Book Notes & Review: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

My notes and review on the book to apply habits that can transform your life

The Power of Habit is a best seller book for the New York Times,, and USA Today; authored by Charles Duhigg and first released in 2012.

This book explores the science of habit and how you can change your life by creating good habits and reforming your bad ones.

On a personal level, I created new good habits while reading this book being consistent in reading a book and learning a language every single day.

How to Create Good Habits and Quit Bad Ones
What science says about habits

What makes this book really valuable is the dependence on 100s of interviews and 1000s of scientific papers and studies to understand how our habits are formed individually being ingrained into our brains and how understanding habits can change organizational perspective and furthermore an entire society.

In this blog post, I’ll distill my notes on the book that has three parts:

  1. The Habits of Individuals
  2. The Habits of Successful Organizations
  3. The Habits of Societies

And a guide to applying the ideas and I’ll leave my review at the end.

The Habits of Individuals

The first part is about understanding why you’re doing what you’re doing every day like you’re used to. Being able to understand the habit formation ingrained into your brain allows you to change formed patterns or create new habits.

You’ll know:

  • Based on a paper published by a Duke University researcher, 40% of our actions are due to habits, not decisions.
  • Study shows that even someone who doesn’t remember his own age can develop complex habits.
  • The hippocampus, a part of the brain associated with learning and memory, is not responsible for forming our habits showing a case study on patients who had seizures after landing on their heads can develop a habit through another part of the brain associated with habit formation which is basal ganglia.
  • Mental activity is decreased while doing the routine but activated at the start and end of that routine. You’ll see how through the rat experiment conducted by MIT researchers.
  • Science of habits shows that a habit consists of three components: cue, routine, and a reward.
  • Cue is the key that triggers you to make that habit which can be a visual trigger, a time of the day, a sequence of thoughts, or an emotional state.
  • The reward is the feeling you get after doing the routine which can be a specific meal you love, a good word you want to hear, a physical sensation you get, or feeling proud of what you have accomplished.
  • Finding happiness doesn’t necessarily need memory.
  • Claude Hopkins, one of the pioneers of advertising, explained how to create new habits among consumers through marketing a toothpaste product, Pepsodent.
  • After 5 years of changing people's habits into brushing their teeth, Pepsodent became well-known and the secret in creating that habit is the craving which creates cues and rewards.
  • Hopkins was selling a sensation which is feeling pretty while you smile.
  • The positioning of Febreze, the spray product, was to get rid of embarrassing smells. The cue is the smell of cigarettes and the reward is fresh air, not just odor eliminated from clothes.
  • Beware of not receiving a reward as it might lead to depression or anger.
  • The cue of exercising could be leaving your running clothes next to bed so that when you wake up you can start the exercise.
  • Tony Dungan was leading one of the worst teams in the National Football League; no winning for almost 16 years, but he said the key to winning is to change players' habits as champions do ordinary things but they do them without thinking.
  • To change a habit, keep the cue and deliver an old reward but insert a new routine.
  • In football, milliseconds matter so Dungy focused on a handful of formation and practice over and over until the behavior is done but it only works if there is no overthinking or second-guess.
  • The cue is looking at the player’s positions and when the pattern is formed, the player doesn’t have to think about what to do rather follows the habit.
  • The power of belief and religion being able to break a bad habit like alcohol.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous, the international aid fellowship, provides a method for attacking the habits that surround alcohol use. Seven out of twelve in the organization’s program mentions God or spirituality.
  • What makes Alcoholics Anonymous successful is that it focuses people to identify cues and rewards and help them create new behaviors.
  • To stop smoking: know the cue and replace smoking with push-ups or taking caffeine drinks.
  • Choosing new routines is important but the secret ingredient is belief. How can you get belief though? Engage in a community to create that belief.
  • To break a bad habit, you must apply the Golden Rule of Habit which is keeping the cue and reward and replacing the bad routine with an alternative one. Then you must believe the change will happen and mostly that will occur with a help of a group.

