Thursday, June 28, 2012

Review: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

Every morning when I get up, I stagger to the kitchen, get out my stainless steel travel mug and set it on the counter next to the coffee pot, then get out the half and half and pour in an amount that is determined by the place where the cup narrows to fit the cupholder in the car, put the half and half away, and then pour the coffee on top.  Then I rotate the cup so the handle is on the right side and ease the lid on so that the coffee doesn't splash through the sipping hole.

Why do I do it that way?

Charles Duhigg knows.

More precisely, Charles Duhigg knows which parts of my brain direct those functions and the mechanism by which that sequence of events became automatic.

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg, came to my attention through an NPR interview, when I caught a segment of the conversation in which he describes his efforts to stop a mid-afternoon chocolate chip cookie habit.  He uses that example in his book as well:

As an example, let's say you have a bad habit, like I did when I started researching this book, of going to the cafeteria and buying a chocolate chip cookie every afternoon.  Let's say this habit has caused you to gain a few pounds.  In fact, let's say this habit has caused you to gain exactly eight pounds, and that your wife has made a few pointed comments.  You've tried to force yourself to stop -- you even went so far as to put a Post-it on your computer that reads no more cookies. 
But every afternoon you manage to ignore that note, get up, wander toward the cafeteria, buy a cookie, and, while chatting with colleagues around the cash register, eat it.  It feels good, and then it feels bad.  Tomorrow, you promise yourself, you'll muster the willpower to resist.  Tomorrow will be different. 
But tomorrow the habit takes hold again.
pp. 273-274

Sounded quite familiar.

Following a prologue in which a subject transforms utterly transforms herself, Duhigg lays out the structure of the book.  "Part One: The Habits of Individuals" is broken into three chapters.

Chapter 1, "The Habit Loop" describes the (wait for it...) the habit loop, which is the foundation for everything that follows.  This is a 3-step process, in which a cue triggers a routine which is reinforced by a reward.  Duhigg does a great job of describing the science that describes this pattern, and the science which explains it, without making the information so dry that you can't absorb it.

Chapter 2, "The Craving Brain," examines individuals who suffered neurological damage and the impact that habits had on their ability to perform various functions and routines.  This chapter had heart: imagining the daily lives of these individuals and their caregivers brought some real drama to the study of how habits operate in our brains.  The point of the chapter was basically that habits are surprisingly delicate, to use Duhigg's term, and can be easily disrupted, with the right information.

Chapter 3, "The Golden Rule of Habit Change: Why Transformation Occurs" focused on the coaching career of of NFL coach Tony Dungy, and how he used his understanding of habits to transform the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Indiana Colts.  The Golden Rule is You can't extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it.  Midway through Chapter 3 Duhigg breaks away from NFL to consider Alcoholics Anonymous.  If Chapter 2 is the heart of Part One, then Chapter 3 is the soul: both AA and Dungy's football program achieve their greatest success when the people operating under their respective guidance both arrive at belief in something greater than the individual.  Duhigg shares more than that in this chapter, but there is a ton of information in this chapter about how habits can be disrupted to make way for more positive patterns.

Parts Two and Three are where a lot of other reviewers have faulted Duhigg, even calling the information in these sections "filler."  These address "The Habits of Successful Organizations" (Part Two), and "The Habits of Societies" (Part Three).  I did not find these sections to be filler, but powerful illustrations of how a thorough understanding of the mechanisms behind habits can provide the tools for large scale change, and a discussion of the nature of personal responsibility.

In Chapter Four, "Keystone Habits, Or the Ballad of Paul O'Neill: Which Habits Matter Most," Duhigg offers Paul O'Neill of Alcoa to illustrate how altering a single habit in an organization (albeit in a highly focused and disciplined manner) can transform the total organization.

Chapter Five, "Starbucks and the Habit of Success," opens with a powerful story of a young man who was raised by drug addicts, and his subsequent struggles to maintain his employment.  His pattern of failure changed when he went to work at Starbucks.  This chapter discusses the importance of willpower and its limitations, how willpower can be strengthened, and planning for success.

