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The Power of Habit – Book Summary

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg - Book Summary
by The Blinkist Team | Aug 29 2022

“Once you read this book, you’ll never look at your world in quite the same way.” —Daniel H. Pink, New York Times bestselling author.

Who should read this book?

  • Anyone wanting to start a good habit like regular exercise, or kick a bad habit like fast food
  • Anyone interested in how our tendency to form habits is manipulated by companies
  • Anyone who wants to implement new routines in their organizations

What is it about?

The Power of Habit (2012) explains how important a role habits play in our lives, from brushing our teeth to smoking to exercising, and how exactly those habits are formed. The research and anecdotes in The Power of Habit provide easy tips for changing habits both individually as well as in organizations.

Who is the author?

Charles Duhigg is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated investigative reporter who writes for the New York Times. He has won numerous awards for his work and has appeared on TV shows such as Frontline and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

Habits are simple cue-routine-reward loops that save effort and endure.

Our brains are constantly looking for ways to save energy. Research shows that one way they do this is by turning activities into habits.

Hence, even a complicated act that demands concentration at first, like backing out of the driveway, eventually becomes an effortless habit. Research has indicated that as many as 40 percent of the actions you perform each day are based on habit and not on conscious decisions.

In general, any habit can be broken down into a three-part loop:

First, you sense an external cue, say, your alarm clock ringing. This creates an overall spike in your brain activity as your brain decides which habit is appropriate for the situation.

Next comes the routine, meaning the activity you’re used to performing when faced with this particular cue. You march into the bathroom and brush your teeth with your brain virtually on autopilot.

Finally, you get a reward: a feeling of success and, in this case, a minty-fresh tingling sensation in your mouth. Your overall brain activity increases again as your brain registers the successful completion of the activity and reinforces the link between the cue and routine.

Habits are incredibly resilient: in some cases, people with extensive brain damage who could not even remember where they lived could still adhere to their old habits and pick up new ones. This is because learning and maintaining habits happens in the basal ganglia, a part of your brain that can function normally even if the rest of your brain is damaged.

Unfortunately, this resilience means that even if you kick a bad habit, like smoking, you will always be at risk of relapsing.

Research estimates that as much as 40 percent of the things you do each day are based on habit, not conscious decisions.

Habits stick because they create craving.

Imagine this scenario: every afternoon for the past year, you’ve bought and eaten a delicious, sugar-laden chocolate-chip cookie from the cafeteria at your workplace. Call it a just reward for a hard day’s work.

Unfortunately, as a few friends have already pointed out, you’ve started putting on weight, so you decide to kick the habit. But how do you imagine you’ll feel that first afternoon, walking past the cafeteria? Odds are, you will either eat “just one more cookie” or you’ll go home in a distinctly grumpy mood.

Kicking a bad habit is hard because you develop a craving for the reward at the end of the habit loop. Studies on animals have shown that once they become used to a simple cue-routine-reward habit, their brains begin anticipating the reward even before they get it. And once they anticipate it, denying them the actual reward makes them frustrated and mopey. This is the neurological basis of craving.

Craving works for good habits as well. Research indicates that people who manage to exercise habitually crave something from the exercise, be it the endorphin rush in their brain, the sense of accomplishment or the treat they allow themselves afterward. This craving is what solidifies the habit; cues and rewards alone are not enough.

Companies and advertisers work hard to understand and create such cravings in consumers. Consider Claude Hopkins, the man who popularized Pepsodent toothpaste when countless other toothpastes had failed. He provided a reward that created craving: namely, the cool, tingling sensation that today is a staple of all toothpastes. That sensation not only “proved” that the product worked in consumers’ minds; it also became a tangible reward that they began to crave.

To change a habit, substitute the routine for another and believe in the change.

Ask any smoker looking to quit: when the craving for nicotine hits, it’s hard to ignore. Hence, the trick is to still respond to the craving, but with something other than smoking.

This is the golden rule of changing any habit: don’t resist craving, redirect it. Keep the same cues and rewards, but change the routine that occurs as a result of that craving.

Research indicates that one of the best-known habit-changing organizations in the world uses this method to great effectiveness. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) may have helped as many as ten million alcoholics achieve sobriety.

AA asks participants to list what exactly they crave from drinking. Usually, factors like relaxation and companionship are far more important than the actual intoxication. AA then provides new routines that address those cravings, such as going to meetings and talking to sponsors for companionship, effectively substituting drinking with something less harmful. 

Though this works well in general, stressful circumstances can cause relapses. For example, one recovering alcoholic had been sober for years when his mother called to say she had cancer. After hanging up, he left work and went directly to a bar, and then, in his own words, was “pretty much drunk for the next two years.”

Research indicates that the differentiating component between relapses and continued sobriety is belief. Spirituality and God feature prominently in AA philosophy, but it’s not necessarily the religious component itself that helps people stay sober. Believing in God helps participants to also believe in the possibility of change for themselves, which makes them stronger in the face of stressful life events.

