Here’s my 1-page cheatsheet to The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg [Amazon].
February 2016: here’s a follow-up that shares additional resources from the book, including a teacher’s guide
Why The Power of Habit
It’s got a cool cover? When mentioning the book, several people have remarked “Oh, yeah…the yellow book with the bicycle on it!”
Powerful stuff, covers.
I tend to enjoy fast-paced, research-driven nonfiction books. Y’all know how much I love saying “so a recent study found…”
I also tend to enjoy books which promise to make you smarter, faster, and better. In fact, that could be the title of a future bestseller!
The Power of Habit covers…the power of habits (and routines) to shape EVERYTHING in your life: health, happiness, relationships, career success. We’re conscious of some (like reaching for the remote every time we plop down on the couch) but most are subconscious/automatic (like nervous tics when presenting at a meeting).
If you take away nothing else, remember this:
Habits are triggered by CUES, followed by an ACTION, and ending with a REWARD. To change a habit for good, you must get the REWARD so frequently that you begin to CRAVE it when you don’t. Like the runner’s high after a 45-minute jog.
(credit goes to Elizabeth Harrin at pm4girls.com)
From Duhigg’s Wikipedia:
Charles Duhigg is a Pulitzer prize winning reporter at The New York Times, where he writes for the business section. Prior…he was a staff writer of the Los Angeles Times. He lives in Brooklyn, New York City. He is a graduate of Yale University and Harvard Business School.
Lessons and Highlights
Life is built on habits
“All our life,” William James told us in the prologue, “so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits—practical, emotional, and intellectual—systematically organized for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny
“Understanding habits is the most important thing I’ve learned in the army,” the major told me. “…You want to fall asleep fast and wake up feeling good? Pay attention to your nighttime patterns and what you automatically do when you get up. You want to make running easy? Create triggers to make it a routine. I drill my kids on this stuff. My wife and I write out habit plans for our marriage.
Without them, our brains would be paralyzed
Without habit loops, our brains would shut down, overwhelmed by the minutiae of daily life. People whose basal ganglia are damaged by injury or disease often become mentally paralyzed. They have trouble performing basic activities, such as opening a door or deciding what to eat.
Habits, scientists say, 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.
Habits never really disappear…unfolding even if you try to fight them
“We’ve done experiments where we trained rats to run down a maze until it was a habit, and then we extinguished the habit by changing the placement of the reward,” Ann Graybiel, a scientist at MIT who oversaw many of the basal ganglia experiments, told me. “Then one day, we’ll put the reward in the old place, and put in the rat, and, by golly, the old habit will reemerge right away. Habits never really disappear.
researchers…trained mice to press levers in response to certain cues until the behavior became a habit. The mice were always rewarded with food. Then, the scientists poisoned the food so that it made the animals violently ill, or electrified the floor, so that when the mice walked toward their reward they received a shock. The mice knew the food and cage were dangerous—when they were offered the poisoned pellets in a bowl or saw the electrified floor panels, they stayed away. When they saw their old cues, however, they unthinkingly pressed the lever and ate the food, or they walked across the floor, even as they vomited or jumped from the electricity. The habit was so ingrained the mice couldn’t stop themselves
There are 3 elements to a habit: CUE, ACTION, and REWARD
This process within our brains is a three-step loop. 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.
The brain spends a lot of effort at the beginning of a habit looking for something—a cue—that offers a hint as to which pattern to use.
Cues, actions, and rewards can vary highly from very SIMPLE to very COMPLEX
Researchers have learned that cues can be almost anything, from a visual trigger such as a candy bar or a television commercial to a certain place, a time of day, an emotion, a sequence of thoughts, or the company of particular people. Routines can be incredibly complex or fantastically simple (some habits, such as those related to emotions, are measured in milliseconds). Rewards can range from food or drugs that cause physical sensations, to emotional payoffs, such as the feelings of pride that accompany praise or self-congratulation.
Rewards generate cravings over time…which can be powerful (and dangerous)
Scientists have studied the brains of alcoholics, smokers, and overeaters and have measured how their neurology—the structures of their brains and the flow of neurochemicals inside their skulls—changes as their cravings became ingrained. Particularly strong habits, wrote two researchers at the University of Michigan, produce addiction-like reactions so that “wanting evolves into obsessive craving” that can force our brains into autopilot, “even in the face of strong disincentives, including loss of reputation, job, home, and family.”
However, the reason they continued—why it became a habit—was because of a specific reward they started to crave. In one group, 92 percent of people said they habitually exercised because it made them “feel good”—they grew to expect and crave the endorphins and other neurochemicals a workout provided. In another group, 67 percent of people said that working out gave them a sense of “accomplishment”—they had come to crave a regular sense of triumph from tracking their performances, and that self-reward was enough to make the physical activity into a habit.
Companies like McDonald’s and P&G use CUE-ACTION-REWARD to hook consumers
Every McDonald’s, for instance, looks the same—the company deliberately tries to standardize stores’ architecture and what employees say to customers, so everything is a consistent cue to trigger eating routines. The foods at some chains are specifically engineered to deliver immediate rewards—the fries, for instance, are designed to begin disintegrating the moment they hit your tongue
Each change was designed to appeal to a specific, daily cue: Cleaning a room. Making a bed. Vacuuming a rug. In each one, Febreze was positioned as the reward: the nice smell that occurs at the end of a cleaning routine. Most important, each ad was calibrated to elicit a craving: that things will smell as nice as they look when the cleaning ritual is done…
…they found that some housewives in the test market had started expecting—craving—the Febreze scent. One woman said that when her bottle ran dry, she squirted diluted perfume on her laundry. “If I don’t smell something nice at the end, it doesn’t really seem clean now,” she told them.
