The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business
Change can be difficult.
Often, the thing which stands between our current self and our ideal self is, in a word, habits.
For years, I’ve wanted to maintain a healthy weight, to meditate daily and to respond in kindness and compassion rather than react in impatience or anger, to name just three examples.
To begin with, what exactly is a habit, and why do they hold such power over our lives?
“At one point, we all consciously decided how much to eat and what to focus on when we got to the office, how often to have a drink or when to go for a jog. Then we stopped making a choice, and the behavior became automatic. It’s a natural consequence of our neurology. … Without habit loops, our brains would shut down, overwhelmed by the minutiae of daily life. … Habits emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often. This effort-saving instinct is a huge [evolutionary] advantage.” — Charles Duhigg
Here are my key takeaways:
- Habits matter. A study published at Duke University found that we spend roughly 40% of our waking hours on autopilot. Habits dominate our workplace, our health and our relationships. They guide our decision making and even influence the ways in which we perceive life. Many emerge unconsciously, but we can also design them deliberately.
- Some habits matter more than others; “keystone” habits. For example, habitual exercise — even as infrequently as once a week — often helps people to become more patient, to adopt a healthier diet and to be more productive at work. Even something as simple as making your bed in the morning correlates to sticking to a budget. There’s something about these and other habits which help propel you into larger change. (However, keystone habits aren’t always easy to identify.)
- Habits consist of a cue, a routine and a reward. The habit cycle consists of a cue (something that triggers the behavior), a routine (what we actually do), and reward (why we did it). Finally, the habit is established when we crave the reward (I drink coffee in the morning because I crave both the taste and the caffeine) and repeat the cycle.
- You don’t erase a habit; you substitute a new routine for the old one. With very few exceptions, we don’t simply “quit” a habit; our limited willpower can only take us so far, and in most cases, our original cues (a bad day at work, a fight with our partner, etc.) remain. For this reason, we need to substitute the old routine (say, smoking or snacking) with a new one (a walk, a cup of coffee, etc.) which can deliver a similar reward.
- Cues and rewards aren’t always obvious. It may not be clear exactly why we’re doing something, or why our mind registers the reward to begin with. Suppose I’m habitually snacking throughout the day; it would be easy to assume that I’m hungry or bored, but for me personally, I often snack when I’m anxious about something (meeting a deadline, solving a tough problem, experiencing fear about something in my life). For years, I’ve self-medicated with food, but in recent months, I’ve noticed that I can get a similar emotional “release” from taking a five-minute walk instead.
- Habits are personal, organizational and cultural. When we think of habits, we tend to think of having a sweet tooth or a messy kitchen. But habits form within organizations (companies, sports teams, churches) and even societies as well.
In one chapter, Charles interviewed Rick Warren, chief pastor of Saddleback, one of the largest churches in America. For centuries, churches have prescribed moral standards but devote less attention to helping the faithful actually build these habits. Saddleback emphasizes participation in small groups and a daily meditative practice as keystone habits for promoting change.
In another chapter, hall-of-fame NFL coach Tony Dungy resurrected two perennially awful teams with a unique emphasis on cultivating player habits.
Fortune 500 behemoth Alcoa transformed itself (and its stock price) with an obsessive focus on habits around worker safety.
- Habits may have a neurological basis. For example, pathological gamblers demonstrate different brain activity. It is, however, unclear if they’re born this way or if long-term exposure to gambling simply changes how their brains function.
- Change is easier when we believe and work together. One of the reasons that Alcoholics Anonymous is effective is that it inspires belief and it unites people together in pursuit of a common change. As Charles says:
“Belief is easier when it occurs within a community.” — Charles Duhigg
- Habits start when we’re young. The value in signing our children up for sports or piano lessons isn’t so much that they become a star athlete or musician; it’s simply helping them to cultivate their own sense of willpower and self-regulation.
- When possible, decide before temptation (or distraction) strikes. Because exercising willpower requires mental energy, we can try to script an important decisions ahead of time. I might decide before going out that I’m only going to have two beers or that I’ll get the salad instead fried wings; if I wait until I am distracted to make that decision, then I’m much less likely to make a healthy choice.
- There is no single formula for habit change.
“It’s not that formulas don’t exist. The problem is that there isn’t one formula for changing habits. There are thousands. Individuals and habits are all different, and so the specifics of diagnosing and changing the patterns in our lives differ from person to person and behavior to behavior. Giving up cigarettes is different from curbing overeating, which is different from changing how you communicate with your spouse, which is different from how you prioritize tasks at work. What’s more, each person’s habits are driven by different cravings. … Some habits yield easily to analysis and influence. Others are more complex and obstinate, and require prolonged study. And for others, change is a process that never fully concludes.” — Charles Duhigg
Often, change comes slowly, despite good intentions. Habits are key to the long-term success of any effort, yet they’re not well understood. I really enjoyed The Power of Habit and hope that you will too.