Book Cover
  • 22nd August 2018

Charles Duhigg`s The Power Of Habit {Book Review}

Book Cover

When I learned about habits under Professor BJ Fogg from Stanford University, I realised that to become better at behaviour psychology, and in particular, in habit formation, I needed to read every piece of relevant literature that I could get my hands on.

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhig was the one I started with.  When you want to learn about habits, this book is a good starting point.

The books simplicity and its case studies are really perfect to learn about behaviour.  No psychology background needed.

Excellence is an art won by training and habituation.  We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly.  We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.  Aristotle

We are what we repeatedly do.  This quote really hits the nail on the head.  When you want to achieve any dream in your life, or want to change yourself, or design for a life according to your true values, you start with you.  With your habits.

A couple of years ago, I made a decision to change my life for the better, but where do you start?  When you are getting the same undesired result over and over, what do you change?

I believe you start with your habits.

What Is Charles Duhiggs The Power Of Habit About?

In The Power of Habit, Charles examines why some people and companies struggle to change despite years of trying, while others seem to remake themselves overnight.  This book depicts Charles’ exploratory journey of discovering habit formation in individuals, companies, and societies.

He visits laboratories where neuroscientists explore how habits work, and wherein our brain they reside.  He writes about the right habits that were crucial for Michael Phelps to become the best swimmer in history.

The book has three chapters.

In the first chapter, he explains with numerous impressive case studies how habits work in individuals, and how we can form new habits and break undesired behaviours.

In the second part, he dissects the habits of successful organisations.  This part is highly entertaining if you are into big business.  He deconstructs what habits big managers implant in companies, such as Us Steel or Ford, that separated them from their competitors.

In the third part of the book, he talks about how habits can change entire societies and cultures and discusses if free will exists at all if we are all controlled by the automated habits that we do each day.

What Are Habits?

What was the first thing you did this morning after you got up?  Did you check your phone?  Did you hop in the shower, checked your mail?  Did you grab a banana or a doughnut from your kitchen table?  Before you left your house to go to your work or university, did you brush your teeth before you took a shower or after?  What was the route you took to your destination?  When you arrived at your desk, did you first chat with your co-worker?  Did you recheck your phone?  Are you eating a kebab for lunch or a salad?  When you get home, where did you put your jacket?  What did you do with your shoes?  Did you hit the light switch with your left or your right hand?  Did you walk straight to your fridge or to your couch?  Where did you put your keys?  Back into your pocket or on a shelf?

When you took a dump, did you have to think a lot about what to do next?  No, right?  You automatically reach for the toilet paper, and after you go to the sink, you do not have to think about washing your hands, it is automatic.  Ingrained in you, or as I prefer to say; you act out of habit.

All of the behaviour above are done without a lot of thought.  They are habits.  According to a study in 2006, researchers at Duke University found out that more than 40% of the behaviour we perform each day, is not actually as a result of us deciding consciously, but of habit.(1)

This means that almost half of our life is lived on autopilot.  Crazy right!

It seems that habits emerge because the brain is continually looking for ways to save effort.  Think of your brain like a lazy bastard.  It wants to save as much effort as possible, so we have more energy for important tasks.

Our character is basically a composite of our habits.  Because they often consistent, often unconscious patterns, they constantly, daily express our character“.  Stephan Covey

Habits are the routines and behaviours that we do automatically.  We actually need habits to carry out necessary activities such as brushing our teeth, washing our hands after peeing, getting dressed for university, or following the same route to work every day without having to think about it.

This fantastic feature allows us to focus on more complex and vital tasks, such as deciding consciously, where your next vacation is going to be!

Your brain has only limited ram, so, it has to save memory as much as it can pretty much like your phone.

I believe that we humans are basically habit machines.

Think of your brain as a smartphone.  Habits are the apps on your phone.  Think of the possibilities of a smartphone for a second.

Person A uses their smartphone to play candy crush, flappy bird, and Facebook, or binge on Netflix or YouTube.

Person B uses downloaded Evernote, Duolingo, Trello, and Telegram, and uses their smartphone to thrive.

Both phones are capable of the same feats, but the first person installed lousy software on their brains, and Person B has chosen its brain programmes a bit wiser.  Their results, however, are like day and night.

