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CityU Library Reviews “The power of habit”

CityU Library Reviews “The power of habit”
Theresa Gehrig, Librarian
Theresa Gehrig reviews “The power of habit”

Review By Theresa Gehrig, Librarian

Forty percent of our daily actions are done by habit rather than by a conscious decision.  “When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in the decision making… it stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks” (Duhigg, p. 20). Thus, the automatic nature of your shower frees your brain for light bulb moments! As Duhigg explains, there is a three-part habit loop of 1) cue, 2) routine, and 3) reward. As I read, I begin to place my own unproductive habits over Duhigg’s habit loop charts, looking for the recipe to break them.
But careful reading of Duhigg’s book shows that I can’t break bad habits, but rather I can replace a bad habit with a more positive habit. There is no easy trick here. It takes time to examine the cue and reward which sandwich the much more obvious behavior I want to get rid of. If I try to exert my willpower to change the routine – the cue and reward are still there to keep the undesirable habit alive.

How does it come to pass that a New York Times reporter is inspired to author a popular science book on habit formation?  It stems from his observations of a U.S. Army general in Afghanistan, his scrutiny of Target’s consumer market research, and not least of all, his own very personal habit of consuming a chocolate chip cookie religiously every afternoon (to the dismay of an 8-pound surplus).  Duhigg shows that trying to change the routine without paying attention to the cues and rewards leads to frustration and failure to replace the habit. Duhigg’s examples illustrate how individuals stumbled upon profound habit change or by clear intention and coaching develop a good habit over many years. Each case is examined in light of cue, routine and reward.

Duhigg uses cases and anecdotes to show the need to identify the less obvious cue and reward, which reinforce the routine. Duhigg recommends careful study and examination to find the cues and rewards in the habit loop. Experiments have demonstrated that most cues fit into one of five categories:

  1. Location
  2. Time
  3. Emotional state
  4. Other people
  5. The immediate preceding action

Taking time to analyze the cue is the first step to altering the habit to better fit your goals. Once you have the cue in your sights, your next step is to determine the actual reward sought.  Rewards can be obscured, and in Duhigg’s personal example, he tests out “new habits” to see if they deliver the reward he seeks.

A keystone habit is powerful in that it tends to spill over to affect all other areas of a person’s or institution’s life. Exercise tends to be a keystone habit, causing widespread shifts that help other habits to flourish by creating new structures. Finding or building a keystone habit is a way to create “small wins” which ripple out, affecting more and greater wins. One powerful example of a keystone habit is illustrated by the case of Alcoa CEO Paul O’Neill who chose to focus his leadership on one issue – safety. This focus on safety slowly improved employee morale management communication at all levels, trust, creative ideas for improvement offered by any employee, and best performing stock on the Dow Jones.

Clearly, an understanding of habit formation and the habit loop is powerful knowledge for any person or professional: individuals, teachers, leaders, doctors and counselors, and business.

The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. Duhigg, Charles. 2012. New York: Random House. 371 pages. (CityU Library BF335 .D78 2012) Check WorldCat.org to find a copy at the library closest to you.

Curriculum Connections

There are a variety of disciplines which might benefit from exploring the themes discussed in The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business, For example:

Leadership and Management: Leaders, managers and mentors can use knowledge about “the habit look” on many levels – personal self-regulation and growth, more successful coaching and supervision of employees and departments. On a broader level, a person can examine and recognize positive or negative organizational or societal habits that can be fostered or replaced. Read how Starbucks, Aloca, Target and the US military have used the science of habits to recognize and manipulate habits to improve profits or foster a healthier and more successful culture. Consumer research clearly can go to town and have gone to town with this awareness of how habits are formed and shifted. The use of keystone habits can have a dramatic ripple effect in an organizational culture and morale and ultimately, greater profits. The power of habit empowers a person to study habits at all levels in order to be more effective and happier in all areas of life.

Social Sciences: The power of habit offers insights for the helping professions, psychology and medicine, by analyzing the habit loop and studies with animals and people which help lay bare the anatomy of a habit in order to replace or shift to healthier, more productive habits. Knowledge of the habit loop would certainly provide a powerful tool for helping people suffering from addictions or obsessive behaviors. This book includes a look at the brain functions of habits, and readers may be inspired to further study the science of habit formation and replacement.

Duhigg offers many anecdotes and case studies to illustrate how people who have struggled to “overcome” destructive habits are helped by focusing on the cues and rewards of the habit loop – either unconsciously or consciously – from biting fingernails to chemical addictions, but also highlights examples of how good habits fostered over years are part of the successful individuals, as seen in the gold-medal-winning swimmer Michael Phelps. Duhigg shows the exciting opportunities available to those who take the time to scrutinize and tinker with their habit loops, but he balances this excitement with conveying this is no easy fix.  He explains the complexity of habits and that dismantling a habit is no simple process. If one reads excerpts, one could think – Wow, now I will replace this bad habit! Not so soon! Habits are both delicate and robust patterns with no “one size fits all” recipe or instant self-help. Rather, Duhigg equips us with the chance to lift the hood to the brain and examine these powerful brain loops in hopes of altering old habits and creating new ones.

Related Resources

Please note: Resources listed with [Login Required] are available to CityU students, faculty and staff, and may be available to other readers through their local libraries.

The power of habit. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://charlesduhigg.com

The power of habit: Resources. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://charlesduhigg.com/additional-resources

Duhigg, C. (2012, February 16). How companies learn your secrets.

Evers, K. (2012). Finding the zone. Harvard Business Review, 90(6), 140-141. [Login Required]

Flora, C. (2012). Get out of the groove: Charles Duhigg on breaking bad work habits and acquiring good ones. Psychology Today, 45(2), 50-51. [Login Required]

Graybiel, A. M., & Smith, K. S. (2014). Good habits, bad habits. Scientific American, 310(6), 38-43. [Login Required]

NPR Talk of the Nation. (2012, December 24). The “power” to trade naughty habits for nice ones.

Szalavitz, M. (2012, March 2). Q&A: Charles Duhigg on changing your habits.

CityU Library book reviews feature materials relevant to academic programs. Each review includes curriculum connections and a list of related resources.  We hope you enjoy learning and discovering new resources with us!

Published September 16, 2014