In The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do and How to Change, Charles Duhigg explains that habits come out of a basic feedback loop: a cue, the routine and the reward. As an example, he writes about his habit of eating a cookie every afternoon around 3pm. The cue (hunger or boredom) triggers a habit (going to the cafeteria), and the reward for the routine is both the satisfied hunger and the relief from boredom.
Citing scientific research, Duhigg postulates that in order to create new habits, you have to create a new cue, establish a routine tied to that cue and find an appropriate reward for that routine to close the feedback loop.
The book is divided into three parts: The Habits of Individuals, The Habits of Successful Organizations, and the Habits of Societies. If you like Malcolm Gladwell's investigative journalistic style, you will take to this book like a duck to water. The notes at the back, based on my rough estimate, span almost one-quarter of the entire book, not including the footnotes that are scattered in some chapters in terribly fine print.
In true Gladwellian fashion, there are a number of case studies that are compelling to read, including how retailer Target tracks consumers' buying habits, Starbucks' training programmes, Procter & Gamble's attempts to market Febreze, the applications of Hit Song Science, and the historic Montgomery bus boycott of 1955.
However, Duhigg breaks his stories up, stopping one to start another and then coming back to it later – an annoying style that makes it frustrating to maintain your reading momentum and comprehension. I also couldn't fully grasp certain parts of the book (e.g. some of the anecdotes do not seem to support the argument of how habits are formed, or for that matter, if a particular action is the direct result of a habit loop), but then I realised that the failure to understand may be on my part and not exactly the author's fault.
Notwithstanding this, there are three key takeaways from this book:
- Habits all function in the same basic way: a cue begins a behaviour routine which ends in a reward.
- We are manipulated every day by businesses through habits. Marketing has become in many ways habit-focused.
- Once we understand how habits work and how to change them or use them, we will gain more real control over our own behaviours. This is very important because we can learn how to replace a bad habit (e.g. smoking) with a good one (e.g. exercise).
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Proud father of two lovely kids, who at times pushed me to seriously consider editing out the word “lovely” from this sentence. (I am not alone in this.)