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How do habits actually work? Why do people keep doing self-destructive things? Can habit development cause a positive change in an organization?
All of these questions are answered in Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habits: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.
In this The Power of Habit review, I’ll talk about how you can use this book to help develop good habits.
The Power of Habit (An Overview)
I can not say enough good things about this book. I have read literally hundreds of books about habits and habit change in my life. Both for personal pleasure and for researching ideas for books I have written.
Some books were horrible, some were decent and a few were really good. The Power of Habit is head and shoulders above the rest. The best book on habits ever written.
The Power of Habit is broken into three main sections
Part 1: Habits of Individuals
Duhigg begins with a description of the habit loop. This is a circular process with three main components:
- The Cue: A situational trigger that is based on a reward you’re seeking.
- The Routine: A physical or emotional action you take to obtain the reward.
- The Reward: The satisfaction you seek by following the routine.
To illustrate this concept, check out this flowchart that Duhigg offers on his blog:
The key to a permanent change is to break down the habit loop into three distinct components. When you know why you take a certain action, it becomes easier to substitute this behavior with a positive change.
Duhigg has a great description of the habit loop:
To change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.Charles Duhigg
The majority of the first section provides examples from individuals and organizations that use habit loops to improve product sales.
For instance, Duhigg talks about how companies like Pepsodent and Febreeze identified the routines of customers and used this information to sell more products.
Part 2: Habits of Successful Organizations
Again, Duhigg does a great job of showing how habits can have a positive (and negative) impact on all aspects of society.
He gives example from Alcoa, Michael Phelps, Target, King’s Cross Station, Starbuck’s Coffeehouse and the “Hey Ya!” song by Outkast.
All of this is interesting information. But what really stands out is Duhigg’s concept of the “keystone habit.”
What is a keystone habit?
A keystone habit can be defined as a single habit that produces a positive, chain effect in a person or organization.
One example is the habit of food journaling. Writing down a diary of your food intake can generate positive results in many areas of your life.
It can: improve your diet, make you exercise, keep healthy foods nearby and stop snacking on junk foods. All of these positive changes can happen with a food journal routine.
Part 3: Habits Impact on Society
This section details important social habit lessons from the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, and how “free will” relates to a gambling addiction.
All of these examples were interesting, but they paled in comparison to what’s covered at the end of the book:
4 Steps for Changing Any Habit
Unfortunately, the best part (in my opinion) is buried in the back of the book on page 275. Here, Duhigg details a 4 step process for changing any habit.
I understand why Duhigg puts this blueprint at end of his book. He makes a valid point about the nature of habit development – everyone has different cues and cravings. So it’s hard to provide a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution.
He puts it best with this comment:
It’s not that formulas don’t exist. The problem is that there isn’t one formula for changing habits. There are thousands.
With that said, I think Duhigg provides an excellent framework for changing any habit.
He breaks down the process into four steps:
Step 1 – Identify the Routine
A habit has three main components – cue, routine and reward. Your goal is to identify how you go from a cue to following a habit that you hate. The more you know about a routine, the easier it is to change it.
Step 2 – Experiment with Rewards
There is a specific reason why you follow a bad habit. That’s why it’s important to understand the cravings that drive this behavior. The goal of step two is identify the actual reason you complete a specific routine.
During this phase you’ll adjust your habit, so it delivers a different result. This helps you figure out why you follow it.
Is it from a need to fit in? Do you get an emotional charge? Are you trying to relax? Do you actually crave something else?
One of these questions can be the real reason for why you follow a habit.
Step 3 – Isolate the Cue
All habits have a trigger that tells the brain that you want a specific reward. The trick is to identify the cue for every action.
In his book, Duhigg talks about the most common cues – location, time, emotional state, other people and what action precedes this cue.
You can gain a lot of insight by answering these five questions:
- Where are you?
- What time is it?
- What's your emotional state?
- Who else is around?
- What action preceded the urge?
Write down these five answers, every time you experience a habit cue, and you will take that first step towards making a lasting change.
Step 4 – Have a Plan
Now it’s time to change that bad habit! You can’t control the cue and you can’t change the reward. What you can change is the routine.
In this final step, you will follow a routine that provides the same reward without following the negative habit. The simplest way to do this is to have a specific plan of action whenever you experience a cue.
This plan is almost like setting a goal. You’ll take all the feedback from the five questions (step 3) and create a step-by-step blueprint for how to act when you feel the need to follow a bad habit.
Let’s say you’re trying to change the habit of drinking a few beers after work.
In the research phase you discovered this behavior comes from a need to relax after a stressful day. You also discovered that you get the same reward 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise.
So your new routine will look like this:
At 5:30 PM every day, I will exercise for 30 minutes because it relaxes me.
Having a specific course of action makes it easier to change a habit because you’re giving the brain the same reward that it seeks when a specific cue is triggered.
Now you may be wondering how long it takes to form this new habit. Take a few minutes to watch the video below to find out:
Takeaways from the The Power of Habit
You should have a pretty good idea of what this power of habit is about by this point. But I am a habitual list maker, so let me give you a simple list of some of the important facts The Power of Habit teaches us about.
This review doesn’t do justice to The Power of Habit book. Charles Duhigg does a great job of describing how habits work in a variety of settings. Plus he provides a great framework for changing your negative habits.
Final Thoughts on The Power of Habit
The Power of Habit is an excellent book that’s chock full of interesting concepts and examples. If this sounds like a fun book you'd be interested in, then be sure to check it out here.
Finally, if you want to read more self-help books, check out these blog posts:
- 250+ Best Self Help Books
- 29 Best Books on Building Good Habits
- 11 Best Morning and Daily Routine Books
Finally, if you need help with building habits, then check out this nine-step blueprint that walks you through the entire process of creating lifelong habits.)