It’s not every day that you come across a book dedicated to the idea that our simple habits have the power to transform lives, companies, and even entire societies. But that is the book that Charles Duhigg has written.
And he wrote it seven years ago, so I’m a little late to the party. I discovered it by chance only recently, while perusing the shelves of my local library. By the title alone, I knew that I had to read this book. And once I did, I knew I had to share it.
The book’s subject matter is neatly summed up by its title, The Power Of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. This is a book about automatic, everyday behaviors and their incredible potential to transfigure individuals and groups.
In the introduction, Duhigg writes, “Habits can be changed, if we understand how they work.” This is the central theme behind everything that follows.
The book is divided into three sections, which explore the role that habits play in shaping individuals, organizations, and societies. The first section is the most relevant to the topics that I write about, but each is a fascinating read.
It would be simple enough to write a review explaining why I liked or did not like the book. Suffice it to say I liked it – but no one has to sell me on the life-changing power of habits!
Instead, I would like to share five key takeaways, interesting points for further consideration that I hope will inspire you to read the book yourself.
Takeaway #1: We are hardwired for habits.
Early in the book, Duhigg explores the neuroscience of habits, including research into the brain circuitry that makes so much of what we do automatic.
In the 1990s, researchers at MIT determined that the basal ganglia, a group of deep brain structures, are central to our ability to recall and respond to patterns. They discovered that the basal ganglia “store” our habits in a way that frees up other regions of the brain, such as those responsible for higher-level thinking and conscious decision making, to do bigger and better things.
It is because of the basal ganglia that we can brush our teeth while half asleep, or daydream and drive without crashing our cars. Our brains condense repeated patterns of behavior into ingrained, automatic responses – a process known as “chunking.”
Thanks to chunking, you don’t have to consciously recall how to turn the key in the ignition, back your car into the road, operate the gas and brake pedals, check your mirrors, maneuver through traffic, observe road signs and signals, and take each turn of your commute every single day. You do it all on autopilot – even while mentally rehearsing an upcoming meeting with your boss or planning out the course of your day.
In other words, our habits make us efficient. Habits allow us to devote mental energy to other things, like creativity and problem solving.
When it comes to lifestyle habits, the prospect of change – eating different foods, cooking at home, exercising – can be overwhelming. We are already busy, and we tell ourselves that there is no way we’ll ever find the time for anything “extra.”
If change means spending an hour over a hot stove every night, or an hour sweating in the gym after work – no thanks!
But change doesn’t have to be so disruptive. When we introduce one or two new, healthy habits – or better yet, alter our existing habits to better support our goals – change happens automatically.
When we add five minute workouts to our evening routine, pack nutritious lunches to take to work, or pick out a new vegetable each time we grocery shop, we are asking our basal ganglia to recognize and store new patterns of behavior. And before long, we’ll act on autopilot. It’s how we’re wired!
When tasks become habits, they start to take care of themselves. Suddenly, we find that we have “extra” time and energy to take on other things – at work, at home, in creative pursuits, or for recreation.
Takeaway #2: Every habit is made up of three basic elements.
Habits are cyclical behaviors that can be broken down into three parts:
- A cue. Cues can be external or internal; physical, mental, or emotional. Cues are things that trigger the brain to shift into automatic mode. For example, exercise clothes and shoes laid out the night before provide a cue to go for a morning run.
- A routine. This is the behavior that follows the cue, made automatic through repetition and chunking. In the previous example, it is the run itself.
- A reward. What’s in it for you? In our example, it’s the satisfaction of accomplishing an exercise goal, or the rush of endorphins known as a “runner’s high.” The reward reinforces the routine. The routine becomes an automatic response to the cue.
The habit cycle is fueled by craving. Craving is the anticipation of reward. Runners crave the high brought by endorphins; smokers crave the high brought by nicotine. Craving drives both helpful and harmful behaviors.
Why is the habit cycle so important? Because when we understand our cues, routines, rewards, and cravings, we are able to change our habits.
Most habits are unconscious. We respond to countless cues every day, with little to no insight into what drives and influences our behavior. Simply becoming more aware of how we think, feel, and react unlocks amazing potential for change and growth.
