The Power Of Habit Review & Summary | Charles Duhigg

Welcome to my The Power Of Habit Review & Summary by Charles Duhigg. Charles Duhigg is a Pulitzer Prize winner and has been featured in the New York Times Bestseller, The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. Charles Duhigg also works for the New York Times and has written another book, called ‘Smarter Faster Better’ that focuses on productivity.

The Power Of Habit reviews the importance of habits in life and business. The book is broken up into 3 parts, the habits of individuals, the habits of successful organization and the habits of societies. In the first part, Duhigg convinces us that most patterns in our life are habits. From how we eat and sleep and talk to people to how we carelessly spend our time, attention and money. These are all habits.

Duhigg then explains how habits work and then guides us on how to change them. He uses clear and easy to understand examples that anyone can resonate with. From people struggling with weight loss, smoking, drinking too much wine or even drinking too much coffee, to people who simply procrastinate and crave too many breaks. Everyone can resonate. In the second part of the book, Duhigg gives us case studies on how companies use the power of habits to drive profits by implementing organizational habits as well as studying their customers spending patterns. In the third part, Duhigg talks about habits of society on how movement happens and what murderers and gamblers teach us about being responsible for our own habits.

My Opinion Of ‘The Power Of Habit’

I’m a true believer of habits. And it actually all started because of this book. I’ve been applying the concept in this book for years now and it has worked really well for me. I especially love the fact that after reading this book, I never quite looked at what I did the same anymore. I started to be more aware of even the simplest patterns being habits (for example instantly thinking of how things could go wrong was a habit). Whether for better or for worse, identifying these and knowing that I had the freedom to change them if I wished, was phenomenal.

Overall, Duhigg’s concepts are very simple and very actionable. We just need to put in the effort and do it consistently. I believe everyone has good and bad habits and just being aware of that alone is a massive head start. This book will further teach you how to replace bad habits with good habits, which I promise you, will make all the difference in your life. The only thing I would comment on is the fact that Duhigg uses a lot (and I mean a lot) of examples to prove each of his points. Some readers might get impatient with the sheer number of examples which makes them want to skip some. In fact, I did skip some as well. However, I think it’ll benefit those readers who prefer lots and lots of examples.

Who I Recommend The Book To

Everyone! As I said, everyone has good and bad habits. Regardless of how successful you are, you can always gain something more through this book. Whether you’re looking for more success in business, in your relationships or even in your own health. This book will help you achieve that by opening the doors to exactly how habits work in the first place.

Now, if you would like to read and enjoy the book with no spoilers, feel free to stop reading this post and grab ‘The Power Of Habit’ by Charles Duhigg here. On the other hand, if you would like to study the book, continue reading below. I will share my in-depth summary and study notes of the book. It’s designed to help you feel like you’ve read the entire book and understand the top key concepts without even actually reading the book. Below I will break down my top 5 Big Ideas from the book.

Big Idea #1: The Habit Loop

Duhigg teaches us that most things we do are habits. Think of a habit as your body running you. Sometimes without your permission. For example, you might be reading this not because you want to, but because you’re in the habit of reading stuff online when you procrastinate (by the way I hope this is not true!). Or, it’s not that you need to take breaks after every half an hour of work, but its because it’s a habit. Also, it’s not a coincidence that you ‘feel like’ eating junk food when you do work, it’s because you’re in the habit of eating junk when you’re stressed. Now you might be thinking, ‘That can’t be right!’. But just stay with me for a second.

MIT researchers in the early 1990s were experimenting with rats going through a maze. They placed rats behind a partition which would open every time they heard a large click sound. The rats would then find their way through the maze to get the piece of chocolate at the end. The researchers repeated this process over and over again, each time measuring the rat’s brain activity. They found that every time the rat would go through the maze an additional time, the brain activity decreased. In fact, after a week each rat sprinted through the maze without even thinking at all. The process had become automatic.

This process where our brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine is called “chunking”. The chunking process is a 3-step loop:

  1. Cue: the cue is the trigger that tells our brain to go into automatic mode. It also tells our brain which habit to use
  2. Routine: the activity that is carried out. It can be physical, mental or emotional
  3. Reward: finally there’s the reward, which helps our brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.

So in the rat experiment, the cue was the loud click noise. The routine was the rats going through the maze and the reward was the piece of chocolate at the end. Over time, when this loop cue, routine, reward is repeated over and over again, it becomes more and more automatic and eventually, a habit is born.