Chapter Six, "The Power of a Crisis," uses the examples of doctor error in a Rhode Island hospital, which Duhigg asserts was made inevitable by the toxic atmosphere in the workplace, and a fire in King's Cross Station, London, which was made inevitable by strictly observed divisions of labor, to provide opportunities for transforming the cultures of those two organizations into something stronger and more effective than could have been created as Paul O'Neill did, just by sheer force of leadership.

Chapter Seven, "How Target Knows What You Want Before You Do" is probably the most widely read section of the book, as it was excerpted by the New York Times (Duhigg's employer) and Forbes, among others.  It's readable and informative, and fairly creepy in disclosing how much information we unwittingly distribute about ourselves, and how unlikely we are to curtail the activities that make it possible for Target to know a woman is pregnant before any of her immediate family members do.

Several reviewers have described these sections as "filler," but I found that they addressed complaints common to people who claim to want to change their habits but lack willpower, and provided guideposts to an attentive reader for what qualities set one up for success.  I personally found that, although the sections were more directly addressing corporate bodies, that the information was driven by the individuals within those organizations and therefore applicable to me and my own private attempts to alter my habits.

Part Three was an interesting summing up.  Chapter Eight, "Saddleback Church and the Montgomery Bus Boycott" addressed the components that made those movements (if one can call a mega-church a movement) successful.  The Montgomery Bus Boycott, particularly, was really interesting: we celebrate Rosa Parks's heroism, deservedly, but the fact is, several other individuals had made similar stands without sparking the Civil Rights Movement.  Duhigg's explanation for why Parks had the right stuff to make it happen makes for informative reading (the short version being, Parks was a genuinely nice and widely connected member of Montgomery society).

Chapter Nine, "The Neurology of Free Will: Are We Responsible for Our Habits?" puts all the preceding information in perspective.  It contrasts Brian Thomas, an Englishman who killed his wife while sleepwalking, with Angie Bachmann, a compulsive gambler who lost many hundreds of thousands of dollars.  He describes the neurology of sleepwalking activity and of a compulsive activity such as gambling (or drinking, or binge eating) and concludes:

Hundreds of habits influence our days -- they guide how we get dressed in the morning, talk to our kids, and fall asleep at night... Each of them has a different cue and offers a unique reward.  Some are simple and others are complex, drawing upon emotional triggers and offering subtle neurochemical prizes.  But every habit, no matter its complexity, is malleable.  The most addicted alcoholics can become sober.  The most dysfunctional companies can transform themselves.  A high school dropout can become a successful manager. 
However, to modify a habit, you must decide to change it.  You must consciously accept the hard work of identifying the cues and rewards that drive the habits' routines, and find alternatives.  You must know you have control and be self-conscious enough to use it -- and every chapter in this book is devoted to illustrating a different aspect of why that control is real.  [italics original]
pages 269-270
The information provided in the body of the book was enough for me to understand how to create a road map for how to change my habits, but Duhigg did provide a digest of the material in his Appendix, "A Reader's Guide to Using These Ideas."

Overall, I found this book to be both readable and powerful, and I look forward to implementing what I've learned to further my own goals.  Five Stars.

Monday, June 18, 2012


I am writing this post on my laptop from my bed, with my two little boys flanking me, watching a polar bear show.  It is 7:57 in the morning and I'm not hollering at anybody to get their shoes on, brush their teeth or PUT THAT TOY DOWN RIGHT NOW OR YOU WON'T SEE IT FOR TWO DAYS!!!

God Bless Summer Vacation.

