The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

The Power of Habit is a compelling treatise on habits: how they arise and take over our lives, and how successful individuals, business executives and societal leaders have transformed themselves, their companies, and societies by reforming destructive habits. Duhigg combines numerous stories to present a central theme; a style popularized in recent times by Malcolm Gladwell. The case studies included are as varied as:

  • How Target tracks our purchasing habits and manipulates us to buy more, more, more…
  • Why Rosa Parks’ arrest kick-started the civil resistance movement that officially ended segregation when similar arrests of other black women did nothing
  • How Americans became obsessed with brushing their teeth
  • How Febreze became a thing
  • The mental habits that made Michael Phelps the swimming legend that he is
  • How the new CEO of Alcoa completely transformed the company by focusing on just one metric: worker safety.

The best bits

The sections I found the most useful were about:

  1. Keystone Habits: Keystone habits are small changes or habits that people introduce in their routines that unintentionally carry over into other aspects of their lives. Something as minor as making your bed every morning and committing to exercising regularly can completely change how you approach life. I know this firsthand – when I started eating healthy, I became more responsible in other areas of my life as well.
  2. The need to deliberately plan ahead about how to respond to challenging situations. We give up on good habits when things gets painful or stressful. Duhigg refers to these painful moments as inflection points. Identifying probable inflection points in advance and creating a strategy to work around them is key to developing and maintaining good habits. Duhigg gives an example of Starbucks: Starbucks employees are trained to keep their cool when dealing with screaming/rude customers by planning out and practicing their response in advance.  
  3. The importance of belief: Habit reformation is impossible without true belief in something. Whether that belief is in your intrinsic ability to change, or in a higher power, or in a greater social purpose – you must believe, and commit strongly to that belief.

The not-so-good bits

The Power of Habit started well, however it left me wanting a bit more by the end. This is mostly down to a few perplexing editorial decisions:

  • All throughout the book, I was waiting to read about how we can change our bad habits. I eventually found what I wanted — in the appendix. Why Duhigg wanted to shoehorn the most valuable piece of information he has to offer in a section that no one reads is a mystery.
  • Duhigg has a bad habit (heh) of splitting his stories; he starts new anecdotes without finishing the old ones. I suppose he does this to drag out the suspense, but it reduces the flow and makes the writing seem dis-jointed.
  • Some of his stories, especially in the later half of the book didn’t align as well with his claims as they could have. The story about the Hey-Ya song was maybe the most egregious example. 

Top 3 Things the Book Teaches Us to Unknow

  • That we are as aware and in control of our thoughts and actions as we imagine. More than 40% of the actions people perform each day aren’t conscious decisions, but pure automated habit.
  • That we can get rid of the cravings that drive our (bad) habits. Cravings are to be redirected, not eradicated.
  • Similarly, we must unknow (or partly modify) our belief that we can completely eradicate our bad habits if we try hard enough. Habits are encoded into the brain; they can never be fully extinguished, just replaced with better ones. This is why we must be careful in how we go about our day; old cues and triggers can cause a relapse in our behaviour and kick-start our bad habits once again.

Who Should Read it

  • Those looking to change their bad habits, or create good ones
  • Marketing and Business Folks
  • Leaders of any kind

Who Shouldn’t Read It

  • Anybody who gets livid at reading about how companies manipulate us.
  • Those who don’t like Malcolm Gladwell’s books. The Power of Habit is of a similar style.