To change a habit, you must insert a new routine, but keep the same cue and reward
His coaching strategy embodied an axiom, a Golden Rule of habit change that study after study has shown is among the most powerful tools for creating change. Dungy recognized that you can never truly extinguish bad habits. Rather, to change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine…
AA (Alcoholics Anon) succeeds because it helps alcoholics use the same cues, and get the same reward, but it shifts the routine…Alcoholics crave a drink because it offers escape, relaxation, companionship, the blunting of anxieties, and an opportunity for emotional release. They might crave a cocktail to forget their worries. But they don’t necessarily crave feeling drunk.
Habits stick when you do them in groups. They create BELIEF
The same process that makes AA so effective—the power of a group to teach individuals how to believe—happens whenever people come together to help one another change. Belief is easier when it occurs within a community.
“There’s something really powerful about groups and shared experiences. People might be skeptical about their ability to change if they’re by themselves, but a group will convince them to suspend disbelief. A community creates belief.”
Some habits – known as keystone habits – have a domino effect
These are “keystone habits,” and they can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate…The habits that matter most are the ones that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns.
Typically, people who exercise start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. It’s not completely clear why. But for many people, exercise is a keystone habit
Studies have documented that families who habitually eat dinner together seem to raise children with better homework skills, higher grades, greater emotional control, and more confidence.
Willpower, which helps establish good habits, is a muscle that grows stronger with use
“By making people use a little bit of their willpower to ignore cookies, we had put them into a state where they were willing to quit much faster,” Muraven told me. “There’s been more than two hundred studies on this idea since then, and they’ve all found the same thing. Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like the muscles in your arms or legs, and it gets tired as it works harder”
As people strengthened their willpower muscles in one part of their lives—in the gym, or a money management program—that strength spilled over into what they ate or how hard they worked.
For instance, when researchers studied an incoming class of cadets at West Point, they measured their grade point averages, physical aptitude, military abilities, and self-discipline. When they correlated those factors with whether students dropped out or graduated, however, they found that all of them mattered less than a factor researchers referred to as “grit,” which they defined as the tendency to work “strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus
Company cultures are driven by habits – to change them, you must change habits
Companies aren’t families. They’re battlefields in a civil war. Yet despite this capacity for internecine warfare, most companies roll along relatively peacefully, year after year, because they have routines—habits—that create truces that allow everyone to set aside their rivalries
The answer lies in seizing the same advantage that Tony Dungy encountered when he took over the woeful Bucs and Paul O’Neill discovered when he became CEO of flailing Alcoa. It’s the same opportunity Howard Schultz exploited when he returned to a flagging Starbucks in 2007. All those leaders seized the possibilities created by a crisis.
“I knew I had to transform Alcoa,” O’Neill told me. “But you can’t order people to change. That’s not how the brain works. So I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing. If I could start disrupting the habits around one thing, it would spread throughout the entire company.”
Social movements can start because of habits among a community
Rosa Parks, unlike other people who had been jailed for violating the bus segregation law, was deeply respected and embedded within her community. So when she was arrested, it triggered a series of social habits—the habits of friendship—that ignited an initial protest.
It had started among Parks’s close friends, but it drew its power, King and other participants later said, because of a sense of obligation among the community—the social habits of weak ties. The community was pressured to stand together for fear that anyone who didn’t participate wasn’t someone you wanted to be friends with
Habits helped Rick Warren grow Saddleback into a megachurch
Warren assigned every Saddleback member to a small group that met every week. It was one of the most important decisions he ever made, because it transformed church participation from a decision into a habit that drew on already-existing social urges
“If you want to have Christ-like character, then you just develop the habits that Christ had,” one of Saddleback’s course manuals reads. “All of us are simply a bundle of habits.… Our goal is to help you replace some bad habits with some good habits that will help you grow in Christ’s likeness.”
You have a gambling problem if you view a near-miss as a win
“What we found was that, neurologically speaking, pathological gamblers got more excited about winning. When the symbols lined up, even though they didn’t actually win any money, the areas in their brains related to emotion and reward were much more active than in non-pathological gamblers. “But what was really interesting were the near misses. To pathological gamblers, near misses looked like wins. Their brains reacted almost the same way. But to a nonpathological gambler, a near miss was like a loss. People without a gambling problem were better at recognizing that a near miss means you still lose”
Gaming companies are well aware of this tendency, of course, which is why in the past decades, slot machines have been reprogrammed to deliver a more constant supply of near misses
Guys listen to Celine Dion – even though they deny it
In survey after survey, male listeners said they hated Celine Dion and couldn’t stand her songs. But whenever a Dion tune came on the radio, men stayed tuned in. Within the Los Angeles market, stations that regularly played Dion at the end of each hour—when the number of listeners was measured—could reliably boost their audience by as much as 3 percent, a huge figure in the radio world. Male listeners may have thought they disliked Dion, but when her songs played, they stayed
That’s it, folks
Previous 1-page cheatsheets include:
- Dan Buettner’s Blue Zones
- Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code
- James Fallows’ Postcards from Tomorrow Square
- John Ratey’s Spark
Hope that was useful! What could be added or changed or removed? Which books would you like me to read and summarize?
Click here to read about the daily habits that I track and why.