The Habits of Successful Organizations

The second part of the book focuses on the impact of using habits on business and how a company can change entirely after following a set of behavioral changes in the organization.

In this part you’ll know:

  • Paul Henry O’Neill, CEO of the Aluminum Company of America; Alcoa, and his plan to make the company the safest company in America.
  • O’Neill believed he can’t order people to change. Instead, he focused on one thing — keystone habits.
  • The best agencies understand the importance of routines.
  • Many injuries and deaths happened in Alcoa. To understand why O’Neill learned how the manufacturing process was going wrong.
  • Focusing on keystone habits like exercise can cause widespread shifts known within academic literature as “small wins”.
  • As keystone habits create culture, even after O’Neill had been retired, the injury rate dropped and managers learned to set a message of those habits such as everyone who got earliest to work to get the best spot at a parking lot regardless of this person is VIP or not. The message here was: everyone matters. The result: everyone came to work early.
  • In the early 1980s, O’Neill built an email habit to better communicate with Alcoa's international employees.
  • Keystone habits encourage widespread change and make tough choices like firing a top executive.
  • Bowman, Michael Phelps coach, targeted habits that had nothing to do with swimming to create the right mindset for Phelps to become calm and focused before every race.
  • “Willpower is the most important keystone habit for individual success.”
  • Researchers found kids will score higher in SAT if they have willpower after a study of marshmallows conducted.
  • Self-discipline correlated with working on an impossible puzzle for half an hour.
  • If you want to increase your willpower, you need to conserve your willpower muscle during the day.
  • Research shows that the more time you spend at the gym, the fewer cigarettes you smoke, the fewer caffeine and junk food you consume, and the less depressed you are. Willpower can affect anything.
  • The power of willpower shows that patients with knee surgery who wrote their plans on paper were faster in recovery than the ones who scribbled out their goals. Reason: plans were specific and they identified simple cues.
  • How Starbucks changed Travis Leach — the son of drug addicts and high school dropout due to a self-discipline training Starbucks has!
  • “We’re in the people business serving coffee,” Howard Behar a former president of Starbucks said.
  • To get willpower, Starbucks solved it by turning self-discipline into an organizational habit.
  • Starbucks managers make their willpower habit loop when they deal with angry customer by creating a blank workbook starting with:

When the customer is unhappy my plan is to…

  • One method Starbucks use is the LATTE system which is to Listen to the customer, Acknowledge their problem, Take action, Thank them, and Explain why that problem occurred.
  • Howard Schultz, the man behind Starbucks and his poor starting life in a two-bedroom apartment with two siblings.
  • Schultz bought Starbucks in 1987 and within 3 years 84 stores were built and now (while writing this blog post) there are more than 31,256 stores in more than 76 countries around the world.
  • “Schultz’s focus on employee training and customer service made Starbucks into one of the most successful companies in the world.
  • Result of willpower: Turnover decreased and customer satisfaction increased.
  • Choosing the wrong keystone habits to make disasters. Bad keystone habits of Rhode Island Hospital made the patient die!
  • Institutional habits exist in organizations whether deliberately designed or created without forethought.
  • The difference between success and failure is the designer’s routines.
  • Make it clear (before cultivating an organizational habit) who’s in charge.
  • Rhode Island Hospital started to fire doctors who made wrong operations.
  • After the crisis occurred, a video camera installed and anonymous reporting made at Rhode Island Hospital.
  • The crisis is a valuable opportunity for a wise leader to create an organizational habit. NASA's efforts were unsuccessful for years until the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986.
  • Psychologists figured out why fruits and vegetables should be positioned at the front of a store.
  • Trigger buying habits: vegetables, fruits, and then snacks in order.
  • Target company collected large data to understand its customers preferences.
  • Guessing buying patterns made Target right in its choices.
  • There are always clever questions; when you answer them, you can make profits.
  • People’s habits change when a major life event happens to them.
  • Andrew Pole, a statistician at Target, created a pregnancy prediction model by studying women’s buying habits.
  • To convince Americans to eat livers and kidneys, scientists concluded to make food look and taste similar to what they used to on dinner tables.
  • Due to data science, Target revenue grew from $44B to $65B.
  • The power of prediction is in Pole’s words:

Just wait till the baby comes, We’ll be sending you coupons for things you want before you even know you want them.

