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The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business by Charles Duhigg

February 9, 2013


This is yet another pop sociology/neuroscience/psychology book (á la Outliers, The Hidden Brain, How We Decide) that explains why we make the decisions we do and how those decisions lead to success for some people (and companies) and failure for others. I don’t mean “yet another” with an eyeroll—I keep reading these books (I’m currently reading The Talent Code and just ordered How to Create a Mind) so I obviously enjoy them. The case studies are usually interesting, but I’ve found diminishing returns in the why of each book. They tend to be similar in that they’re all basically about human behavior, but different enough (usually based in some new neuroscience) to warrant a new book.

As the title suggests, this book focuses on how we form habits and how we break them. The behavior we colloquially call a “habit,” according to researchers at MIT, is actually a series of actions that take place in our brain, called a “habit loop.” This loop consists of a cue (the trigger for the craving—e.g. it’s 3:30 in the afternoon) a routine (the behavior itself—e.g. I walk to 7/11 and get a donut) and a reward (the good feeling I get—e.g. the sweet taste of the frosting). The key to modifying habits is to identify not just the routine, but the cue and reward as well. Then one can work on attacking each to change the loop. In the donut example, by recognizing that a certain time of day triggers my habit loop, I might keep a banana at my desk for 3:30, or I might schedule a meeting at 3:30. Or I might attack the routine/reward part of the loop by simply getting up and taking a walk—the fresh air and exercise being the new reward.

It can still be very difficult to modify habits, but by breaking them down into their components, one can devise creative solutions for satisfying the loop in different, less harmful ways. Likewise, one can use the loop to create new, good habits. Duhigg tells the story of Michael Phelps and how he established his training routines very early in life, eventually leading to a remarkable feat when Phelps broke a world record essentially blind—his goggles had fogged up so much that he had to rely on his habit-honed instinct to hit his final turn.

The dissection of habits is the most interesting part of the book. After that, Duhigg begins to apply the thinking to various personal and business scenarios—everything from Alcoholics Anonymous to Starbucks training, Zappos corporate culture, a mega-church in Southern California and Target’s couponing strategy. The cases are mostly interesting, but as with most anecdotes in this type of book, they have the feel of a story that wraps up a little too neatly to support the point being made. I’ve read the Febreze story at least four times in support of four different theories of why we act the way we do. It’s not that it has nothing to do with habit, it’s just that human behavior is complex. And some of the cases do seem like a stretch. I’ll buy that the turnaround of Alcoa in the ’90s was partly the result of Paul O’Neill’s focus on safety habits, but the link of habit to the Montgomery Bus Boycott is tenuous at best. Again, interesting stories, but they feel tangential, perhaps an answer to “how do I turn this article into a book?” But overall, a decent read.

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