Takeaway #3: To alter a habit, keep the cue and the reward, but change the routine.
Duhigg calls this the “Golden Rule of Habit Change.” Once embedded in our mental circuitry, our habits never really go away, but we can alter and improve them.
Do you find that in particularly stressful times, you lapse into old, unwanted behaviors? Do you find yourself yelling at your kids, overeating sweets and snack foods, or beating yourself up with cruel self talk – even though you have devoted considerable time and energy to overcoming these habits? Well, there’s a reason for that.
When we are stressed, we fall back on our most deeply ingrained habits and automatic responses. Our brains are efficient. To stave off overwhelm, they default to what is familiar and time-tested. While that may not be what we want, it is to be expected. So when it happens, give yourself grace, then look ahead with fresh resolve.
Ultimately, the goal is to replace our harmful habits with beneficial ones. A stressful day at work (cue) could trigger us to fill up on sweet snacks (routine), or to practice deep breathing (alternative routine). Both behaviors offer a form of relief (reward), but in the long run, only one of them is in our best interest.
The trick is to develop a craving for the new routine. Old cravings, such as the temptation to indulge a sweet tooth, are tough to override. To do so requires some personal work and the exploration of what, exactly, motivates you – both in the moment and the long term.
Deep breathing sends a signal to the brain that it is safe to relax, and activates the parasympathetic nervous system. We shift out of “fight or flight” mode and enter a “rest and digest” state. The more you experience these calming effects, the more likely you are to start craving them. Or maybe you’ll crave something that follows – boosted productivity, feelings of mastery, or simply the avoidance of a late afternoon, post-snack crash.
Whatever it is, allow yourself to fully embrace and experience that craving. It will drive your new routine, and shift your habit accordingly.
Takeaway #4: Sometimes, you’ve got to believe to achieve.
Habits are fueled by cravings, but there is another important influence on behavior: belief.
Not all behaviors are driven by belief. Passionate convictions are not required to brush your teeth or unload your dishwasher. But when it comes to things like radical self-acceptance or overcoming an addiction, our beliefs are incredibly powerful.
Belief in a higher power.
Belief in your ability to change.
Belief in a better future.
Belief in the people that surround and support you.
Belief can be transformative. That’s why Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs place so much emphasis on drawing strength from a power greater than ourselves. That’s why the people we choose to surround ourselves with have such influence on our behavior. And that’s why self-love is absolutely essential to growth. We have to believe that we can change, and we have to believe that we are worth the effort.
And just in case you need to hear it: you can, and you are.
Takeaway #5: Don’t try to change everything at once.
One of the most interesting concepts in the book is something Duhigg refers to as “keystone habits” – certain habits that matter more than others. When we change a keystone habit, we change our other habits, too – sometimes unwittingly.
The afterword of the book contains a number of success stories from people who changed their habits and changed their lives. One story is from a former smoker, who managed to overcome his addiction by replacing cigarettes with meditation.
He found that when he stopped smoking, he also stopped a number of other maladaptive behaviors, like excessive drinking and mindless snacking. Those behaviors had been triggered by the act of smoking. He didn’t stop them on purpose. When he quit smoking, it just happened, because smoking was his keystone habit.
I love this story. It shows that there is no need to change everything at once. In fact, changing everything at once is very rarely a good idea – it’s a recipe for overwhelm and burnout. But if you can identify and change a keystone habit, you may see that a bunch of other things start to fall into place.
Read The Power Of Habit – The Life You Change May Be Your Own
This is not just hyperbole. Charles Duhigg makes a convincing case that behavior and lifestyle changes are not only possible, they are realistic and maintainable – if you understand why we do what we do. Change your habits, change your life.
My first two healthy habits – a daily walk and 24-hour meal planning – unleashed a cascade of positive lifestyle changes that I never saw coming. I stumbled into that cascade with two unambitious goals and no expectations, and today, everything about my life is better. I’m a believer, and I want you to be, too.
The Power Of Habit is available on Amazon and through other major book retailers.
Have you read The Power Of Habit? What were your key takeaways? Tell us about them in a comment!