Charles Duhigg knocked it out in the park when he wrote The Power Of Habit back in 2014. Since then, the media and journalists have honed in on more habit related books and articles. Still, The Power Of Habit is an integral piece on the topic of habits.
We’ve summarized the book below, but this is one of the books we’d recommend you keep on your bookshelf as a reference book for yourself.
The Power Of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business
- 1 The Power Of Habit: Intro
- 2 The Power Of Habit: The Habits Of Individuals [Part One]
- 3 The Power Of Habit: The Habits Of Successful Organizations [Part Two]
- 4 The Power Of Habit: The Habits Of Societies [Part Three]
The Power Of Habit: Intro
We start off with an intro to the most important part of changing your life: finding a keystone habit and constructing your life around it. A second teaser by Duhigg alludes to changing your environment to make it impossible to keep continuing your bad habits.
The Power Of Habit: The Habits Of Individuals [Part One]
Chapter 1: The Habit Loop
Habits are rooted in the basal ganglia, a part of the brain that dedicates itself to series of events that have this pattern:
cue-> routine -> reward.
Duhigg uses a real-life example of a person (Eugene) who has lost their short-term memory. HM still learns habits like anyone else, if he is exposed to them repetitively.
The reason habits are so important is that it takes much less energy for your brain to perform a habit as it does to perform a new activity. Habits are the same actions over and over, whilst new experiences require your brain’s neurons to fire repeatedly, using up your mental energy.
Key Takeaways: Researchers estimate 40 percent of your day is simply reacting to the habit loop. Imagine if you could automate your mind so that your passive good habits can compound 1 percent a day. How much easier would those New Year’s resolutions be? That is the power of habit. Here is the habit loop: cue-> routine -> reward.
Chapter 2: The Craving Brain
In the early 20th century, advertisers were having a difficult time selling toothpaste to Americans. Only 7 percent of Americans were actively brushing their teeth. So Claude Hopkins had the bright idea to introduce a minty flavor into toothpaste. He also told people that the film on their teeth was dirty (it isn’t, it’s natural), and they could only get rid of it by brushing every day.
Claude invented this habit loop:
Dirty film on teeth -> Brush teeth -> Minty feeling in the mouth
In the late 20th century, the consumer marketing department at P&G faced the same problem with Febreeze. Drake Stimson, in charge of marketing Febreeze at the time, sought to sell it as an odor neutralizer. However, people with smelly homes were so accustomed to the smell that they didn’t notice.
So Stimson created a new habit loop for them:
See dirty home -> Clean -> Spritz Febreeze
Instead of using Febreeze to cure smells that people were used to after 30 minutes, Stimson used Febreeze as the reward for cleaning a home. That nice spritz of perfume at the end of a cleaning session made people feel like their cleaning was finished with a win, guaranteeing people would use bottle after bottle. Febreeze continues to sell like hotcakes, even becoming a verb people use often.
Key Takeaways: Create a habit loop to automate your life. When researchers looked at the habit loop, they found that when someone performed the habit over and over, they would eventually experience the endorphins from the reward when they saw the cue. This made it even easier for the brain to execute the habit because now they were performing the habit with the feeling of a high from a reward.
Chapter 3: The Golden Rule Of Habit Change
In sports, there’s the famous Moneyball story in baseball. But what about football?
In the late 90s, Tony Dungy coached the Buccaneers with a focus on habits. His game plan wasn’t complex plays to fake out everyone else — his plan was practicing the same simple plays over and over. The Buccaneers just needed to be faster than everyone else. In football, plays are messed up all the time. Dungy believed perfection in a play was more important than complexity.
The game plan became a series of specific cues each player need to see one at a time. 5 years after he was hired, the Buccaneers won the SuperBowl. Unfortunately, his management team wasn’t as patient as he was — he was let go the year prior. Years later he would win the SuperBowl championship with the Colts.
At the beginner level, brute strength, thinking, and raw intelligence give you a leg up. At the professional level, innate reactions and habits allow you to overcome mental blocks.
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is perhaps one of the most famous organizations that force you to identify your cues to start drinking. In AA, when you see a cue to start drinking, you call your sponsor and talk it through. Instead of going to get that drink to feel better, you talk to your sponsor to get a cathartic release instead.
Habit reversal training is when you turn bad habits into good ones. First, you find your cue. Over the course of a week, track how many times you feel this cue on a notecard and what you were feeling when this cue came up. Once you know what the cue is, replace the routine with another one that results in the same reward feeling.
For example, The Power Of Habit gives an example of a woman who bit her fingernails when she was bored. Instead of biting her nails when bored, her therapist advised that she could scratch or rub her hands on her arms to get the same physical reward while not chewing on her nails.
