Friday, December 21, 2012

The power of habit - Review

Number of pages, Edition: 371, RANDOM HOUSE.

Author : Charles Duhigg 

When you woke up this morning, what did you do first? Did you hop in the shower, check your email, or grab a doughnut from the kitchen counter? Did you brush your teeth before or after you toweled off? Tie the left or right shoe first? What did you say to your kids on your way out the door? Which route did you drive to work? When you got to your desk, did you deal with email, chat with a colleague, or jump into writing a memo? ...”

In his book “The Power of Habit”, Charles Duhigg proves that habits have an important role to play in our personal lives, in businesses and organizations. They are also at the heart of social movements and societies: “life is a mass of habits”. According to him, most people don’t live the way they want but the way they are used to. However, he insists that “they aren’t destiny; habits can be changed, if we understand how they work”. 

Through the three parts of the book, Charles Duhigg doesn’t give us a magic pill to build good habits or to change the bad ones but he shares with us some fascinating stories and researches to help us understanding how habits function and how they influence our personal, professional and social lives.

The first part of the book focuses on the role that habits play in our personal lives. The second part of the book concentrates on how habits help shape businesses and organizations. The third and final part of the book shows the importance of habits in social movements.

In the following paragraphs, I will share with you some interesting ideas in the book. 

I. The Habit Loop: how habits function? 
1. To demonstrate that “Humans are creatures of habits”, Charles Duhigg tells the story of Eugene Pauly. 
An old man who was suffering from viral encephalitis, a disease caused by a relatively harmless virus that produces cold sores, fever blisters, and mild infections on the skin. He could remember most of the events in his life that had occurred prior to about 1960. But he can’t remember about later decades. He also can find the bathroom without hesitation despite he can’t draw a map for his house. 
Eugene's life lost its continuity with the past. He experienced only life's present, moment by moment. Not remembering that he already ate his morning meal, Eugene would eat multiple breakfasts. When asked to draw a map of his own home, he could not remember its layout. However, he remembered how to prepare his breakfast and how to navigate through the rooms of his house with ease.

Several studies had shown that even someone, who can’t remember his own age or almost anything else - like Eugene Pauly -, can develop some individual habits. Somehow, we are all like Eugene. Every day, we do many things unconsciously.
One paper published by a Duke University researcher in 2006 found that more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits.
2. Charles Duhigg tells us that humans rely on similar neurological processes every day.  This process can be presented as follows:

“First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future”
3. However, the habits loop: cue, routine and reward, isn’t enough for a new habit to last. There is another important element that strengthens the loop: the craving brain. This is when the brain starts expecting the reward that the loop becomes automatic. 
“If you want to start a running each morning, it’s essential that you choose a simple cue (like always lacing up your sneakers before breakfast or leaving your running clothes next to your bed) and a clear reward (such a midday treat, a sense of accomplishment from recording your miles, or the endorphin rush you get from a jog). But countless studies have shown that a cue and a reward, on their own, aren’t enough for a new habit to last. Only when your brain starts expecting the reward -craving the endorphins or sense of accomplishment- will it become automatic to lace up your jogging shoes each morning”

II. How to create a new habit and how to change an old one? 

As an example of habit’s change, Charles Duhigg tells us the story of Lisa Allen: 
“Lisa Allen, according to her file, was thirty-four years old, had started smoking and drinking when she was sixteen, and had struggled with obesity for most of her life. At one point, in her mid-twenties, collection agencies were hounding her to recover $10,000 in debts. An old resume listed her longest job as lasting less than a year”
Within five years, Lisa had transformed herself into a person that bore almost no resemblance to herself. 
“The woman in front of researchers today… was lean and vibrant, with the toned legs of a runner. She looked a decade younger than the photos in her chart and like she could out-exercise anyone in the room. According to the most recent report in her file, Lisa had no outstanding debts, didn’t drink, and was in her thirty-ninth month at a graphic design firm”
So, how did Lisa change her life? 

That's simple: Lisa changed her old bad habit.

1. Scientists discover that habits are stored on basal ganglia, an oval of cells in the center of the skull.

Toward the center of the skull is a golf ball sized lump of tissue that is similar to what you might find inside the head of a fish, reptile, or mammal. This is the basal ganglia, an oval of cells that, for years, scientists didn’t understand very well, except for suspicions that, it played a role in diseases such as Parkinson’s. Basal ganglia, in other words, stored habits even while the rest of the brain went to sleep.

So, once habits are stored in our brain, we can’t eradicate them from there. Even thus, we can create new habits that come to override the old ones.
Habits -even once they are rooted in our minds- aren’t destiny. We can choose our habits, once we know how. And once you know a habit exits, you have the responsibility to change it.
2. According to Duhigg, the most effective way to modify your habits is to attack the habit loop directly, and to replace an old routine that is associated with a particular cue and reward, with a new routine. This is known as the golden rule of habit change:
“To change an old habit, we must address an old craving. You have to keep the same cues and reward as before, and feed the craving by inserting a new routine”

As we can see, in the first scenario, the person gets distressed over something (the cue), he takes a few drinks or gets drunk (the routine) and then he momentarily feels calm and relieved (the reward). In the second scenario, the routine is changed. The person gets distressed (the cue), he calls his sponsor and talks things through (the new routine), and he feels calm and relieved (the reward).