So I'm a little behind on following up on my May goals.  Here's how I did:

  • Laundry:  HA!! HA!!! HAHAHAHA!!!!!
  • Plan meals for the week: well, I paid enough attention to the calendar to make reasonable plans for meals; I didn't do a detailed plan weekly as I intended, but as we finished emptying the Big House at least I adhered to reasonable expectations.
  • Weekly Home Blessing: Um.  Not so much.
  • Empty the Big House: MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!!!
  • Charlotte's playdate: Yes, she got one.  And I connected with the other mom so we'll be able to nurture the girls' friendship over the summer.
  • 20 minutes with my kids: Sometimes they got 20 minutes.  Sometimes they got 5.  They seem happy.
  • Duncan's Junie B. Jones: Yes, we read one from beginning to end.  
  • Blog goals: I met my goals, although I would have preferred two adult remixes and look forward to getting more regular with those in July.
  • Novel: Not a lot of writing, but I did get some more planning on the plot done and feel that the story plan is stronger than it was
  • WOM Anthology piece: Was tabled till this week, I need to get working
  • WOM membership: Of course I took care of that, it was visible to others

Takeaway:  Laundry notwithstanding, the goal planning made a huge difference in my focus and ability to get things done. My main goals for the first weeks of summer vacation are:
  • Catch up on the laundry (no, really, this time it's going to happen)
  • Finish the anthology piece
  • Maintain a regular blogging schedule even with the kids home
  • Clear the chaos of the final move-in
  • Recharge with my kids and establish some routines and expectations for the vacation so it's enjoyable for the entire family
Hoping for better results at the end of June than I enjoyed in May!

Parting thoughts:  
"Do polar bears giggle?" (courtesy 6 yo Duncan)

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Richer Part of Simply Richer Living

  I am a huge reader.  I love a wide range of literature, depending on my mood; during this particular time of change in my home life, I'm loving non-fiction (biography and history).  When I'm calmer and feeling a lot more secure, I love more serious fiction -- Lolita baffled me, until I got to the end and everything became clear.  When things are smooth, I have the patience to make a long investment to find out why something is worth the effort.

And of course I'm a sucker for really great popular fiction, like (I'm not embarrassed to admit) Twilight or Outlander or The Partner or a great mystery/thriller/spy/horror novel.  I love that summer gives me such an excellent excuse to read beach books.

Because I'm in a time of transition and the busy-ness of the end of my kids' school year, I'm enjoying the solidness of a good biography, which is absorbing and thought-provoking, but solid and lacking any real suspense.  The one I'm reading now, Lytton Strachey: The New Biography ** by Michael Holroyd*, is exceptionally well-written, and the story of Holroyd's efforts to bring it forth is interesting in itself.  I'm really enjoying it, but since I know the broad outline of Strachey's story, I am totally OK with setting the book down to run an errand or go to bed or hang out with my kids or whatever the day requires.  Whereas, when I read Twilight, I sucked the four volumes down in one weekend while my kids watched waaaaaay too many movies and ate peanut butter & jelly sandwiches so I could prepare their meals while I read the book (I'm not kidding -- I set the book next to their plates and read while I spread the jelly).

The best exercise I've gotten in the last six months was the hour I spent pacing my own house while I read  the last few chapters of Dragonfly in Amber, the second book of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series.  Seriously, I was panting by the time I had to put the book down to pick up my kindergartener, and it wasn't just because of the steamy sex scenes.

Anyway, business is beginning to wind down on this whole house sale/move business -- FINALLY -- and my mind is turning to fiction and engagement again.  So when I found this article, "Read and Comprehend (Nearly) Everything" by Nick Kolakowski, the timing was right.  And I liked it.  Apparently, the secret to understanding Dante's Inferno isn't just being a poetry-comprehension genius -- it's in shelling out the bucks (or having the patience to find for cheap or free) for a really good explanatory edition.  And then having the patience to work your way through it with the endnotes/footnotes.

I have to say, that's pretty reassuring.  It takes a lot of that whole "I didn't go to Oxford so I will never understand this stuff" out of it and just replaces it with a bit of work.  Which one is free to undertake, or not, with basically a $15-$17 investment.  Not to mention Internet access.