The Habits of Societies

In this part, you’ll explore the impact of habits on societies and how developing them can make a revolution.

You’ll read:

  • Rosa Louise McCauley Parks, the American activist, and the black movements and how such a single act of defiance changed the states.
  • Understanding social habits can explain why Parks and Montgomery became the catalyst for a civil rights movement.
  • Black children were arrested for sitting in the white section and refusing to move.
  • Martin Luther King arrived in 1954 a year before Parks’ arrest so the political climate was shifting that time.
  • Black protests suggested boycotting the city’s buses on Monday.
  • The power of social habits of friendship showing that the large, diverse, connected set of friends is a big reason for the civil rights movement.
  • The power of strong ties is when you have your closest friends participate in the same community. If you have weak ties, there is a second thought. Weak ties are strange people.
  • Asking MLK’s closest friend to convince him to participate in boycott after bailing Parks out of jail.
  • The power of building a community — when habits become who you are not because of your ties.
  • Make people figure out where to go on their own!
  • By 1960, the civil rights movement demonstrated in Florida, California, and Washington DC.
  • Following a habit can lead to a crime. For example, sleepwalking and the murders that happened while being unconscious.
  • Sales explode when you make people feel like they almost won!
  • To modify a habit, you must decide to change it.
  • Habits are when we do a thing over and over becomes semi-mechanical.
  • Water is habits, redirect its path by flowing it, and have the power to swim!

Guide to Apply

  • Patterns to change our habits differ from one person to another and from behavior to another.
  • To break a bad habit, choosing another routine instead isn’t important. The point is trying out different hypotheses to determine what craving is driving your routine.
  • A 15-min alarm is important to set after getting the reward of the bad habit. Say your bad habit is taking a chocolate cookie (which makes you gain weight) after going to the cafeteria, as the author did. So you try eating a donut instead but you still feel the urge to go to the cafeteria to eat the chocolate. Then there is no sugar craving! Try something else like chatting with your friends instead of eating the cookie and observe the result and so on. Test some other hypotheses!
  • Habitual cues are whether location, time, emotional state, other people, or immediately proceeding action.
  • Set an “Implementation intentions” plan based on the cue that you’ve figured out and start the replacement routine.

My Review

First off, the sequence of the book is not as the notes above. I rather tried to make each story in the same sequence to make it easier for you to understand the summary of every story.

If you like the story plot to be in one place and the order of the stories to be in order, this might be distracting for you in this book because it’s more like movies that have multiple stories and each piece can relate to another piece of the next story but the story plots are not in order.

For me, I don’t have a problem with detaching the stories except in one situation. Say I leave reading the book at a specific location, next day when I continue reading sometimes I need to recall the past events so I need to turn a couple of pages back until I see the beginning of the current story.

One more thing might be a disadvantage is that I somehow see a contradiction between the first part and the stories in the second and third parts. I feel there is no habit involved as explained scientifically in the first part, it could be of a common sense.

What I like about this book is the incredible research studies mentioned especially in the first part and the big amount of stories which make the topic very illustrative and the end of the book which is considered the heart of it because it gives you guidelines on how to apply the ideas.

On a personal level, I like that I have consistent reading habit now and a big reason for that is The Power of Habit.

You can find it on Amazon.

Credit: Ezz
Disclosure: The Amazon links for the book (in this section) are paid links so if you buy the book, I will have a small commission

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