Lastly, you need to believe in something. Habits fall apart during tough times. If you don’t believe it will get better, there’s no reason to continue on with your habit. In AA you believe in a higher power. In Dungy’s case, his team believed that Dungy’s son dying had to have a reason — they rallied around it.
Key Takeaways: The golden rule is to change your bad habit into a good one. Figure out your cue, and instead of performing your old routine, perform a new one that will instill the same sense of reward in you. Believe that things will get better, or else in hard times your habit routine will fall apart.
The Power Of Habit: The Habits Of Successful Organizations [Part Two]
Chapter 4: Keystone Habits, Or The Ballad Of Paul O’Neill
Individuals have habits, organizations have routines.
Paul O’Neill was tapped to be the head of Alcoa. He was a fierce proponent of lists, organization, and habits. Alcoa was an aluminum company that wasn’t doing so well. O’Neill realized that just like individuals need a keystone habit, organizations need one main mission focus.
So he set out to align management’s and the union’s incentives together with one goal: worker safety. If a worker feels like the company cares about their safety, they’re more likely to be productive because they believe the company is invested in them.
Managers needed to write up a safety report within 24 hours with a fix for an incident if they wanted to be promoted.
Safety incident -> Report within 24 hours -> Eventual promotion
O’Neill gave out his phone number to all workers and encouraged them to call him whenever management wasn’t valuing worker safety. Soon other ideas began pouring in that led to more profitability, all because the workers felt like they were being heard. Managers had to share and read accident safety reports so they began putting in more information about their department as well. They accidentally created email decades before it became common.
The keystone habit of worker safety spilled over into productivity, quality of goods, etc.
Just as individuals with exercise habits have their habit spill over into eating habits, higher productivity at work due to more energy, etc.
Michael Phelps’ coach had him practice stoicism, visualizations, and mental focus from the time he was 7. His parents were going through a rough divorce and it was affecting Phelp’s swimming game mentally. Michael Phelps had a series of habits stacked together from the time he went to sleep to his first step in the pool. Visualizing his wins before he went to bed and when he woke up, a specific breakfast, specific music in his headphones, the right gear, etc.
When it came time to actually compete, his string of habits all felt like wins, and so his ultimate win in the competition felt like an extension of all the other habit wins. And so Phelps broke the world record, even when his goggles filled with water and he couldn’t see. All because he had practiced and visualized so he could stay calm in the face of the unknown.
Key Takeaways: Stack the end of your night and beginning of your morning with habits, so that you can feel the wins right as you begin the day. Decide on one keystone habit to rule your life. Focusing on one thing to improve will spill over into the rest of your life once you can get that habit under control. Find yourself a group of people who have the same habits and band together.
Chapter 5: Starbucks And The Habit Of Success
Starbucks realized that if an employee’s home life and actions weren’t in line with the professional setting, customers wouldn’t get a great experience. So they set about to change this by creating their own training materials that taught employees how to deal with rude customers, unexpected issues, etc. They taught their employees control.
The Stanford Marshmallow experiment is one of the most famous delayed gratification experiments in existence. Stanford researchers told children they would get more marshmallows if they were willing to wait a few minutes. The children that were willing to wait performed better in SAT scores, 210 points higher on average in fact. These were kids who would study instead of play. They were kids who understood the bigger picture and were willing to delay instant gratification for future accomplishments.
Though the funding for delayed gratification faded, a decade later Mark Muraven picked up the study of willpower. He realized why habits were so important. They allowed you to keep your willpower high because habits are automatic.
The way Muraven tested willpower was by putting radishes and warm cookies in front of test subjects. He then told them to solve an easy puzzle, which was actually impossible. Those who were told to eat the radishes would give up after 8 minutes, while the cookie eaters spent 19 minutes on average trying to solve the puzzle.
Don’t worry, you can build self-discipline and willpower by doing something you wouldn’t have otherwise and turning that into a habit. Take your hardest tasks, and create a plan for them so that you can get to the starting line. Decide on the certain time, place, and action you’ll need to do to start the task. Write it down in a journal, refer back to it, and you’ll make better progress than just trying to do it on the fly.
These are your inflection points. At the most difficult phase, you’ll know what to do since you’ll have planned for it beforehand.
When you have a sense of agency or control, your willpower muscles will be stronger. If you are not interested in the task, your willpower muscle will be weaker. If you want someone to do something, make them feel special and like it is their idea.
Key Takeaways: Write down your plan for dealing with unexpected negative interactions. Finish your most pressing tasks right as you wake up when your willpower muscle is at its strongest. Build your willpower muscle by continuing to do harder and harder tasks and building them into habits.
