The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Why do we do the things that we are used to doing? If, so far, you have identified some of your bad habits, chances are it has slipped through your mind before. The Power of Habit answers that and explains through colourful range of examples how habits are embedded in our lives, how to change them and how to create new ones.

Unfortunately, we cannot delete habits. It’s not like they were a word file that one could get rid of. They’re more like circuit boards: you can replace them with the same kind, but throwing out one would damage the whole computer. Habit loops can be overridden by new ones, but extrapolating them would be called lobotomy. Fortunately this is the 21st century and lobotomy is not an option.

Habits, like Charles explains, form in the basal ganglia where reportedly most of our action base situates. It coordinates largely which cues trigger which behaviour and that is the key in understanding habits. Habits are automatic. They are almost like instincts, triggered by a cue – the difference is that all habits are driven by craving for a reward, creating a loop: cue-routine-reward.

Simply put, that means, experience tells us that some cue, either location, time, emotional state, other people or an action hints us that there will be a reward that somehow will satisfy us. We have learned to follow those cues with a specific routine that in the end brings us a reward. After a certain amount of repetition we feel like we received the reward already the moment the cue appeared and that is what automates the behaviour.

A well trained dog hears “Sit!”, he sits, because he knows that this behaviour brings him a treat in the end. Hearing the cue, from a neurological perspective, has become the same as receiving the reward, because the cue-routine-reward has created through a series of expectations and experience the knowing that a reward will soon follow.

To change, one must identify the cues and rewards and train themselves for a different routine. The cues and rewards will always be there once implemented. It’s the routine that can be changed. It’s like as a kid, my desk was always a mess, including a bunch of paper trash that I was too lazy to take to the trash bin. I created a new routine by placing a paper bin next to my desk so all unnecessary could fly right in without the effort of lifting my butt from the chair. I formed a habit of placing trash straight in the bin and never just “out of hand” and till now I cannot stand if there is no bin in every room of a house, because it triggers the old routine of leaving it out of hand, on the desk – the reward is not a clean room, but empty hands.

Connecting links

Charles succeeds in explaining the psychology behind how companies make their products succeed by designing customer habits. Some examples leave us in awe to how little control we can own over our actions and how vulnerable we can be if the cues are thrown at us at the right moments.

Duhigg postulates, that our social ties are a habit, too, and that is what can make a movement roll. The example story is vivid and relevant to human history, but he doesn’t back the claim well enough to prove movements’ connection to habits. It’s a great story of how thousands of people broke their habits for a cause for a year. Despite that a sense of belonging makes people more likely to take action to support the causes the community fights for, there is not enough evidence to draw conclusions that belonging to a community was a habit or would drive a habit to support the community.

However, he demonstrates well how familiarity, in a way, is a habit, too. How we welcome more the tastes and sounds that are similar to what we already like, and how, again, our tastes can be designed though sandwiching: familiar-new-familiar, till the new becomes familiar.

Skillful lead

The style Duhigg uses is similar to Ashton – or one would say Ashton uses the same style as Duhigg, because Duhigg’s book came first – that is, leading the reader into understanding. It’s constructed much like sentences: storyline analysis

There can be more levels and the structure can vary, but the main point of sub-stories remain. This makes the main point easy to follow and conclusions easy to fathom.  The writer is leaving breadcrumbs, skillfully leading the reader into understanding the point that is being made. It treats the reader like an intellectual and not like a child, leaving space for discussion and seeking patterns from one’s own life.

It’s a necessary read for anyone leading organisations, trying to quit smoking or drinking, improving their lives or understanding others.

Live smart. Redesign your bad habits.

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

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