Change can be achieved by focusing on keystone habits and achieving small wins.

When former government bureaucrat Paul O’Neill became the CEO of the ailing aluminum company Alcoa, investors were skeptical. Their apprehension was not helped by the fact that rather than talking about profits and revenues, O’Neill declared that his number-one priority was workplace safety. One investor immediately called his clients to say, “The board put a crazy hippie in charge and he’s going to kill the company.”

But this was grossly inaccurate, as O’Neill turned Alcoa around, increasing its annual income by a factor of five. He understood that habits also exist in organizations and that, if he wanted to change Alcoa’s fate, he needed to change its habits.

But not all habits are equal. Some habits, known as keystone habits, are more important than others, because adhering to them creates positive effects that spill over into other areas. For instance, research indicates that doctors have a hard time getting obese people to make a broad change in their lifestyle, but when patients focus on developing one keystone habit, such as keeping a meticulous food journal, other positive habits start to take root as well.

By insisting that worker safety come first, O’Neill forced managers and employees to think about how the manufacturing process could be safer and how those suggestions could best be communicated to everyone. The end result was a highly streamlined, and hence profitable, production organization.

The reason a keystone habit works is that it provides small wins, meaning early successes that are fairly easy to attain. Achieving the keystone habit helps you believe that change in other spheres of life is possible, too, starting a cascade of positive changes. 

Willpower is the most important keystone habit.

A famous Stanford University study showed that four-year-olds with more willpower (as demonstrated by their ability to resist the temptation of a tasty marshmallow) went on to do far better in life academically and socially than their less determined peers.

Willpower, it seemed, was a keystone habit that could be applied to other parts of life, too. Further research revealed that willpower is in fact a skill that can be learned.

But why then is our willpower so inconsistent? Some days hitting the gym is no problem, whereas, on others, leaving the sofa is nigh impossible.

It turns out, willpower is actually like a muscle: it can tire. If you exhaust it concentrating on, say, a tedious spreadsheet at work, you might have no willpower left when you get home. But the analogy goes even further: by engaging in habits that demand resolution – say, adhering to a strict diet – you can actually strengthen your willpower. A willpower workout, if you will.

But other factors can also affect your willpower. For example, Starbucks found that on most days, all of its employees had the willpower to smile and be cheerful, regardless of how they felt. But when things became stressful – for example, when a customer began screaming – they would lose their cool. Based on research, executives determined that if baristas mentally prepared for unpleasant situations and planned out how to overcome them, they could muster enough willpower to follow the plan even when under pressure.

Other studies have shown that a lack of autonomy also adversely affects willpower. If people do something because they are ordered to rather than by choice, their willpower muscle will get tired much quicker.

Work your willpower muscle in advance when you plan a routine for dealing with stressful situations.

Remember this example: Starbucks executives determined that if baristas mentally prepared for unpleasant situations and planned how to overcome them, they could muster enough willpower to follow the plan even when under pressure.

Organizational habits can be dangerous, but a crisis can change them.

Research shows that many organizations are driven by the unofficial organizational habits that have emerged amid employees over time, rather than any deliberate decision-making processes.

Consider the London Underground in 1987. Responsibilities in running the underground were divided into several clear-cut areas, and, as a result, staff formed an organizational habit of not overstepping their departmental bounds. In fact, attempts to do so were met with scorn.

Under the surface, most organizations are like this: battlegrounds in which individuals clamor for power and rewards. Habits such as minding one’s own business form as ways to keep the peace.

Unfortunately, some habits are dangerous. In 1987, at the King’s Cross underground station, a ticket collector saw signs of a fire but didn’t raise the alarm. It wasn’t his responsibility. The fire escalated, but no one present knew how to use the sprinkler system or had the authority to use the fire extinguishers. 

They were someone else’s responsibility.

Within minutes, a huge fireball erupted into the ticket hall. Rescuers described passengers so badly burned their skin came off when touched. In the end, 31 people died. 

But even such tragedies can have a silver lining: crises offer a unique chance to remake organizational habits by providing a sense of emergency. This is why good leaders often actively prolong the sense of crisis or even exacerbate it.

In investigating the fire, Desmond Fennel found that many potentially life-saving changes had been proposed years earlier, but none had been implemented. When Fennel encountered resistance to his suggestions, too, he turned the whole investigation into a media circus – a crisis that allowed him to implement the changes. Today, every station has a manager whose main responsibility is passenger safety. 

Companies take advantage of habits in their marketing.

Retailers have long known more about the habits of shoppers than shoppers themselves do. Retailers trawl through masses of data on customer behavior and then adapt their operations to maximize sales. For example, here’s a surprising fact: most people instinctively turn right when entering a store; therefore, retailers put their most profitable products on the right side of the entrance.