And here’s the thing. Remember how the rats didn’t even need to think much anymore? That’s the aim of our brain. Our brain wants to save thinking energy. That is, it’s constantly looking for ways to save effort. Hence when it chunks a sequence of our actions into automatic routines, it doesn’t need to think about them anymore. That’s exactly why our brain has stopped thinking about basic behaviors like walking, choosing what to eat and how to drive. The more habits we build, the more our brain can rest. It can then be used for other things like thinking of ideas, creating, inventing etc.

Hence most things have to be a habit for our brains to be efficient. Otherwise, our brains would implode with all the thinking it has to do. For example, you see a message on your phone pop up (cue), you read the message (routine) and you satisfy your craving for wanting to know what your friend said (reward). Or your friend hears you say something incorrectly (cue), they immediately correct you (routine) and they get to prove their point (reward). Or you see the McDonald’s sign on your way home from work (cue), you pull into the drive way and buy a meal (routine) and you get to enjoy a cheap meal that tastes good. Also you’re not hungry anymore (reward).

If you’re not in the habit of doing something, you’re in the habit of not doing it. – Martin Cao

Big Idea #2: How To Change Your Habit

Duhigg teaches us how we can change any habit. The number one thing to understand is that once the cue happens, our brain craves the reward. Not the routine. So a smoker doesn’t actually crave smoking. He craves the feeling of being less stressed after smoking. And a person who is constantly on their phone doesn’t crave texting. They crave the feeling of connection with their friends or being wanted by other people. Whatever it is, the reward could be different for everyone. But everyone still craves the reward, not the routine. Hence to change a habit, all we have to do is replace the routine part and keep the cue and the reward. For example, if you have the habit of smoking:

You feel stressed and overwhelmed (cue), you start smoking (routine), and you feel relaxed (reward).

In this case, all you have to do is replace the routine with something else, for example, going for a walk. Your loop would then look like this:

You feel stressed and overwhelmed (cue), go for a walk (routine), and you feel relaxed (reward).

The most important thing about switching the routine is that the new routine has to still give you what you’re craving, which is the reward. So since you’re craving the feeling of being relaxed (reward), the walking (new routine) has to make you feel relaxed. If walking doesn’t make you feel relaxed and you’re still stressed, you’re going to go back to smoking. That is, the routine has to give you the same reward.

Here’s where Duhigg suggests we should experiment. One of the trickiest things to figure out is your actual reward. What is it actually that you’re craving? Are you craving sweets? Or are you just craving the feeling of biting into something crunchy? Or do you just want to munch on anything, whatever it is? You’ll figure this out by swapping the routines and seeing whether your craving is satisfied. You know when you’re not satisfied when you go back to your old habit.

For me, I had the habit of checking my phone way too often during work. My loop went like this: bored of work (cue), check my phone (routine), craving for distraction satisfied (reward). Then I would go back to work. The only problem was once I was on my phone, one thing leads to another and I find myself reading Reddit for half an hour. Or if I was replying to texts I find that I could get stuck in several conversations only to come back to work after another half an hour. So I experimented with switching the routine. I had to find a routine which would satisfy my craving for distraction, a little break to bring my attention back. I finally got the routine down which is going for a walk around my house, refilling my water bottle and eating a small snack.

Remember that the cue, routine and reward is different for everyone. For example, people go on their phone to satisfy the craving of knowing what their friends said. It’s like watching an episode of their favorite TV show with a cliff hanger. Or they crave the feeling of importance when they check their following. Whatever it is, you have to experiment with the routine to understand what your unique reward is.

I love this idea and it’s so powerful. Imagine being able to create a habit of loving to work. Or being in the habit of always eating healthy, exercising every day etc. If you could switch all your bad habits for good ones, you wouldn’t even have to think about doing them anymore, you just go on autopilot and let your habits run you to become the best, healthiest person ever!

Big Idea #3: Will Power Is The Most Important Habit

Many studies in the past have shown the immense benefits of will power. In fact, studies from the University of Pennsylvania found that kids who had higher self-discipline outperformed those who were intellectually talented. It’s more than just intellect though. You might have heard of the famous marshmallow experiment where 4-year-old kids were given the choice to either eat one marshmallow right away or if they waited a few minutes, they could have two marshmallows. This experimented tested each kid’s will power. Years later the researchers tracked down these kids and found that those who could delay gratification the longest ended up with the best grades and with SAT scores 210 points higher, on average than everyone else. They were more popular and also did fewer drugs.