Chapter 6: The Power Of A Crisis
Crises are valuable because they are a short window of opportunity where a leader can change the organizational habits of an institution.
Rhode Island Hospital was one such place where doctors asserted their authority over nurses — so much so that there wasn’t a checks and balances system anymore. A situation dangerous to patients because nurses were scared of questioning doctors and resulted in deaths.
The London Underground was a similar place, where each department knew they weren’t supposed to infringe on another department’s territory. This led to the lack of a passenger safety department and the London Underground fire that killed 31 people.
Key Takeaways: Corporations thrive based on truces and networks. It’s important to be able to ascertain different pieces of information across the corporation. In times of crisis, make sure you’re poised to take advantage of it. Get a promotion, call for change, etc. Be ready.
Chapter 7: How Target Knows What You Want Before You Do
This chapter shouldn’t come as a surprise given Facebook’s recent scandals with Cambridge Analytica. Amusingly, this book was written in 2014 before those events.
Retailers fill the right side of the store with the most profitable products because that’s the way you’ll turn first. They also fill it with healthy products. If you put healthy items in your basket at the start, you’ll be more likely to buy unhealthy snacks and food at the end — you did do sooo well with putting healthy items in your basket after all! Items of the same kind (such as cereal) are also never organized alphabetically. It’s so you have to search for the product you want. Maybe you’ll buy another box that is eye-catching.
This is all basic retailer psychology 101. Companies upped the psychology game when they started tracking your purchases via your rewards card. Those discounts you get for a rewards card? Yeah, I’m sure over the long run, they might cost the unsuspecting customer more.
Target is an example of a company that does this particularly well. The data they don’t have? They can buy on the market. Kinda scary.
Target is able to send you hyper-targeted coupons to try and convince you to spend more with them. Buy everything except milk? They’ll send you coupons to try and get you to do your shopping in one place. Buy small toys and wipes? They’ll send you coupons for kid-related items.
The golden goose was to figure out when a woman was pregnant. If you could capture her business during her pregnancy, she’d come back to spend lots and lots of money on her babies and family in the years to come. Why?
People’s buying habits are more likely to change when they go through a major life event.
These include events like a divorce, buying a new house, having a baby, someone dying close them, etc.
By the time Andrew Pole, Target’s statistician, got done with the data, his program could figure out what trimester a woman was on, based on her purchases of 25 key items. In order to make it less creepy, they inserted random items in the mix of pregnancy items, so that you wouldn’t think Target knew you were actually pregnant.
Want to know how to get someone to create a new habit? Stack them in between.
Key Takeaways: An easy way to make an action a habit is to sandwich it in things that are familiar. This is better known as habit stacking.
The Power Of Habit: The Habits Of Societies [Part Three]
Chapter 8: Saddleback Church And The Montgomery Bus Boycott
In 1955, Rosa Parks sat in the front of the bus and refused to move to the back. She was arrested and historians agree that this started the civil rights movement.
A movement starts because of the social habis of friendship and the strong ties between close acquaintances.
It grows because of the habits of a commnunituy, and the weak ties that hold neighborhoods and clans together.
And it endures becuase a movement’s leaders give participants new habits that create a fresh sense of identity and a feeling of ownership.
Rosa Parks wasn’t the first one to become arrested for sitting in the front of the bus. She wasn’t even the first that year. The reason she started the movement was because of her strong ties to Montgomery’s social club heads.
Most individuals have a few strong ties to people who are incredibly similar to them. Rosa Parks was an outlier. The power of weak ties came out to play soon after — ie, social pressure. The social club heads who were loyal to Rosa Parks created social pressure of those who didn’t know her as well to support Parks.
Weak-ties are important because they’re more likely to be different from you. They’re the friends of your friends.
Movements don’t emerge because everyoe suddenly decides to face the same direction at once. They rely on social patterns that begin as the habits of friendship, grow through the habits of communities, and are sustained by new habits that change participants’ sense of self.
Key Takeaways: Both strong and weak ties are important, though weak ties are more useful at times. Getting a movement going requires participants to take ownership and believe in the meaning of that event.
Chapter 9: The Neurology Of Free Will
To gamblers, near misses look like wins.
In lotteries, nearly every scratch-off ticket is made to be a near miss. This way, you get that feeling of winning, even if you didn’t.
However, to modify a habit, you must decide to change it. You must consciously accept the hard work of identifying the cues and rewards taht drive the habits’ routines, and find alternatives. You must know you have control and be self-conscious enough to use it.
If you believe you can change — if you can make it a habit — the change becomes real. This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be. – William James
Key Takeaways: The first step to changing you habits is to actually believe you can do so. If you don’t, nothing will help.
Here’s the complete flowchart on how to create a habit, made by Charles Duhigg on his blog.
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