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.


  1. Wow what an excellent summary of this book. So informative. Thanks Cindy.

  2. Thanks for linking this in to Books You Loved. Cheers

  3. Just to let you know that your review has been featured today on Carole's Chatter. Have a good week.

    1. Carole! Thank you so much! And just in time -- I was feeling a little sluggish and in need of some inspiration. Really appreciate it, very greatly. Thank you.