The Power of Habit

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The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and BusinessThe Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg
Published: 2012
Narrated by: Mike Chamberlain
Length: 10:57 (286 pages)

I was hesitant to pick this up, as I usually stay away from self-help books unless they really come highly recommended, but I’m glad I did. I bought this right at the beginning of January while going through a minor New Year New Me moment. As it turns out, this isn’t so much a self-help book as it is an exploration into how habits affect our day-to-day lives. It’s actually very reminiscent of a Mary Roach book, particularly in how the case studies are presented, but without most of the humour she usually adds.

This is full of interesting case studies – how Target started tracking customer purchases to create targeted advertising based on their habits, why the arrest of Rosa Parks struck a chord with the community in a way that previous arrests did not, how Febreze spray went from a failure to a success by studying and marketing to the habits of test customers, how the routines within Rhode Island Hospital lead to an unsafe and toxic work environment, as well as many others. I particularly enjoyed the chapters on Claude C. Hopkins, who was an early pioneer in American advertising and also slightly evil. The descriptions of his tactics and how he manipulated people in ways that changed marketing forever and essentially started the modern study of habits were fascinating.

As time goes on, I’m starting to understand that the answer to most of what bothers me in life is just mindfulness, and the forming and changing of habits is no exception. Duhigg wasn’t necessarily trying to provide self-help advice in this, but he does describe The Habit Loop to give some insight on how to identify your habits and work to change them. It feels self-evident, but it is useful to keep in mind.

Each habit is basically made of three parts: the cue, the routine, and the reward. It’s suggested that before someone even tries to change a routine, they first keep track of whenever they experience the cue. In an example from the book, a person who wanted to stop biting their nails was asked to put a mark in a notebook whenever the urge struck them for an entire week. They were still allowed to bite their nails if they wanted, but whether it was five times a day or forty-five, they had to mark it down. This accomplishes two things: it trains you to easily identify your habit’s cue, and the act of breaking the cycle temporarily to open the notebook apparently allows someone to better recall both the urge and the resulting feeling (the reward) when looking back.

Once the cue is understood, it’s time to analyse the reward. What are you getting out of the habit? If it’s snacking in the afternoon, is your satisfied hunger the reward? Is it that you got up from your desk and took a ten minute break, or that you chat to a co-worker for a few minutes in the break room? Once you understand the reward, you can use that information to replace the routine with something that gives the same reward – an already made healthy snack or maybe a fifteen minute walk outside. In the case of the nail-biting, even just something as simple as rubbing her hands together for quick physical stimulation was enough to help circumvent her previous routine.

It seems simple because it is. We are habit-based creatures, and the very act of being mindful of that can help control that in both ourselves and in others. This is how marketers work their magic on us. Toothpaste, for example, doesn’t naturally foam up while brushing, and nothing medicinal in it causes minty-fresh breath, but marketing teams know that they need identifiable results to solidify the routine.

This was an interesting read, more of a popular science or sociology book than anything, and I think it works well in that regard. Definitely recommended for anyone interested in how habits can support change in both a personal sense and in the workplace, but keep in mind there won’t be a magical guide here that will allow you to quit eating cake for dinner.

6 thoughts on “The Power of Habit

  1. Geoff W

    I agree completely! I picked up because I thought it was a fascinating title and knew it wasn’t really “self-help” but you could use it that way if you wanted. The case studies were definitely the most interesting part of it. I’m currently working my way through his new one Smarter Better Faster and it’s not quite as good. It’s full of the interesting case studies, but there’s not quite as much that can be taken away from it as there was in this one. That being said he presents such broad examples that I can really see what he’s trying to get across.

    1. Rob Post author

      At first I thought having so many examples to explain essentially the same point was too much, but they were interesting enough in their own context that I didn’t really mind actually. Not sure whether I’ll pick up Smarter Better Faster yet (this is the first I’ve heard of it actually), but it’s firmly in the maybe list.

  2. looloolooweez

    This seems like an interesting book. Marketing/advertising in particular is something that I find fascinating. When a store/website can predict that a person is pregnant before they even show it, and feeds them ads based on that, there’s obviously a lot of science going into that (and some ethical questions, of course).

    The breakdown of what makes a habit seems like a helpful concept. I’d always heard that “do a thing for X weeks and it become a habit” concept, but it never seemed to address the foundation of the issue — why a person develops habits in the first place.

    1. Rob Post author

      It really is interesting. He used that exact example actually, Target predicting a pregnancy. It’s pretty crazy.

      And yeah, I liked how he broke it down that way. I think having a general concept of how habits work makes it easier to see it in your own life, whereas trying to give more specific advise would leave the majority of people cold, since everyone’s different.

  3. Lady Disdain

    I’m not one for self-help books, either, but this does sound fascinating – especially the marketing and advertising part. I always love getting “insider information” about how corporations are manipulating us. Going on the toothpaste thing, apparently you only need about the amount of a green pea to brush, not that long caterpillar that sits on the length of the bristles like they tell us in the ads. Sneaky, sneaky.


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