Kolakowski also references the Modern Library Top 100, which apparently wasn't only relevant on the eve of Y2K.  The cool thing about the Top 100 list is that it's actually several lists, including reader lists and board ("expert") lists, Radcliffe's Rival list, and a list of 100 Best Non-Fiction.  It's a nice resource to reference when you're not sure what to read next, or if you just want to create kind of a "bucket list" of reading material.  For myself, that's an impossible task, as my "to-read" list grows literally at least twenty times faster than my "read" list.

Which brings me to Goodreads.  I have kept a journal of the books I've read and had recommended to me since I was in high school, but I've abandoned them all now.  I keep track of what I've read and what I'm going to read and what I am currently reading on Goodreads.  It's like a Facebook for fellow readers.  I'm very picky with my friends list -- I have only 23 on Goodreads, compared to ten times that many on Facebook -- and that includes writers who interest me (like Jasper Fforde, who also merits his own blog entry).  I only want friends on Goodreads who are either so close that I can't ignore them (like my husband) or whose reading taste is so similar to mine that I want to know what has caught their eye -- like two friends whose permission to be mentioned I have not requested.

The point is, I recommend Goodreads as a great resource for reading and for reviews.  The reviews are a little more stringent, but more accurate, than those on Amazon, and tend to be written by people who actually read or attempted to read the book they are reviewing.  There are also opportunities to receive free books as part of Goodreads' Giveaway program, among other things.


Sorry, got a little distracted placing entries for the Giveaway program...

Anyway, Goodreads doesn't give me anything to plug them, either, but I love how functional and reliable it is.  If the zombie apocalypse comes along on December 21, 2012, and there's no more internet, then I'll be hurting for sure, but for now, it's a great tool and resource.  Check it out.

Kolakowski's final paragraph takes all the pressure off reading with a purpose:
Most constant readers find a balance between the complex, "deep" stuff (i.e., Nabokov, weighty biographies of famous historical figures) lightened with servings of frothy popular literature and nonfiction.
The takeaway here is:  even when life is crazy and hectic and maybe even borderline unmanageable, find a way to do the things you love in ways that fit your life as it is shaped in the moment.  There is something out there that can refresh your brain, whatever way it needs refreshing, and if you don't, then what's all the rest of it for?

Lytton Strachey,
as painted by Dora Carrington
courtesy Wikipedia
  *Lytton Strachey was a member of the Bloomsbury Group and a close friend of Virginia Woolf's.  He is famous in his own right for his excellent historical writing, especially Eminent Victorians and Queen Victoria (I'm not sure this link is the best edition available but hopefully it's all right).  He was one of the first historical writers to write not just hagiography, but a full and personal biography that considered the subject from a variety of perspectives.  This is a lot more important than it sounds and would be worth spending an entire separate post on, but for now it's sufficient to say that the world would be a much stiffer place without Lytton Strachey, who is an absolutely delightful character.  If you don't have it in you to read 500 pages of great and detailed biography that includes snippets of him prowling darkened WWI London in search of handsome young men, then watch the movie Carrington, starring Emma Thompson and Jonathan Pryce, among others, available on Netflix Instant Queue.

** Note that I'm not remunerated by anybody at all for anything that I put on my blog at this time, I'm only sharing these links for my readers' convenience.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Lessons Learned

  1. Buy low, sell high.
  2. Depending on your geographical location and personal priorities, renting rather than owning a home can be a very good use of your resources (especially if you can't meet condition 1).
  3. If you must move, hire very good movers.  And have the courtesy to be prepared for them.
  4. Storage units always look bigger when they're empty.
  5. The size of the job will expand to the amount of time available.
  6. The amount of time available will generally involve an all-nighter. 
  7. It is a lot harder to figure out what to do with the stuff you are purging than it is to determine what to purge.
  8. If at all possible, try to avoid moving simultaneously with the end of the school year.
  9. Since the laundry (and all other ordinary chores) won't happen during a move, buy extra underwear.
  10. When one door closes, another door opens.  But that doesn't mean it might not be a bit of a walk to find the open door (that's a Stephen King Dark Tower reference).
  11. This too shall pass.