we’ve seen in Drive, Duhigg also reminds us that a sense of control over one’s tasks also increases willpower.

My Note:
The science of willpower is still heavily contentious.

Chapter 6: The Power of a Crisis

Charles Duhigg talks about how crisis can become the catalysts of new and better habits. The example is a hospital where nurses were mistreated and browbeaten into obedience.
When nurses noticed mistakes, they said nothing. When that cost the hospital -and the patients- many tragic mistakes, the culture changed. Cameras, checklists, anonymous reporting system and a culture allowing everyone to speak up transformed the hospital into an example.

Chapter 7: When Companies Predict (and Manipulate) Habits

Chapter 7 of The Power of Habit delves deeper into how companies use big data to predict and take advantage of consumers’ buying habits. For example, why put vegetables at the beginning as they are more delicate and can get ruined at the bottom of the shopping cart? It’s because after we buy healthy stuff we are more likely to buy all the unhealthy stuff that we will encounter later on.

Companies got so good at matching consumers’ shopping habits and states it became spooky. Pregnant women started to wonder how the hell could their supermarket know they were pregnant. So Target started sending advertising for pregnant women… Alongside random stuff, so to make it seem random.

The Habit of a Big Hit

Also very interesting for me was the psychology of making a hit. Making a hit is all about making the unfamiliar sound familiar.
BWe often like familiar songs even when we say we don’t. People say they don’t like a specific popular song or artist, but they don’t change station the way they do with a new song.
“Hey Ya!” by the Outkast was slated to be a success by producer. And yet it was failing on the radio because it didn’t resemble previous songs. The trick to get people hooked to Hey Ya then wan to sandwich between two other popular and familiar songs. Blending the unoriginal with the original.

The Habit of Eating

Similarly, there’s a strong to stick to what we’ve always eaten. To change the eating habits of soldiers the army changed the way it delivered a certain type of meat to make it look like as if it were the same type of meat they had always eaten. And the troops just went along with ti.

Part Three: The Habits of Societies

Chapter 8: How Movements Happen

Charles Duhigg explores the act of defiance of Rosa Parks and how it became a movement.

He says there had been similar cases before, but Rosa’s turned into a movement because she belonged to many social groups and had a strong network of activists and acquaintances.

The word spread quickly and everyone who belonged to the same organizations Rosa Parks was a member of felt she was somewhat of a friend. A
nd they felt compelled to participate in the movement.

Chapter 9: Free Will – Are We Responsible for Our Habits?

In the last chapter deals with the hot topic of free will.

We have already seen this topic in Incognito and The Moral Animal.
The author talks about gamblers addicts and says it’s unclear if the brain is born with an “addiction tendency” or if the exposition to gambling changes the brain.

However, as we acquitted of homicide people who weren’t fully cognizant when they killed, then Duhigg wonders if she should do the same for people with uncontrollable gambling habits.

Appendix: How to Change Habits

At the end of the day, though, the message is a positive one.

Alcoholic can get sober, dysfunctional companies can transform themselves, and you can change your habits.

To change it you must:

  1. Identify your routine: What is it that you want to change
  2. Experiment With Rewards : the reward is often far from obvious. Change the “routine” part as a test and see which works. For example if you’re eating junk food, try eating an apple. If you still crave junk food, hunger wasn’t the issue. Try coffe. If you’re still hungry, maybe you needed a break. Try chatting with friend or exercising. Write down your results and keep trying until you identify the right cue driving your habits
  3. Find The Cue: Once you isolate which reward works, find out what was the cue. They’re often related to a location, a time, a person, an emotional state or a preceding action. Keeping a log of the habit you want to change will allow you to isolate your cue
  4. Have a Plan: Prepare a plan on what you will do once the cue comes up and stick to it

the power of habit book cover

Practical Applications

Changing Habits
You can change your habits.
To make it easier for you, make sure the reward stays the same, but you change the behavior.
With time you’ll have a new habit. So pick one that is not detrimental, but beneficial.

Understand why you do what you do
The second lesson learned is the importance of understanding yourself first why you do what you do, which will open new doors of self awareness.

Plan for inflection points
I particularly loved the tip on planning for your moment of weakness. Something I will do.
Anger is also a good motivator for your moments of weakness (read Relentless by Tim Grover, all about using your anger and dark side).

Grow Willpower
Willpower is a habit you can grow. It works a bit like a muscle and it will change your life. Start right now.

CONS

  • Split Stories Format

Charles Duhigg starts a story and doesn’t finish it.

He begins a new one and doesn’t finish it.
Then he goes back to the first one and doesn’t finish it.

I find this cycle unhelpful and confusing. Especially for people who read more than one book at a time or have many things going on at once.

  • Too Many Stories & Too Long

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a the science and a few examples and stories on how people apply in real life and how we can do the same?

That’s my template of a great book and that’s what The Power Moves does.

The Power of Habit at times seem to be more a collection of stories and some science than science with examples though. For me: too much unnecessary blabla.

  • Disjointed

Some stories, topics or chapters -like the weak ties for example- don’t seem highly connected to habits in my humble opinion. I prefer laser focused products.

Review

The Power of Habit is a great book on understanding habits and routines.

It is not as actionable as the later “Atomic Habits“, but it contains all the practical steps you need to change your habits.

Changing Habits: Robbins VS Duhigg

Both authors are big names into changing behavior and habits. It seemed only fair then that I make a quick comparison for you.

Tony Robbins is more precise and more action-oriented on changing habits. So I recommend you check his work such as Creating Lasting Change and Personal Power II to change your own habits.
Just be advised Robbins often calls habits neuro-associations.

I do leverage both though for my Social Power.

The Power of Habit adds very important theory around habits and neuro association which is very useful for your understanding.
But also a few more practical tips I didn’t see in Robbins.

For example Duhigg stresses the need to experiment to pinpoint both cues and rewards (including suggestions to which categories they usually fall into).

And he adds the all important need to plan around your inflection points, such as all those times when you’re not at your strongest and thus more likely to fall back to old habits.

Get the book on Amazon

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