One of the masters of this method is Target, the American retailer that serves millions of shoppers annually and collects terabytes of data on them. Their data analysis became so sophisticated they could even tell when customers were pregnant and predict their due date because their shopping patterns changed and they started buying things like prenatal vitamins. By sending them baby-related coupons, Target could effectively lure them into their stores. 

The analysis worked so well that Target actually knew a teenage girl was pregnant before she had told her family. Target sent her baby-related coupons, prompting her father to pay the local Target manager an angry visit: “She’s still in high school… Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?!” When the truth came out, it was the abashed father’s turn to apologize.

But Target soon realized that people resented being spied on. For its baby coupons to work, it needed to bury them amid random unrelated offers for things like lawnmowers; the offers had to seem like the familiar, untargeted ones.

When trying to sell anything new, companies will dress it up in something familiar; for example, radio DJs can guarantee a new song becomes popular by playing it sandwiched between two existing hit songs. This way, new habits or products are far more likely to be accepted. 

Movements are born from strong ties, peer pressure and new habits.

In 1955, a black woman named Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat for a white man in Montgomery, Alabama. She was arrested and charged, and the events that followed made her a civil rights icon.

Interestingly, her case was neither unique nor the first. Many others had already been arrested for the same reason. So why did Parks’s arrest spark a bus boycott that lasted over a year?

First of all, Rosa Parks was especially well liked in the community and had an unusually broad array of friends. She belonged to many clubs and societies, and was closely connected to all kinds of people, from professors to field hands. These strong ties bailed her out of jail and rapidly spread the word of her arrest throughout Montgomery’s social strata, organizing the bus boycott as a way of protest. But her friends alone could not have sustained a lengthy boycott.

Enter peer pressure. In addition to strong ties, social spheres also comprise weak ties, meaning acquaintances rather than friends. It is mostly via weak ties that peer pressure is exerted. When a person’s friends and acquaintances support a movement, it is hard to opt out.

Eventually, commitment to the boycott began waning in the black community, as city officials began introducing new carpooling rules to make life without buses increasingly difficult. This is when the final component was added: a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King advocating non-violence and asking participants to embrace and forgive their oppressors. Based on this message, people began to form new habits, such as independently organizing church meetings and peaceful protests. They made the movement a self-propelling force.

We bear the responsibility for changing our habits.

One night in 2008, Brian Thomas strangled his wife to death. Distraught, he promptly turned himself in and was prosecuted for murder. His defense? He was experiencing a sleep terror, like physically acting out a nightmare: Thomas thought he was strangling a burglar who was attacking his wife. 

In court, the defense argued that when Thomas thought someone was hurting his wife, it triggered an automatic response, in this case to protect her. In other words, he followed a habit. 

Around the same time, Angie Bachman was sued by the casino company Harrah’s for half a million dollars in outstanding gambling debts. This was after she had already gambled away her home and million-dollar inheritance.

In court, Bachman argued that she too was merely following a habit: gambling felt good, so when Harrah’s sent her tempting offers for free trips to the casino, she could not resist. Note that Harrah’s knew she was a compulsive gambler who had already declared bankruptcy.

In the end, Thomas was acquitted and many, including the trial judge, expressed great sympathy for him. Bachman, on the other hand, lost the case, and was the object of considerable public scorn.

Both Thomas and Bachman could quite plausibly claim: “It wasn’t me, it was my habits!” So why was only one acquitted?

Quite simply, once we become aware of a harmful habit, it becomes our responsibility to address and change it. Thomas didn’t know he would hurt anyone in his sleep. Bachman, however, knew she had a gambling habit, and could have avoided Harrah’s offers by participating in an exclusion program that would’ve prohibited gambling companies from marketing to her.

So how can I change a bad habit?

To help you change your habits, the author shares an example from his own life: he was in the habit of purchasing an unhealthy cookie each day in the mid-afternoon and chatting with his colleagues in the cafeteria. He wanted to change and decided to analyze the cue-routine-reward loop underlying this habit.

He realized that the underlying craving he had was a need to socialize, not for a cookie at all. He then set out to scrutinize his behavior shortly before the routine happened, in hopes of finding his cue: where was he? What time was it? What was his emotional state? What other people were around? What was the immediately preceding action? Over the course of a few days he realized that the time of day – mid-afternoon – was his cue.

Now that he could name the components of his own habit loop (cue, routine, reward), he came up with a plan to substitute the trip to the cafeteria with a new routine: a 10-min stop at a colleague’s desk, so he could get his mid-afternoon social fix without the unhealthy cookie!

By dissecting your habits in this way, changing habits can in fact be quite straight-forward.

Final Summary

The key message in this book:

Following habits is not only a key part of our lives but also a key part of organizations and companies. All habits comprise a cue-routine-reward loop, and the easiest way to change this is to substitute the routine with something else while keeping the cue and reward the same. Achieving lasting change in life is difficult, but it can be done by focusing on important keystone habits such as willpower.


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