"Once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom -- and the responsibility -- to remake them. Once you understand that habits can be rebuilt, the power of habit becomes easier to grasp, and the only option left is to get to work."
The habits we develop as individuals can be our best friends, propelling us forward toward our goals. They can also be our worst enemies, dragging us downward like gravity to our detriment. But habits themselves are merely tools, indifferent to their affect, so learning to wield them is the ultimate challenge and opportunity. Through anecdotes, interviews, and years of research, The Power of Habit describes how habits are formed, how they can be changed, and why they’re so powerful.
Author Profile: Charles Duhigg
I had never heard of Charles Duhigg before reading The Power of Habit, but apparently he is a Pulitzer prize winning investigative reporter for The New York Times, and a frequent contributor to NPR, PBS, and This American Life.
Who Should Read This
- Anyone who enjoys research-based non-fiction books that read like stories, similar to Freakonomics, Quiet, or Malcolm Gladwell’s books.
- Anyone who wants to harness the power of habits to achieve individual goals.
- Anyone who wants help remedying a bad habit.
- Anyone running a business, organization, or community and wants to understand how to harness the habits of groups.
- Anyone with an interest in human behavior and psychology.
My Biggest Takeaways (with quotes from The Power of Habit)
1. It’s easy to confuse decision-making with ingrained habits.
Showering in the morning, brushing our teeth, making breakfast, backing a car out of the driveway, taking a train or bus to work, opening up our email inbox as we sit down at our desk — these are all habits disguised as decisions. At one point we made a decision to do these things and decided how we will do them, but they’ve since developed into deeply ingrained habits. We’ve done them so many times that our brains go on autopilot as our body moves through the motions. It’s eye-opening to understand that most of our day-to-day “decisions” are just automatic routines.
"When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit -- unless you find new routines -- the pattern will unfold automatically."
2. Habits are are like screen-savers for our brains — they save us mental energy and help us function productively.
While traveling around Europe in 2012, I was perpetually figuring out where I’d sleep the next night, how to navigate the streets in a new city, or learning new words in the local language. This was incredibly exhausting, much more so than I anticipated. It’s easy to take for granted how much mental energy our day-to-day actions could take up, if not for the habits we develop. Habits allow our brains to take a break while our body moves through motions.
3. Yet routines are a double-edged sword — they can also work against us and pose a serious risk to our personal growth.
"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."
Thinking less may save us mental energy, but it may also cause our demise. I can’t help but drawing parallels to the rat race we may find ourselves in our lives and careers.
Many people continue down a career path even when they know in their heart of hearts they should leave and do something different. And with each subsequent week, month, or year, it becomes harder to leave. Their mental patterns, habits, and routines are ingrained so deeply that they’re less able to imagine a world where they’re NOT working in that particular job. While this may be great news for an employer, it can be a detriment to one’s personal development. This is the downside of routine, and it stresses the importance of shaking up one’s routine and challenging one’s habits.
4. Travel shakes up our routine and makes us feel more alive.
"We might not remember the experiences that create our habits, but once they are lodged within our brains they influence how we act -- often without our realization."
The temporary suspension of habits and routines is one reason why traveling into worlds unknown is such an enriching and enlivening experience. Our routines and habits are suddenly rendered useless when we land in a new country or drive into a new city. The sights and sounds down an unfamiliar street — new faces, strange languages, funny food and drink — cause our brain to become more attentive. Our senses are heightened and dance around this whole new set of stimuli. It’s exciting.
It’s why some people come back from an extended vacation or a long journey or a pilgrimage with a new perspective on life. They’re once again able to imagine a world removed from their routine.
5. When intentionally harnessed for good, routines can accelerate our personal growth.
Duhigg uses the example of Michael Phelps to describe the positive power of habits.
At the beginning of his training as a swimmer, Phelps’ developed a nightly routine of visualizing the perfect race before falling asleep. He also developed raceday routines for a race at 10am, for example: wake up at 6:30am, eat a large breakfast at 7:00am, begin a stretching regime at 8:00am, warm-up laps at 8:30am, get dressed at 9:15am, listen to warmup music at 9:35am.
