The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business
by Charles Duhigg
Studying habits is a wise investment if you consider that, on average, 43 percent of our daily actions are because of habits rather than conscious thoughts. Yes, two-fifths of what we do in a day happens while we are on “autopilot”!
That’s usually okay if the outcome of our actions is aligned with our goals or at least furthers our health or safety. But what about those more challenging habits? The ones that make us unhappy with ourselves afterward? The ones that have consequences that we have to rationalize? Or worse, the ones we’ll indulge in regardless of the risks or repercussions?
Now, the return on that investment looks really attractive! And even more so, if you consider that research shows you can’t get rid of bad habits, you can only change them — and change them only if you’re armed with the proper knowledge.
That’s the central idea behind The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by New York Times business reporter Charles Duhigg. We can gain control of our habits and change them if we understand how they work. That’s probably why The Power of Habit is one of the most popular books about habits on Amazon. (The others include Tiny Habits by B.J. Fogg and Atomic Habits by James Clear.)
Duhigg says the book is based on extensive research involving hundreds of interviews and many more papers, articles, and research studies. That appears to be the case – the notes alone cover 59 pages of the Kindle edition. (In journalistic fashion, Duhigg refers to his research and writing as “reportage.”)
The Power of Habit is organized into three parts. The first part discusses the habits of individuals. It explains habits, how they develop, and how they can be changed. The second part examines the habits of organizations and companies. The third part focuses on societies’ habits and their role in social movements.
This summary reflects my takeaways from a useful book I recommend to others. Reading a summary isn’t a substitute for reading the book. There’s much more than I can cover here. Plus, this is my interpretation. If these ideas resonate with you, I encourage you to get a copy of the book from your favorite bookseller. Here are the Amazon links: eBook | Audiobook | Print
Habits are previously conscious choices that, through repetition over time, become automatic behaviors handled unconsciously.
Habits evolved to help our brains conserve energy and pay attention to more important things. Our brains are constantly looking for ways to conserve energy. And one of the best ways is to move routine actions from the energy-hungry thinking part of the brain to the energy-sipping habit-performing part, where those actions can be handled automatically in the background.
Habits are a natural result of how our neurology works. Habits free our attention and the thinking part of the brain for more important tasks, such as, from an evolutionary perspective, finding food and avoiding predators.
Habits are pervasive. As pointed out, research has found that over 40% of our daily actions result from habits, not conscious decisions.
Habits involve a three-step process or “loop.” It begins with a cue that activates a habit and sends the brain into automatic mode. Cues can be almost anything – people, a place, a scent, a taste, a commercial – just about anything connected with a reward that sets off a habit loop. The cue is followed by a routine, a physical action, or a mental or emotional response. This results in a reward that tells your brain whether to remember this loop in the future.
The “habit loop” (cue-routine-reward) becomes increasingly automatic with time. Over time, the brain converts action “chunks” into automated routines – habits.
Bad (and good) habits never die, and your brain can’t tell the difference. According to MIT professor Ann Graybiel, “[habits are] 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. [But it also means that your bad habits are] always lurking there, waiting for the right cues and rewards.”
You can’t eradicate a bad habit, but you can change it. The cue-routine-reward loop will continue automatically unless you intervene with a new routine. Changing a habit requires keeping the old cue, delivering the old reward, and adding a new routine. As long as the cue and reward remain the same, you can change almost any behavior.
The most potent habits involve cravings that fuel the habit loop. A powerful sense of anticipation emerges for some habits as the cue and the reward become intertwined. The cue triggers intense anticipation of the reward – a craving – which spins up the habit loop. This happens because the brain releases endorphins usually associated with the reward when it encounters the cue. Sometimes, that craving becomes obsessive — an addiction.
Habits and cravings emerge so gradually that we are usually unaware of their existence or influence. You can begin the habit formation process without being conscious of that process or the choices involved.
Habit loops can be a blessing and a curse. They keep our brains from becoming overwhelmed by the details of everyday life. Without habits, our brains would shut down. We couldn’t perform the most basic tasks because we’d be paralyzed by the onslaught of insignificant details. But the brain’s reliance on automatic routines can be dangerous. This miracle of the brain also makes us susceptible to cravings, addictions, and manipulation.
Corporations use this knowledge to design and advertise their products. Casino, video game, and social media designers use anticipation, near wins, and timed rewards to trigger the release of dopamine and other crave-inducing chemicals in the brain. They exploit the habit-formation formula (combining cues, routines, and rewards) and cultivate cravings that power the habit loop. Retailers target people and families going through significant life changes – such as having a baby – because, during a life transition, customers’ shopping habits and brand loyalty are malleable.
When making changes, some habits are more important than others. A keystone habit, if changed, can set off a chain reaction leading to other changes. They’re called keystone habits because changing them results in a “small win” that has outsized results by paving the way for other changes to follow.
Belief is a powerful tool for changing habits. Researchers found that “belief” is one of the fundamental ingredients behind the success of Alcoholics Anonymous. Belief is an especially potent tool when used in combination with keystone habits.
Individuals have habits; organizations have routines. In organizations, routines are analogous to habits. Routines are the norms, unwritten rules, and behavior patterns that make the organization work.
The most crucial keystone habit for personal success is willpower. But willpower, like muscles, gets weaker with use. It’s also highly variable across any group of individuals — some have more willpower than others. For this reason, academic organizations are helping students develop habits that lead to more willpower. And companies, such as Starbucks, invest heavily in training employees on routines that bolster their willpower to handle inflection points better, e.g., handling a disappointed customer, dealing with the morning business rush, etc.
Social and individual habits shape social movements. Duhigg offers an insightful assessment of what led to the success of the Montgomery bus boycotts following the arrest of Rosa Parks in 1955. He explains how the reaction to her arrest sustained the boycott and made it such a pivotal event in the civil rights movement when so many prior arrests of others had not. He proposes what was different in this situation — what sparked and sustained the boycott — was a confluence of social and individual habits. A combination of peer pressure and social obligation fueled by Parks’ extensive connections across the community among Blacks and Whites. He also proposes that a keystone social change — changing how the Library of Congress categorized LGBTQ literature — was a “small win” that led to a cascade of social barriers coming down.
For anyone interested in changing habits – their own or their organization’s – or sparking social change, The Power of Habit is a worthwhile read.
More about the book and where to buy it:
Buy the book on Amazon: eBook | Audiobook | Print *
Amazon rating: 4.7 of 5 stars
Goodreads rating: 4.12 of 5 stars
Page count: 405 pages
Publication date: Feb. 28, 2012
Author website: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
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 There is widespread research reported elsewhere that the human brain comprises about 2% of body weight but consumes about 20% of daily calorie intake.