Book club: The power of habit

Book: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
Publisher: Random House
Reviewer: M.E. Jacobs
My thoughts: 7.5 out of 10

The Power of Habit, written by award-winning journalist Charles Duhigg, encapsulates all our habits, from the individual level, organizational to entire societies – and it does so by using scientific research. That might seem a bold statement, but habits are nothing but learned behaviours, and these behaviours start somewhere. More importantly, the brain stores these behaviours and our actions into automatic routines. The trick to changing our habits, Duhigg explains, lies in understanding the habit loop. Most habits are formed the same way, starting with certain cues, followed by a routine and ending in reward.

Describing scientific experiments and case studies, Duhigg takes the reader on a journey of the mind. In part one, we learn that habits are formed in the basal ganglia, near the centre of the brain. Scientists know this because of two unfortunate individuals who experienced severe brain damage to that very area. These two individuals became the centre of much interest and research, and although they never knew it, they contributed to a much better understanding of how the human mind works, more specifically, how behaviours are formed.

On the individual level, Duhigg explains how we can’t really get rid of bad habits once they are formed, but we can change them. Using smoking as an example, he illustrates the workings of the habit loop. First, the smoker might see a packet of cigarettes – that is the cue. The routine kicks in, meaning he goes out for a smoke. The reward might be different for each smoker, taking the form of social interaction, a minor break from work, decreased anxiety levels or just a plain old dose of nicotine. The problem, Duhigg tells the reader, is not in changing the habit. We can all briefly change our daily routines. The problem is how to create and stick to the new habit. When attempting this difficult feat, it’s important to understand the power of the habit loop. Retain the cue and the reward, but change the routine. Instead of lighting up, the smoker might join his colleagues outside for a chat, or go across the street to the coffee shop to have a cappuccino instead.

When talking about companies, it becomes clear that some organizations have destructive habits yet still manage to show a profit. This is part thanks to structured routines that keep things running smoothly, even though different departments might be at war with each other. This internal civil war often leads to unofficial rules and unwritten guidelines by which the employees abide. Again using case studies, Duhigg shows the reader what can go wrong when these unofficial rules and guidelines break down but, encouragingly, what can go right when new and better official routines are implemented. Unfortunately, it often takes a company-wide crisis before new routines as sought.

In the third and final part of the book, Duhigg delves into societal habits. These habits, if examined without bias, can often lead to the uncomfortable area of morals and ethics. On a societal level, peer-pressure plays an interesting part. It is often looked at in a negative way, but as Duhigg explains, without peer-pressure the civil rights movement in 1960’s America might not have happened.

At times the case studies and stories can become a bit drawn out, and one feels that Duhigg might have been padding to reach the 250 page mark. This critique aside, the book shines a fascinating light on exactly how our habits are born and shaped into our behaviours. It also gives readers the much needed belief that we are able to control our habits and reshape ourselves and our company culture.

What I learned from The Power of Habit:

We are all at one time or another acutely aware of our bad habits and our seemingly inability to change them. I bought this book with one goal in mind, to try and understand my own habits and why I do what I do. If one is truly dedicated to finding the answers, it can be a shocking and revolutionary journey of discovery. Why do we procrastinate? What reward is there in not getting things done? If there is no reward, why do we persist?

The book also directs our thoughts to family habits, which in an organizational sense can be seen as routines. Our parents do the same things their parents did, leaving us in essence doing what our grandparents did. If these routines are in some way negative or detrimental, there is hope in understanding that we can change them.

Selected quotes

● “All our life… is but a mass of habits.” – William James (1892)
● “Routines create truces that allows work to get done.” – Charles Duhigg
● “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” – Rahm Emanuel
● “On a playground, peer-pressure is dangerous. In adult life, it’s how business gets done and communities self-organise.” – Charles Duhigg