I believe that mastering the essential mechanisms of behavioural psychology and habit formation, allows you to download brain software and delete bad habit apps from your brain.

I believe that there are only two kinds of habits: Positive Habits and Negative Habits.  A negative habit, for me, is a reoccurring behaviour that is not aligning with your true values and is keeping you from living according to your desired life design.  A typical example would be smoking.

Therefore, it is essential to learn how to form positive habits and to learn how to break bad habits and replace them with positive habits.

Mastering habit formation is really a superpower, in my opinion, and it gives you the freedom to decide who you really want to be.

Who is Charles Duhigg?

Charles Duhigg is a reporter for the New York Times and for the magazine.  Charles is a graduate of Harvard Business School and Yale University.  Before becoming a journalist, Charles worked in private equity.

Charles is the author of The Power of Habit, which is about habit formation in individuals, companies, and societies, and Smarter Faster Better, about the science of productivity.

He won a Pulitzer and contributed to other award-winning series such as Golden Opportunities, The Reckoning, and Toxic Waters.

Who Recommended It?

Among many others, Jim Collins, and various big magazines.

Few [books] become essential manuals for business and living.

The Power of Habit is an exception.

Charles Duhigg not only explains how habits are formed but how to kick bad ones and hang on to the good”.Financial Times

4 Important Concepts In The Power Of Habit

1) The Habit Loop

Charles created a formula for how behaviour works that is actually pretty simple and easy to understand.

Any behaviour, habit, or routine can be analysed in three parts according to Duhigg: the Reminder, the Routine, and the Reward.

The reminder is also often known as the cue or trigger.  The cue acts as the signal, it triggers the automated routine, which leads to a reward.  So, the process of forming new habits is a three-step loop:

  1. Reminder – a trigger that signals your brain to go into automatic mode, and which habit it has to use.
  2. Routine – this is the actual behaviour; it can be physical or mental. If you do something, there was a trigger beforehand.
  3. Reward – that is the thing that you get from doing the habit. Your brain needs rewards to figure out what behaviour and what loops are worth remembering for the future.

Example: you check your social media feed while you are studying.

Story from me: I used to procrastinate a lot while studying.

Let us say I had a seminar about statistics, something which to this day bores the heck out of me.  As soon as I saw my professor, I yawned.  The Statistic Professor was my cue.  As soon as he would turn around, I would get out my phone and start checking my Facebook or Instagram.  This was the routine/behaviour.  The reward was that I got distracted and that I had some little spike of dopamine in my brain from hearing a funny stupid joke from my friends.  Also, for me, statistics was pain.  Getting a temporary stop from pain is the same as getting a reward.

I was satisfying my short-term gratification.  This, of course, did not help me in the long term at all because statistics gets infinitely more boring and more painful if you suck at it.  So, this small habit of procrastinating contributed to me falling more and more behind.

So, although a habit has a reward that protects you temporarily, it often hurts you in the long term.  This is how you can often detect bad habits.  A recurring behaviour that is good for you in the short term, but has tremendously negative consequences for you in the long term.

Again, for me, a bad habit is a habit that temporarily gives you something, but is hurting you in a crazy way long term.  Smoking gives you stress reduction, but also cancer.  So that is a bad habit cost equation.

2. The Golden Rule Of Habit Change

Now that you know how habits are formed, how can you change them?!

We have all failed at changing or forming new habits.  Maybe you made some new year’s resolutions about changing your weight, or that you want to stop smoking, or finally learn a new language.

But where do you start?

The good news is that habit formation is a skill, and Charles Duhigg and many others have found great ways to break this down for us normal people.

In the Power of Habit, Charles presents a very simple model that aims at habit substitution.

The core of the idea of habit substitution, or habit swapping, is that you look for different ways to get the same emotional reward.  For example, you are triggered to have a smoke because you crave the reward of stress reduction.  Now, instead of putting a cancer stick in your mouth, you do a breathing exercise or meditate to reduce your stress.

The idea is that you become creative and find better ways to satisfy your needs.