Habits can turn a talented swimmer into a 22 medal-winning Olympian.
6. At the heart of every habit is a deep craving.
"Cravings are what drive habits. And figuring out how to spark a craving makes creating a new habit easier."
As someone trying to develop into a better writer and create a sustainable business, I appreciate how a deliberately created routine can be my best friend.
Over the past few months, however, I’ve tried to develop a habit of writing daily — a habit at which I’m failing miserably. But after reading The Power of Habit, I realized that I haven’t created a craving strong enough to drive the creation of my new habit. I’ve half-heartedly stated I wanted to write everyday, but I haven’t felt it with all my being. I simply haven’t craved it hard enough; it needs to become a deep, burning desire. I have to get hungrier. And I have to create cues and rewards to perpetuate that craving.
7. Cues and Rewards are the key to understanding and modifying habits.
"But countless studies have shown that a cue and a reward, on their own, aren't enough for a new habit to last. Only when your brain starts expecting the reward--craving the endorphins or sense of accomplishment--will it become automatic to lace up your jogging shoes each morning. The cue, in addition to triggering a routine, must also trigger a craving for the reward to come."
Duhigg summarizes that a habit is made up of (1) a cue, (2) a routine, and (3) a reward.
So the key to understanding a habit is to understand what cue triggers the routine, and what reward occurs when the routine is completed. For example, let’s just say I bite my nails. Biting my nails is the routine.
What cues this routine? Let’s just say I find myself biting my nails when I’m anxious, feeling pressure, or stressed.
What’s the reward after this routine? Perhaps the reward is a feeling of control and sense of resolution. Once I bite every bit of my nails off, I’ve completed something — something has been resolved. It’s not the right something that needs to be resolved, but it makes me feel better. It’s the reward.
So the key to changing this habit is to become cognizant of those cues, and instead of biting my nails, substitute another routine, like eating an apple. The reward of finishing the apple could mimic the reward of biting my nails. This all sounds so simple, but it’s certainly not easy.
8. There’s a habit that perhaps holds the greatest weight of all: Willpower.
"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."
I’ve really come to appreciate how self-discipline and willpower can positively influence all areas of one’s life. But like a muscle, it takes constant practice and work, and if not practiced enough, can become weak. It can also be exhausting to constantly be practicing willpower. Eventually, something always beats us and our willpower is compromised (For more on this, Duke Behavioral Psychologist Dan Ariely talks about something called “Ego Depletion”).
Duhigg brought it home for me when he described that willpower can be a habit as well — an overarching habit that he calls a keystone habit. And when willpower becomes a habit, we don’t have to exert as much mental energy to harness it. And the beautiful thing about keystone habits like willpower is that they influence all subsequent habits. So once willpower and self-discipline is mastered, other habits are much more maleable.
"Sometimes it looks like people with great self-control aren't working hard -- but that's because they've made it automatic...Their willpower occurs without them having to think about it."
9. Community creates belief and encourages habits to develop or change.
"There's something really powerful about groups and shared experiences. People might be skeptial about their ability to change if they're by themselves, but a group will convince them to suspend disbelief. A community creates belief."
Although I’ve mostly touched on individual habits, two-thirds of the book discusses the habits of organizations and societies. This is something I touched on in Thoughts on Coming Home (Part 2): Reverse Culture Shock, but I’ve come to appreciate how much our environment and the people we surround ourselves with influences us, for better or for worse.
In my aforementioned desired habit of writing daily, I’ve tossed around with friends the idea of forming a ‘writing group’ with people who also want to develop the habit of writing daily. A habit is a lot easier to develop if you’re developing it alongside others.
10. “Every habit, no matter its complexity, is maleable.”
"However, to modify a habit, you must decide to change it. You must consiously 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 -- and every chapter in this book is devoted to illustrating a different aspect of why that control is real."
If you’re more of an audio/visual person, here’s a 37-minute interview on Jonathan Fields’s The Good Life Project with Charles Duhigg on The Power of Habit.
To learn more about harnessing habits to improve your life, your organization, or society, check out The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.