“The Power Of Habit” by Charles Duhigg

There are two books that so far was the most psychologically impactful on me from non-fictional literature – “Mindset” by Carol Dweck and “The Power Of Habit” by Charles Duhigg. These reads are especially valuable because of the practicality of their suggestions and the vast number of examples of how the principles two authors are talking about applying in a life of an individual, an organization, and a society.

Habit Loop

Did you ever wonder why the first thing that you do after you get up in the morning is to brush your teeth and then to have breakfast and not on reverse? This is because your habits take over. As William James wrote, “All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits”. And it is indeed.

Why do we need habits? They are a way for our brain to protect itself from overworking. As Duhigg mentions, when habits become automatic, they decrease the mental activity that we require to perform a certain task and the decision-making centers of the brain are not active anymore. This helps the brain to preserve its focus for other more important activities that require mental effort but also explains why it is so hard to change your habits. Once they start, they become automatic and you do not consciously think about them. To quote Duhigg:

When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit, the pattern will unfold automatically.

What parts does a habit consist of? There are three crucial components:

  1. A cue –  a hint that a brain looks for to decide which patterns it is going to use and puts your brain in the automatic mode.
  2. Routine – an action that you perform to get a reward.
  3. Reward – “something that helps you to figure out that this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.
The Habit Loop

To put a theory into practice, let’s imagine a student Anne who is overweight and eats a lot of sweets every day. If we try to apply a habit loop to her, it might look something like this:

  1. Anne has anxiety when she has a presentation in class and needs to speak in front of a group of people. Her cue, in this case, will be anxiety she experiences.
  2. One time, before a presentation, when she was feeling anxious, she ate a cake and it made her feel better. Here, eating a cake will be a routine that eventually became automatic every time Anne felt that anxiety to speak in front of a public.
  3. Eating a cake made Anne feel better and this is her reward. Once, she got into a habit, it became automatic and getting a cake every time when she felt anxious caused Anne to gain weight.

Although habits are great tools for our brains to save mental effort; the problem is that our brain cannot differentiate good and bad habits so unless we are aware of them, we are stuck in a habit loop.

Habits In Business

Have you ever wondered why you brush your teeth every morning or use a shampoo to wash your hair? And when the shampoo does not foam, you think that it is not working?

This is because our habits are in play again. Marketers are often using habits and rewards (in many cases physical sensations) to sell a product. In fact, a shampoo does not need to foam to make your hair clean as well as toothpaste does not need to give you a feeling of sort of itching on your tongue after you have finished brushing your teeth. Foam and the sensation that toothpaste gives you on your tongue have nothing to do with clean hear or teeth. They create a craving and the craving makes a product to be sold. We buy a specific product not only as a reward for clean teeth but also because we are craving that sensation of freshness caused by the tongue itching and it is as much of a reward to us as clean teeth. So once we are out of our usually used brand of toothpaste, we get it again to satisfy a craving for freshness in our mouth.

In fact, this is how Febreze (a product that you can spray to get a nice smell in your house) was sold – the marketers created a craving for a specific reward. Once any housewife cleans, she would usually like to have a nice touch at the end such as nice smell. And here comes Febreze – the nice smell that feels as a reward for cleaning a house.

Habits In Companies

As Duhigg mentions, “firms are guided by long-held organizational habits, patterns that often emerge from thousands of employees’ independent decisions”.

How can a company’s habits be changed? There are always a few habits in a company by targeting which you can cause a chain reaction to make other habits change as well – these are called “keystone habits”. As Duhigg says, “success [of changing a habit] does not depend on getting every single thing right, but instead relies on identifying a few key priorities and fashioning them into powerful levers”. Keystone habits are “small wins” that help to create new cultures within organizations and bring in new habits.

As an example, Duhigg mentions the company called Alcoa (related to metal production) that had a high lever of worker’s injuries at a workplace. Once a CEO of a company identified a keystone habit to change – workers’ safety – all other habits in the company started to change as well: how managers communicated with workers, how ideas were welcomed and spread in a company and many others. After a few years, Alcoa became one of the safest companies in America in terms of workplace safety.

Habits In Societies

For the habits in societies to change, Duhigg identifies three main steps:

  1. A new movement would usually require habits of friendship and strong ties between close friends.
  2. A movement would spread because of habits in a community and weak ties (“a friend of a friend”) that hold these communities together.
  3. A movement continues because movement members adopt new habits which create a new sense of identity.

As an example, the author mentions the Montgomery Bus Boycott when Rosa Parks (Afro-American woman) was arrested for not giving a place to a caucasian person. Since she was deeply involved in her community, she had a lot of close friends who started the bus boycott. Then, under peer pressure (weak ties), the movement spread further and if you were an African American, you were expected to be a part of a boycott. When Martin Luther King took over movement, he gave its participants new habits – responding to hate with love.

That Is All Good, But Why Does It Matter To Me?

The most important thing is that if you can see how habits work and you can identify your rewards and cues that trigger a habit, you can *change* them.

Habits actually cannot be eliminated completely, but they can be turned into good habits by changing a routine in a habit loop. There a few steps Duhigg recommends:

  1. Identify a cue
  2. Replace a routine
  3. Experiment with rewards and why you are craving them
  4. Have a plan

As for me, I have noticed that I have a habit of looking over Instagram while I am having lunch and I know that’s a habit that I would like to change. Bu using the steps Duhigg suggests, I am arriving at the following:

  1. My cue is a start of my lunch when I am with my plate on the table
  2. My routine is looking at Instagram feed while I am having lunch and I know that it does not give me anything useful and I am losing approximately 20 minutes of my lunch time
  3. I think that my reward is getting in touch with friends and looking at their feeds makes me feel like I am not alone at my lunch – I am feeling both bored and lonely and having Instagram at my fingertips gives me a sense of company
  4. Once I have identified my reward and routine –  I will try to experiment with them. Since I am craving a sense of company and a way to change my mind, instead of looking at Instagram, I will try to take a walk with my dog right when my lunchtime starts. To give myself some structure, I will set up an alarm on my phone to notify me when it is time to go.

Do you have any habits that you would like to change? If so, Charles Duhigg has a lot of interesting insights into it and you should give it a try. It is worth it!




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