The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg

Why I read it…  After years of trying to crack the nut of students revising independently, I decided to read about the science behind how we form habits. However, I was keen to skip the fad-like, motivational angle that many books about habit take; you know, the writers who promise they will break your worst habits with 3 simple steps and a can-do attitude. Charles Duhigg combines his well-honed writing as a reporter for the New York Times, with a commitment to studying scientific research, to bring us a thoroughly technical, yet readable and enjoyable, exploration of habits. That’s why it got my vote.

In summary:

Duhigg sets out to review research, as I have alluded to, and then contextualises these findings in both hypothetical scenarios, and in real-world examples. What I admire about Duhigg’s book is that he isn’t trying to peddle his own brand of habit-busting snake oil. He accepts that there isn’t one formula to break a habit, levelling with the reader that there is much to explore. Therefore, he doesn’t patronise us with oversimplification, but lets us in on the complexity – relying on his fluent prose and range of examples to sustain our curiosity and interest.

Key takeaways:

  1. Habit forming in 3 steps: Cue, Routine, Reward. Duhigg bases much of the book on the MIT research on the neurological loop that forms habits. The cue, or prompt to do something; followed by the routine, which is the action you perform; and finally the reward, perhaps a feeling or a physical reward for the action, which tells your brain if it was worth it, and if forming a habit would be worthwhile. The more this loop repeats, the quicker and easier it becomes, and therefore a habit is formed.
  2. Habit forming reduces brain effort. A study of rats being released into a maze to find chocolate revealed that, at first, their brain activity was at a high capacity while they figured out the route. Over time, their brain activity significantly reduced as the routine became habit. This is why we can, with practice, reverse our car out of the drive, or do other seemingly complex tasks, while we think about other things. In other words, forming habits is a brilliant way to free up our brains to engage elsewhere.
  3. Habit forming and willpower can improve with kindness, positivity and autonomy – this one sang to me. Duhigg cites a study where participants’ willpower and performance improved when they were greeted and treated warmly. Similarly, many workplaces have found that employees who are given greater autonomy form efficient, lasting habits. The takeaway here is that emotional association and sense of identity can contribute to how we form good habits. Now, that’s exciting.
  4. Keystone Habits (see my favourite moment below). This term refers to how we can identify certain habits in our lives, that either exist currently, or could exist, that are so productive and important, that they can create a series of other good decisions and habits: a chain reaction.

Favourite quote:

‘Alcoholics Anonymous forces participants to create new routines for what to do each night instead of drinking. You can relax and talk through your anxieties at meetings. The triggers and rewards stay the same, but the behaviour changes’ 

Of course, habit and addiction are interlinked. Studies throughout suggest it is very difficult to stop your brain feeling the ‘cue’ to do something; equally, a reward or positive feeling is hard to change. But if you change the routine, you can accept that the cue and reward may stay the same. At AA, the members may feel the cue to drink, but they replace the drinking (routine) with talking. Duhigg and these studies aren’t claiming that we can eradicate unwanted cues from popping into our head, but by changing the routine, we can transform the habit into something else.

Favourite moment:

How did Paul O’Neill transform Alcoa (Aluminium firm) when he took over as CEO? Exciting innovation? Charisma? No, he stipulated that all safety procedures in their factories must be changed. It became an obsessive review to make sure that the health and safety protocols were followed properly. The consequence? Well, the company’s productivity and value sky rocketed. It was in getting this ‘keystone habit’ right, that many others fell into place.

Question and reflect

  • Let’s look at some of our daily habits – can we identify the cue, routine and reward, and use that knowledge to either improve those habits, change them, or to replicate into other healthy habits?
  • What keystone habits could we reflect upon, or create, in order to improve other areas of productivity or success in our lives? As a teacher, I think basic classroom routines at the start of a lesson, for example, are keystone habits to then improve attitude to learning, mutual respect, etc. well beyond that part of the students’ day. One good habit spawns another.

Read this if…

You want to understand how we can form or change habits

You like a good mix of anecdotal evidence, scientific research, and brilliant writing

Support bookshops and buy it here

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