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.


Filed under Book Review, Books

30 responses to “ON HABITS

  1. Peripatetic Eric

    Fascinating. I’m a sucker for a good neuroscience read. This will definitely go on my short list. Thanks.

  2. Coincidentally, I am currently reading “The Power of Habit.” It was given to me as a gift. I was really skeptical when I started reading it, but it is an decent read, even if it is an oversimplification of behavior. I agree with your assessment of the book.

    The “habit loop” seems to makes a lot of sense, but there is little in the way of true scientific rigor behind the data, even when he presents as if it’s so. I’m at the section of organizations (Starbucks). It’s an easy read, which is okay for dime store neurology, but I hope people do not take Duhigg’s descriptions of “thrilling… scientific discoveries” as fundamental truths. Even though I’m not a brain doctor, I feel like the biology and science behind human behavior is slightly more complicated than described in the book. Interesting ideas, little depth.

  3. This is fascinating. I was very interested in “the neurology of free will” and the murky place where habits become addictions. Thanks so much for your post. I want to check this book out.

  4. The Power of Habit could be an interesting read. I first read about neurolinguistics in a book I thought I would never read, i.e. Anthony Robbins’, “Releasing the Giant Within.” I found his chapters on how the brain works informative, and I’ve reprogrammed several negative thinking patterns. Charles Duhigg’s book could well add another angle. Thank you for the review – I love the way you write.
    Having said that.. I’ve saved all your posts for my holiday reading. It’s going to be a treat. Right now I’m taking time off only to check emails, maybe publish one or two posts. But on the whole – like many around the world – it’s going to be a time to chill out. Keep safe and healthy over this period, and may His peace be your peace. Everything of the best.

  5. Ellis your book arrived yesterday, and I AM LOVING IT – definitely among my all time favourites. It is beautifully written, and has an atmosphere and clarity which travels around with me. When I was 13 – 16 I had a passion for the Himalayas – still have – and I knew the dates of all the expeditions and the mountaineers, and inherited a library of mountain classics from Whymper and Mummery to the 1960s. Your book brings to life the landscape and its people and wisdom enormously.
    Re habits – cookies and caches in the computer work in just the same way. They are little installations, designed to make us react, and we clear them again and again. Our laptops are faithful copies of our everyday mind – that’s why we are so fascinated by them.

  6. Interesting. I never considered that habits, instead of being broken, are actually transformed

  7. Thanks for the review. Interesting concept of legal treatment of habits. Not sure but could murder be considered a habit on the par with gambling? Sure both ruin lives but one is clearly against the law (always) and the other against the law (sometimes). Anyway your review was useful – thanks

    • The murder concerned an individual who suffered night terrors. Recent brain science suggests that while having a night terror, one has no access to the thinking parts of the brain and acts by instinct. The man was not convicted of killing his wife because he was not conscious and there was no intent to kill. The man had had night terrors since childhood but no history of violence. So the habit was night walking and night terrors, not murder.

  8. That sounds interesting, I might wander over to amazon and take a look at it….

  9. Whenever I try to give up smoking (which is pretty often) it’s not the actual cigarette that I crave, it’s the habit of smoking. It’s so tough to break the habit and the routine that I end up family almost immediately.

  10. Peace Love Wisdom Bliss

    One finds that it is only in the suffering memories where objections are found which hold on to the past, and there lies the pain. Introspection will say it is a chance to grow, to stride out from the habitual and to take refuge in that which may be considered the law of Karma. It is a law by which one understand one self through ones self and that is the path of Conscious awakening .

  11. It’s amazing how the circumstances in which a habit was created can change but you still go with doing what you always did for a while after. How many couples like us found themselves on a beach holiday minus a family and then ask why did we choose this type of holiday. Took a good 5 years to realise that summer holiday did not have to equal beach, once the children have flown the nest! The my Mum who told me she realised that she no longer had to do things the way she did which suited her second husband, two years after he died! It is about coming out of a comfort zone and trying something different
    Thought provoking post, thanks..

  12. I just came from a book reading with Gretchen Rubin who wrote The Happiness Project. She mentioned that she is currently working on her next book about habits because habits are a precursor to happiness (or lack thereof, depending on the habit). It sounds like her book will have more tips and suggestions for implementing positive change through habits than this book did.

  13. from Emily Dickinson:

    THE BRAIN within its groove
    Runs evenly and true;
    But let a splinter swerve,
    ‘T were easier for you
    To put the water back
    When floods have slit the hills,
    And scooped a turnpike for themselves,
    And blotted out the mills!

  14. Does he use the words compulsion or obsession at all ? Is habit just a polite replacement word for these? Will need to think about that !

  15. Great use of ‘discombobulated’.

  16. Oh those sneaky habits, always got to keep an eye on them. Recently listened to Manly Hall make a relation to electromagnetism and habits and how we are draw into habitual patterns and become locked in them like a piece of iron within a magnetic field. Our ability to break free from the fields or energies which hold us in habitual patterns depends on how strong our attachment is to the energy and how strong that energies attachment is to us.

  17. Robert Mitchell

    Interesting topic. I’m a fan of cultivating positive personal habits. As for societal ones, here’s an original quote from yours truly: “Dogma, social convention, and anti-intellectualism are the hammer, tong, and anvil of mediocrity.”

  18. I guess there are good habits and bad habits. I haven’t read the book yet, but well done for throwing it out there!

  19. fransiweinstein

    Does sound interesting, though. This past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine had a great article on how data is being captured on us and how companies are bidding to bombard us with online ads based on the knowledge. Fascinating and frightening at the same time.

    • In the mid 90s Target had already developed equations to detect pregnancies, not if a woman was pregnant- but exactly what trimester she was in. I have no doubt they’ve developed much more sophisticated abilities since then and I’m sure it’s pervasive in the industry. I’ll have to try to find the article from the weekend. Thanks.

  20. I am a serious freak about being a creature of habit, so your post really caught my eye. I’m not ready to change them, they are more like little quirks, but your post made me stop and give some thought to them and how they might be perceived. Great post, thanks!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s