One of the best things they discovered was that will power is a skill. We can learn and strengthen it like a muscle. And the best way to strengthen willpower is to turn it into a habit. They also found that once you strengthen your will power muscle, good habits would spill over into other parts of your life. This makes total sense. In the instant above where I’m trying to stop my old habit of going on social media too much, if I just had will power, I could refrain from checking my phone (routine) even if I was bored (cue). My craving for distraction (reward) would eventually subside. I could use self-discipline for everything I think wasn’t good for me and eventually, I’m bound to swap bad habits for good ones.

However, if willpower was a skill, then why doesn’t it remain constant from day to day? You know what I’m talking about. There are some days where doing your work is just so much easier than others. It’s because will power depletes during the day. It’s not unlimited, it’s finite. So you actually have to be careful what you spend your will power on. If you wake up and you spend your time checking emails and doing admin things all morning, you won’t have enough will power at the end of the day to do your most important tasks. Think of willpower like becoming angry. If one person frustrates you in the morning it’s fine. You’ll still be able to keep your cool and be calm. But by the 5th or even 10th person, you’ll probably lose your shit.

For me, how I made willpower a habit was using the 30-second rule. It allows me to delay instant gratification which I turned into a habit. The 30-second rule goes like this. Whenever I crave for something (eating junk or using my phone), I get into the habit of first counting to 30. In some instances, I don’t want it anymore after I finish counting and in others I do. But either way, I teach my body not to instantly go for gratification. I actually learned this from Kelly McGonigal’s book ‘The Willpower Instinct’. She explains that this “Pause and Plan Response” redirects energy from your body to the brain. This calms you down and gives your brain enough time to think of better options.

Big Idea #4: The Power Of Habit In Business

Companies continue to collect customer data to better predict our spending habits. They know that even though we go to the shops with an intention to buy certain things, our decision to buy actually happens the moment we see a product. At that stage, our shopping list goes out the window. That’s why you see supermarkets carefully positioning certain products like essentials at the end of the store so that you could be tempted to buy other items by the time you get to them. This is one of the oldest tricks in the book.

In fact, companies like Target have such a sophisticated algorithm that they can tell if you’re pregnant or not with a small margin of error. They do this by analyzing an enormous amount of data about your spending habits. Based on this information Target will send out coupons for baby products. Of course, to make it less obvious that they know this about you, they’d have to send it out to your neighbors too. So by studying your spending habits, they can predict what kind of person you are and thereby make suggestions for your next purchases.

Duhigg also tells us a case study about the pop song ‘Hey Ya’. Even though we complain about how most pop songs sound the same, the actual fact is – that’s how our brains like it. Our brains prefer familiarity. once we’re in the habit of listening to a type of tune, we’ll prefer that song over any other song not because it’s better but because it’s familiar. When the pop song ‘Hey Ya’ just came out, people weren’t used to its tunes so they didn’t like it. So what the producers had to do was, they positioned the song between two already popular pop songs and played them all in one go. Overtime listeners were anchored to the song and all three songs sounded familiar. That’s how ‘Hey Ya’ became popular.

In fact, this is exactly how the American government got people into the habit of eating organ meat. What he did was he packaged organ meat to look like other meat that people had already been eating. That is, organ meat was camouflaged like the non-organ meat. For better or for worse it worked because of the concept of familiarity. Once they’re in the habit of something, that’s what they prefer. Even McDonalds, Subway, and all fast-food chains look exactly the same no matter where we go. It’s because it knows we prefer familiarity. Every time we see the sign, it’s our cue to get cheap comfort food.

What I got out of this was just how powerful habits are. If we don’t control our habits and exercise will power, our habits will run our lives. It’ll make us purchase things that we might not need. We’ll listen to music that might not even be that great. And we’ll eat certain foods not because it’s healthy but because we’ve always been eating it. And the worst is, companies know this and they’ll take advantage of it. So the cycle will start again.

Big Idea #5: Being Responsible For Our Habits

Okay, this part is quite intense. So stay with me. Duhigg introduces us to the story of Brian Thomas who one day mistook his wife for a robber and strangled her to death. Since young, Thomas was a sleep walker. When investigators studied his case and applied sensors all over his body to measure his brain waves, they found that Thomas had been unconscious when he killed his wife. In fact, there are numerous cases like Tom. There’s the guy who kicked and stamped his 83-year-old dad to death, the girl who put a pillow over her mom’s face and the guy who raped a girl while being unconscious. More than 150 murderers and rapists escaped punishment because judges and juries argued that they didn’t choose to commit the crime consciously.

