Book Review: The Power of Habit

After a twitter conversation with Rachel Davies, I wanted to read a book about change, and so I decided to read The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change by Charles Duhigg. After reading the first chapter, I realised that I had read the book but neglected to write up my thoughts, so I thought I would re-read the book.

The Power of Habit

Much like many business books, this book is full of anecdote’s and stories to help reinforce the habit loop. Early on the book talks about the habit cycle that once formed, is often very difficult to break. It involves a simple three step process that our brain reinforces over time as a way of saving energy in the brain. The author tells about research into rats that displays the difference in brain activity when a rat is first exploring a maze, compared to one that they are are used to navigating which they habitually navigate based on expecting a reward.

The habit loop

Habits save time
Habits are interesting because they save us time, but of course, perils lurk when habits have bad consequences such as drinking, gambling or unhealthy eating (probably one of my worst habits!). Fortunately the author focuses on understanding what things we can do to adapt behaviour.

We cannot stop a habit, only override it with a stronger one
With my understanding, small changes in the environment might not trigger our habits and if we can work out our cues, we might be able to stop the behaviour we want to change. However if we cannot change the trigger (or we cannot identify the trigger), we cannot often stop the habit. We can, however, create a stronger habit that overrides the other habit if we can connect the cue and reward, simply replacing the behaviour with an alternative habit. We do have to be careful though because our underlying habit still exists, and we might still revert to it under times of stress.

The strength of our mind
Another interesting point is the power of our own mind in that for change to stick, we really have to believe it will work. Very similar to the placebo effect cognitive bias, our minds are amazing machines and sometimes the power of willing it to be so makes a big difference to whether or not something works. This is often why some people talk about change only sticking when someone has a crisis because it is at this critical point where a person will fully commit to (and believe) an alternative.

Keystone habits
The book moves on from individual habits to organisational habits and from here, I felt the book explained the emergent behaviour out of a complex system through the lens of habits. For example, they talked about the organisational shift Alcoa went through when Paul O’Neill mandated a focus on fixing safety in their organisational.

The author describes this relentless focus on improving safety as a “keystone habit”, or a habit that if changed had the ability to trigger multiple other changes. In a systems thinking world, these would be leverage points or root causes. Same idea, explained differently.

Conclusion
I found The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change an easy book to read, and offers a lot of insight into why we might behave as we do in certain ways. I like its suggestions about actions we can take to create change, although I don’t necessarily agree with all of the anecdotes as I believe there are other ways of explaining the situation.

2 comments

  1. Franklin Chen

    It’s a great practical book. I’ve used it to actually change various habits in my life. The main takeaway for me was that we are not as strong as we think we are, so we should use systems to make things happen, rather than rely on nebulous “will power”.

  2. Patrick

    Hi Franklin,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. The book reinforced the idea of our “limited will power” and gave some good tips on what we can do instead. I’m really glad to hear it’s helped you change habits in your life. It’d be great to read a blog post about it some day.

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