3. Furthermore, Charles Duhigg insists on the power of a key element to keep a permanent behavior:  Belief.
Belief was the ingredient that made a reworked habit loop into a permanent behavior.
He adds that Belief is much stronger and durable when it is shared within a community. 
"We know that a habit cannot be eradicated, it must, instead, be replaced. And we know that habits are most malleable when the Golden Rule of habit change is applied: If we keep the same cue and the same reward, a new routine can be inserted. But that’s not enough. For a habit to stay changed, people must believe change is possible. And most often, that belief only emerges with the help of a group”

III. The keystone Habits and small wins
"Some habits, in other words, matter more than others in remaking businesses and lives. They are keystone habits, and they can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate. Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything."
1. The author gives as example Paul O’Neil the CEO of Alcoa (American Aluminum Company) between 1987 and 2000. Before O’Neill arrives, every Alcoa plant had at least one accident per week and he failed to expand into new product lines while competitors stole customers and profits away. In order to save the company from this critical situation, O’Neill targeted workplace safety as a keystone habit. 

So, what happened after his decision? 
“O’Neill’s plan for getting to zero injuries entailed the most radical realignment in Alcoa’s history. The key to protecting Alcoa employees, O’Neill believed, was understanding why injuries happened in the first place. And to understand why injuries happened, you had to study how the manufacturing process was going wrong. To understand how things were going wrong, you had to bring in people to educate workers about quality control and the most efficient work processes, so that it would be easier to do everything right, since correct work is also safer work. In other words, to protect workers, Alcoa needed to become the best, most streamlined aluminum company on earth” 
As we have just read, when O’Neil focused on the safety of employees, it has triggered a series of actions that have helped the company to solve other problems related directly or indirectly to this habit. 

And, what was the result?
“Alcoa’s profits would hit a record high. By the time O’Neill retired in 2000, the company’s annual net income was five times larger than before he arrived, and its market capitalization had risen by $27 billion”

2. Another success story involving businesses and keystone habits concerns the Starbucks Company. Duhigg explains that Starbucks teaches to their employees skills that schools, families, and communities failed to provide. He focuses on an important habit: Willpower.
Dozens of studies show that willpower is the single most important keystone habit for individual success. Students who exerted high levels of willpower were more likely to earn higher grades in their classes and gain admission into more selective schools.

Starbucks taught their employees how to handle moments of adversity by giving them willpower habit loops. In an effort to harness the incredible potential of willpower, the company Starbucks created a new training program for its frontline workers that would transform them into models of self-discipline.
“In order to make this goal a reality, Starbucks spent millions of dollars to come up with a curriculum that would train employees in self-discipline. The end result was a set of workbooks that, in effect, serve as guides to how to make willpower a habit in workers lives”.

Specifically, Starbucks employees are trained in how to respond to particular cues, “such as a screaming customer or a long line at a cash register”. With preset routines that are designed to minimize conflict and stress, and maximize customer satisfaction. The rewards for behaving in these preset ways at the appropriate times are also specified. So, for instance, “the company specified rewards—a grateful customer, praise from a manager—that employees could look to as evidence of a job well done”. 

What was the result of this policy?
“Starbucks has grown from a sleepy Seattle company into a behemoth with more than seventeen thousand stores and revenues of more than $10 billion a year”

3. However, identifying keystone habits is not always easy, but there are tricks for it. Some researchers have shown that keystone habits seem to operate on the principle ofsmall wins’.
“Small wins which are just what they sound like: tiny victories that give you an indication that you are progressing and that you can in fact succeed.”
When a person has a lot of habits to change, the way to do it seems to be so long. Fortunately, he can concentrate on a keystone at one time, which helps him achieve small wins. This provides him an important sense of accomplishments and a belief that change is possible. Small wins trigger a chain reaction that extends to all aspects of a person’s life. 
“Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach”


The main topic of the book which is the importance of habits in our lives is well known by all of us. There is nothing new. However, I think the author has innovated on his way to prove it. Charles Duhigg has masterfully combined serious psychological and neurological studies and experiments, and captivating stories about personal changes and social movements in order to reveal how habits shape our lives and how we can shape our habits. 

Actually, I found it difficult to summarize this book because of the huge information it contains: 
  • Personal experiences of ordinary and famous people.
  • Scientific experiments.
  • Marketing information.
  • Social phenomenon and movements.
  • ... 
In the review, I tried to share with you only some ideas that I jugged the most interesting. But, there is other important information in the book:
  • Experiments that analyze addiction. 
  • Advertising and how it influences the collective habits.
  • How companies increase profit by analyzing consumer habits.
  • The role of habits on social movements.
  • ... 
In some parts, I was bored because some stories were too long. The author begins a story then moves to another and then to another and then returns back to the first story to finish it. It’s true that this method added some suspense to the book but it wasn’t a success all the time. 

Finally, I think that the book is very interesting, well-worked and worth reading. So I rate it 5/5.

Rachida KHTIRA

Software engineer at the Moroccan Ministry of Finance.
Interests: Reading, travel and social activities.



  1. Hi racha,

    Thank you very much for this interesting review. Personally, I’ve struggled to acquire some habits, like getting up early or practising sport regularly. So I really need to read this book, because it will help me know how habits work and how to deal with them. And I agree with the author about the concept of reward, I’ve experienced that with many habits: when you feel happy and satisfied after doing something, you want to feel always the same, so you do it again. It’s really efficient.
    I also liked the idea of small wins, because it makes you feel you’re improving. I’ve had some small wins in the past, and when I feel tired or depressed, I come back to these moments and I remember that everything is possible. Those wins always give me a push and encourage me to keep going and never to give up.
    Finally, I’m very curious now about the rest of the book, I will try to read it soon and come back to discuss it with you.

    Thanks again racha.

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