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ON HABITS

habit

We all have habits. Some are good and some are not so good, but it’s amazing to consider how much of our lives are given over to them. We get up in the morning and activate those circuits and we’re off. If you doubt how much habits rule you, just try to change something. Do your morning routine or just a couple of things out-of-order and see how discombobulated you become. What’s that saying? We are creatures of habit.

In The Power of Habit, New York Times reporter, Charles Duhigg, discusses why habits exist and how they can be changed. The power to transform habits allows individuals, organizations, and societies to implement changes.     

In part one of the book, we learn about the habits of the individual. The author delves into the neuroscience of the habit loop and how cravings are created. The real insight here is that habits are not broken, rather they are transformed. The stimulus (or cue) for a habit, along with some kind of payoff will always remain. The individual however can modify the response to the cue and substitute a new behavior. This creates the “new” habit. Be warned, this is not a magic bullet. Changing habits still remains hard work.

The habits of successful organizations are covered in part two. Here we learn how keystone habits are fundamental to the organization and how changing these can have powerful ripple effects. Alcoa, Starbucks, and Target are examined in detail but take care. Not everything about habit change is positive. While Alcoa’s focus on employee safety is to be applauded, Target’s computer marketing data collection may set your teeth on edge. Don’t worry about Big Brother, worry about how you and your purchase information is being exploited.

Part three concerns itself with the habits of societies. The success of Saddleback Church and the Montgomery bus boycott are used as examples of how societal rules and pressures can be brought to bear to affect change. The author concludes with a section called the neurology of free will. This is a last foray into recent discoveries about neuroscience and asks the reader to consider the cases of a murderer and a gambler. Both have habitual behaviors but are treated very differently under the law. It’s a rather odd ending for the book and I wonder if the dichotomy the author was aiming for might better have been used as an introduction to the subject rather than a stomach punch at the end.

The book wasn’t exactly what I thought it would be. It is not a self-help book and no one will be really motivated to implement change by it. It does make you feel change is possible. There are some good discussions about brain science and recent discoveries. However, much of the book is episodic and anecdotal. I wouldn’t use it in a business management setting, so I guess it’s sort of a general interest introduction.

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