Bodhi Book Summary: The Power of Habit

The Power of Habit

by Charles Duhigg

Summarized and Reviewed by Chris Wilcock

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The Brief Summary

In The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, the author Charles Duhigg explores the source of habits, their importance in our lives, the pitfalls of their existence, and some guidance on how to change them when desired.

Habits are deeply embedded in our brain and based on a basic cue-routine-reward loop designed to save the brain unneccessary effort to complete repetitive tasks. Breaking them is difficult, and establishing them can be rewarding when the outcome is positive.

By better understanding their source and impact, one can better design strategies to leverage them for good both personally and professionally, as well as identify their perils and preemptively address them.

The Long Summary


Key idea 1: Habits are simple cue-routine-reward loops that save effort.

Habits have evolved over time to allow the brain to save energy and perform common tasks efficiently. They are stored deep in the brain and are incredibly resilient, even to injuries affecting certain parts of the brain, making both good and bad habits easy to follow. Through a process of turning a sequence of actions into an automatic routine, known as “chunking,” your body begins to create a loop based on 3 components:

  1. An external cue.
  2. The routine is performed.
  3. A reward is received.

Pepsodent toothpaste is an early example of a practical application of habit building based on this loop. Upon first learning a habit, brain activity spikes, but over time the brain activity tends to dwindle while performing the habit.

Key idea 2: Habits stick because they create craving.

The effectiveness of habits are (in large part) based on rewards given and the anticipation of the reward when the brain is triggered by the cue. Studies have shown that even the anticipation of a reward based on a trigger results in increased brain activity similar to the activity experienced when actually receiving the reward. On the flip side, a negative feeling typically follows when the reward is diluted or withheld. These reactions can apply to both positive and negative habits (exercising vs. eating a cookie).

Key idea 3: To change a habit, substitute the routine for another and believe in the change.

Through a variety of studies on cigarette smoking and alcoholism, substituting a behavior as an alternative reward to those behaviors increases the likelihood of breaking a habit. Unfortunately substitution is not a sure-fire way in and of itself to kick a habit. Often people will revert to a habit during times of stress no matter how long a person has refrained from the habit, making relapse a very real risk. Another technique can be belief/spirituality which helps participants believe in the possibility of change for themselves and makes them more resilient during stressful times.

Key idea 4: Change can be achieved by focusing on keystone habits and achieving small wins.

Some habits (keystone habits) are more important than others in that they can have positive spillover effects on other areas. After taking over as CEO of Alcoa in 1987, Paul O'Neill instilled a focus on worker safety. Despite initial skepticism from investors, the approach paid off, resulting in a highly efficient and profitable operation. This concept is also seen in medicine where a single area of focus (such as keeping a food journal) can lead to a cascade of change, all starting with a small win which helped you believe that improvement is possible and easy to achieve.

Key idea 5: Willpower is the most important keystone habit.

Through numerous studies, including a famous 1960s Stanford study of children to test their willpower to resist eating marshmallows, willpower has been shown to be a keystone habit that spilled over into other areas of life and was related to success in those areas. The thing to remember about willpower is that it behaves like a muscle: it can be trained to improve and it tires in instances of tedious work. You can also develop techniques to improve willpower during times of stress just as Starbucks did when training its employees in the LATTE method: Listen to the customer, Acknowledge their complaint, Take action, Thank the customer, and, lastly, Explain why the issue occurred. 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.

Key idea 6: Organizational habits can be dangerous, but a crisis can change them.

Habits can be often be beneficial, but can on occasion be destructive. As a result of an overly-hierarchical organizational culture and siloed management that was over-protective of their responsibilities, a fire in a London underground station quickly escalated into a tragic event that claimed the lives of 31 people. A culture that discouraged change and taking personal responsibility even for problems outside your specific role created an environment where nobody knew how to respond or people were generally apathetic to the issue. In the end, tragedies such as this can be an agent of change and bring problems to light that need to be addressed.

Key idea 7: Companies take advantage of habits in their marketing.

Many of our subconscious habits have been identified and leveraged by companies to improve sales. With data analytics becoming increasingly sophisticated, companies are now able to identify your purchasing patterns (such as buying less healthy foods after your fruits & veggies), foot traffic tendencies (like turning right when entering a store) and how to place products to increase sales. Companies like Target pioneered this approach, even getting to the level of advertising maternity-related products before a baby is even born! To avoid the feeling of being spied on, companies have developed less intrusive methods to target their marketing.

Key idea 8: Movements are born from strong ties, peer pressure and new habits.

Through a combination of strong personal one-to-one relationships and a wider circle of acquaintances, a triggering event can leverage these ties to spread the word to others and create peer pressure to help turn the individual occurrence into a movement. Rosa Parks is a perfect example. She was an active community member with many relationships, both African American and white. It was these relationships that led to her being bailed out of jail and creating the spark for the bus boycott that lasted over a year. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech helped solidify the work that the local community had done into a movement for peace that was self-sustaining.

Key idea 9: We bear the responsibility for changing our habits.

Identifying we have a habit is a fundamental responsibility we have. In order to change a habit, you must first identify you have it and take steps to change it in the case where it's something bad. The author gives two examples, one where a man unknowingly strangled his wife during a night terror, and the other a casino patron with a gambling problem that was sued by a casino company to repay her debts. The first person was acquitted and the second lost her case. The knowledge of a habit played a large part in determining the difference in outcome.

Final Summary

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 something else for the routine 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.

Actionable advice: Make your bed every morning.

Not all habits are equal but some are more powerful than others. One such keystone habit that you can easily adopt is to start each day by making your bed. Research has shown that this can both increase your general well-being and boost your overall productivity.

Enjoyable to Read: 4 out of 5

Lots of stories makes it an easy read. Some of the stories could be told more succinctly.

Reviewer's Overall Rating: 4 out of 5

It's a core pillar of the program. We're all about changing habits through gradual improvement, the cue of putting on the band, etc.

Actionable Info: 4 out of 5

Many of the lessons center around small wins, willpower, leaning on a community for support, substitution to kick bad habits. We've already incorporated some into the program:

  • Small wins
  • Building a community
  • Substituting water for soda
  • Make your bed
  • Generally reflecting on your habits and owning them

Quality of the Ideas: 3 out of 5

Habits are simple cue-routine-reward loops that save effort.
Habits stick because they create craving.
To change a habit, substitute the routine for another and believe in the change.
Change can be achieved by focusing on keystone habits and achieving small wins.
Willpower is the most important keystone habit.
Organizational habits can be dangerous, but a crisis can change them.
Companies take advantage of habits in their marketing.
Movements are born from strong ties, peer pressure and new habits.
We bear the responsibility for changing our habits.



Quotability: 3 out of 5

“Change might not be fast and it isn't always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped.”
“The Golden Rule of Habit Change: You can't extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it.”
“Champions don’t do extraordinary things. They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they’ve learned.”
“This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be.”





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