That seems fair. So what’s the difference between sleep terrors and pathological gamblers? Duhigg tells us of a lady named Angie Bachmann who was a pathological gambler. Pathological gambling is classified as an addictive disorder which means these gamblers exhibit similarities to people with substance addictions. There’s a difference in the habit loop between gamblers and pathological gamblers. The difference is that gamblers understand that ‘almost winning’ is still losing because losing money is still a loss. But pathological gamblers see ‘almost winning’ as almost winning, their habit loop kicks in and says ‘the jackpot is coming!’ so they go again.

Angie Bachmann was a pathological gambler and had tried to quit before. But casinos would not leave her be. She would receive free limos, paid-for hotel accommodations and free trips to Las Vegas for her whole family and friends. Every time she lost she felt guilty and felt like she needed to win the money back to make it up to her family. But every time she lost, the casino would sign her free cheques of hundreds of thousands of dollars so she could continue playing. Even when she tried to refuse, casino workers would call her up saying ‘They told me I’d lose my job if you don’t come back. We paid for everything for you already’. It’s a sad story. And it ends when she gambled her parent’s entire life savings worth $1,000,000 which they left for her when they passed away. She ruined her family’s life.

Now here’s the thing. We tend to sympathize with Brian Thomas’s murder more than Angie Bachmann’s gambling addictions even though both made variations of the same claim – that they acted out of habit, that they had no control over their actions because their patterns were running them. However, here’s the difference. Thomas didn’t know about his patterns while Bachmann was fully aware of hers. That’s the difference. So a sleepwalking murderer can be let off because he didn’t know about his patterns. But almost all other patterns that we have – how we eat and sleep and talk to people, carelessly spend our time, attention and money – those are habits that we know exist. And once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom and responsibility to remake them.

I love this Big Idea because even though fortunately, nothing quite as intense as gambling or murder has happened in my life, I do have and know of my bad habits. Everyone has some. But habits, whether good or bad do compound over time. And when something happens that I regret, I would be kicking myself for not changing my bad habits sooner. So this Big Idea really kicked me into action mode!

Conclusion

Whether you believe that humans are creatures of habits and that everything we do is out of habit or not, you should still read this book. This is one of the books that made me become serious about changing my habits. As I mentioned before in my review of The Compound Effect, habits seem so common sense these days that people don’t take them seriously anymore. This is the book that convinced me that everything and most things we do is a habit. Once I knew this, I felt a greater urge to change my bad habits for good ones. The book is very easy to understand and Duhigg explains the strategies of changing habits well. In fact, Duhigg gives lots and lots of examples that in some cases, I felt like skipping them. However, I think it’s still good for some readers who prefer lots and lots of examples. Overall, it’s a very powerful book on habits and one of the best ones that teach you the science behind changing a habit. And as always, here’s…

Your Power Of Habit Action plan

  1. Choose the top 3 bad habits that you want to change. Identify the cue. Hypothesise what your reward is. Then experiment with different routines and check whether you were right (see if you still crave it). For example:
    1. Hypothesis: you think the reward is you crave human interaction. So instead of checking your phone, you chat to your colleagues for a bit. Is the craving to check your phone still there? Yes. So that’s not it.
    2. Hypothesis: you think the reward is you crave a small break. So instead of checking your phone, you go for a quick walk. Is the craving to check your phone still there? Yes. So that’s not it either
    3. Hypothesis: you think the reward is the ease of knowing that everyone’s okay and no one needs you. So instead of constantly checking your phone, you tell your family and friends that you’ll be doing a focused study session (Deep Work Session) with no interruptions for which you will turn your phone off on airplane mode for 2 hours straight. You turn the phone on airplane mode. Is the craving to check your phone still there? No. You’ve got it!
  2. Do the same with your top 3 good habits you want to develop.
  3. Make will power a habit. Delay your instant gratification by using the 30-second rule. That is, tell yourself you’ll still get to have it or do it but only after you count until 30.

If you enjoyed this review and summary and would like to grab a copy of the book yourself, please support me by grabbing The Power Of Habit by Charles Duhigg here. (This is an affiliate link in which I’ll get paid a few bucks)

Your support means a lot and it will help me continue writing more reviews and summaries. Also, please leave an honest feedback below in the comment section sharing what you thought about the book and which habits you’re choosing to change. It would be interesting to know how everyone goes with experimenting with their routines.

That’s it from me and I’ll talk to you soon,

Martin

P.S. If you haven’t had the chance to check out my 30 Days Success Challenge where you’ll learn how to be more, act more and have more,

You can check it out by clicking here.

Martin
 

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