3) Habits Are Formed Through Emotions

Our behaviour is motivated by emotional rewards.  When you look at the habit loop, it is powered by the reward.  All we do in life is to either avoid pain or to seek pleasure.
To change your habits, it is key that you understand the return of a behaviour.  Each behaviour is motivated by the return, reward, or the positive emotion at the end of the habit loop.

We can use this knowledge to form new habits and get rid of the old ones.  If you want to make a new habit stick, let us say a workout routine in the morning, you must pair it with a positive emotion.  Loving what you do enables you to trick your brain into craving that behaviour.

Habits are really formed through positive reinforcement.  Where humans excel, in my opinion, is that we all are constantly learning whether we like this or not.  Everything that is rewarded is repeated.  We are hard-wired to repeat everything that gives us pleasure and avoid anything that gives us discomfort and pain.  Everything we do is really to get a certain emotion.

I believe that everything we desire, actions, things, other humans, trips, acknowledgements, and goals all have in common that we really do not seek the subject itself, but the emotion behind it.  We do not want to get rich; we believe that we feel amazing when we will be rich, we do not crave money, but the promised emotion behind money.

Taking control of this process will put you in charge.  If you want to form a new behaviour, you link massive pleasure to that behaviour or subject.  People who are successful in forming the right kind of habits are very aware of this process.

If you immediately reinforce a behaviour, you are more likely to repeat it because your brain will want to re-experience that pleasureful emotion.

The same goes for the opposite emotion: pain.

If we link strong discomfort, and pain to a behaviour, we are hard-wired not to repeat that behaviour.

If you loved sushi for years, but you ate bad sushi once, and you got severe food poisoning, you may very well never have fun with sushi again.

Ever had such a bad hangover from an alcoholic beverage that just the smell of it gives you the shivers?  For me, it is tequila.  It gives me the shivers to just write about.  I accidentally conditioned myself that when I drink tequila, bad stuff happens.

What I am saying is that we humans can learn extremely fast.

What I Learned From The Power Of Habit

I love the simplicity of Charles Duhiggs, The Power of Habit.  The thing that I internalised the most was that there is a rewarding emotion behind every habit.

And bad habits, in particular, are a treasure trove of information about our true needs.  I looked at some of my bad habits and evaluated very honestly why this behaviour was important to me, and why I  had trouble just stopping that habit.

For years I had trouble getting out of bed in the morning.  I eventually just thought that I am not a morning person, but then I started to deconstruct this habit.

What was this habit giving me?  It turned out that I was not happy during that time, and I linked pain to the job that I had during.  So, having a delay of 20 minutes was my emotional reward.

To hack this, I substituted the habit of snoozing with meditation.  It also gave me a buffer of 20 minutes, but it made me happier at the same time.  It shifted the focus to me and made me realise that the shitty job that I had at that time was giving me the money to go after my dream and travel to South America.

This helped me to link less pain in getting up, and snoozing was less attractive to me.

So, if you have bad habits in your life, like smoking, drinking, distracting yourself, or procrastinating, ask yourself if there is a less harmful way to give yourself the reward.

Understanding why we do things gives us the means to alter the course of our behaviour, and I believe that changing our behaviour will put us in a place of power.  The power to decide what person we want to be, and with it, the power to decide what life we want to have.

This, to me, is the Power of Habit.

What Did I Not Like?

In The Power of Habit, Charles does a poor job of emphasising that it is an emotion that powers the habit loop, not rewards.  Rewards make it sound like the bonus at the end of a working year is motivating behaviour.  Again, it is an immediate reinforcement that makes us learn new behaviour.

I had the privilege to study habits under Professor BJ Fogg from Stanford University, who is the world-leading expert in habit formation, and this was one of the biggest differences between their two psychological philosophies.

But, I think The Power of Habit does a great job at explaining behaviour psychology for people who are not familiar with the topic.

And, the best model, in my opinion, is the model that people understand.



Call to Action

Here is some homework for you.
  1. Deconstruct one of your habits and draw a habit loop for it.
  2. Do the same for a bad habit of yours.
  3. Now think of a different behaviour that will get the same reward, but healthier.
  4. Ask yourself, what habits do you need to develop over the course of the next three months to achieve your dream goal

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