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The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business Hardcover – February 28, 2012
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A Q&A with Author Charles Duhigg
What sparked your interest in habits?
I first became interested in the science of habits eight years ago, as a newspaper reporter in Baghdad, when I heard about an army major conducting an experiment in a small town named Kufa.
The major had analyzed videotapes of riots and had found that violence was often preceded by a crowd of Iraqis gathering in a plaza and, over the course of hours, growing in size. Food vendors would show up, as well as spectators. Then, someone would throw a rock or a bottle.
When the major met with Kufa’s mayor, he made an odd request: Could they keep food vendors out of the plazas? Sure, the mayor said. A few weeks later, a small crowd gathered near the Great Mosque of Kufa. It grew in size. Some people started chanting angry slogans. At dusk, the crowd started getting restless and hungry. People looked for the kebab sellers normally filling the plaza, but there were none to be found. The spectators left. The chanters became dispirited. By 8 p.m., everyone was gone.
I asked the major how he had figured out that removing food vendors would change peoples' behavior.
The U.S. military, he told me, is one of the biggest habit-formation experiments in history. “Understanding habits is the most important thing I’ve learned in the army,” he said. By the time I got back to the U.S., I was hooked on the topic.
How have your own habits changed as a result of writing this book?
Since starting work on this book, I've lost about 30 pounds, I run every other morning (I'm training for the NY Marathon later this year), and I'm much more productive. And the reason why is because I've learned to diagnose my habits, and how to change them.
Take, for instance, a bad habit I had of eating a cookie every afternoon. By learning how to analyze my habit, I figured out that the reason I walked to the cafeteria each day wasn't because I was craving a chocolate chip cookie. It was because I was craving socialization, the company of talking to my colleagues while munching. That was the habit's real reward. And the cue for my behavior - the trigger that caused me to automatically stand up and wander to the cafeteria, was a certain time of day.
So, I reconstructed the habit: now, at about 3:30 each day, I absentmindedly stand up from my desk, look around for someone to talk with, and then gossip for about 10 minutes. I don't even think about it at this point. It's automatic. It's a habit. I haven't had a cookie in six months.
What was the most surprising use of habits that you uncovered?
The most surprising thing I've learned is how companies use the science of habit formation to study - and influence - what we buy.
Take, for example, Target, the giant retailer. Target collects all kinds of data on every shopper it can, including whether you’re married and have kids, which part of town you live in, how much money you earn, if you've moved recently, the websites you visit. And with that information, it tries to diagnose each consumer’s unique, individual habits.
Why? Because Target knows that there are these certain moments when our habits become flexible. When we buy a new house, for instance, or get married or have a baby, our shopping habits are in flux. A well-timed coupon or advertisement can convince us to buy in a whole new way. But figuring out when someone is buying a house or getting married or having a baby is tough. And if you send the advertisement after the wedding or the baby arrives, it’s usually too late.
So Target studies our habits to see if they can predict major life events. And the company is very, very successful. Oftentimes, they know what is going on in someone's life better than that person's parents.
“Sharp, provocative, and useful.”—Jim Collins
“Few [books] become essential manuals for business and living. The Power of Habit is an exception. Charles Duhigg not only explains how habits are formed but how to kick bad ones and hang on to the good.”—Financial Times
“Entertaining . . . enjoyable . . . fascinating . . . a serious look at the science of habit formation and change.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Cue: see cover. Routine: read book. Reward: fully comprehend the art of manipulation.”—Bloomberg Businessweek
“A fresh examination of how routine behaviors take hold and whether they are susceptible to change . . . The stories that Duhigg has knitted together are all fascinating in their own right, but take on an added dimension when wedded to his examination of habits.”— Associated Press
“There’s been a lot of research over the past several years about how our habits shape us, and this work is beautifully described in the new book The Power of Habit.”—David Brooks, The New York Times
“A first-rate book—based on an impressive mass of research, written in a lively style and providing just the right balance of intellectual seriousness with practical advice on how to break our bad habits.”—The Economist
“I have been spinning like a top since reading The Power of Habit, New York Times journalist Charles Duhigg’s fascinating best-seller about how people, businesses and organizations develop the positive routines that make them productive—and happy.”—The Washington Post
“An absolutely fascinating . . . book [that explores] a startling and sometimes dismaying collision between the increasingly sophisticated scientific understanding of habits—how they’re formed, how they can be disrupted and changed—and, among other things, companies’ efforts to use that knowledge to steer your habits and money their way.”—Wired
“If Duhigg is right about the nature of habits, which I think he is, then trying to get rid of these bad habits won’t work. Instead, what is needed is to teach the managers to identify the cues that lead to these bad habits and rewards, and then learn alternative routines that lead to similar rewards, i.e. business and personal success.”—Forbes
“The Power of Habit is chock-full of fascinating anecdotes . . . how an early twentieth century adman turned Pepsodent into the first bestselling toothpaste by creating the habit of brushing daily, how a team of marketing mavens at Procter & Gamble rescued Febreze from the scrapheap of failed products by recognizing that a fresh smell was a fine reward for a cleaning task, how Michael Phelps’ coach instilled habits that made him an Olympic champion many times over, and how Tony Dungy turned the Indianapolis Colts into a Super Bowl–winning team.”—Los Angeles Times
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While the 1st part is circumscribed to the individual level of analysis, on parts 2 and 3 the author takes the analysis from the micro to organizations (meso-level) and societies (macro-level). The author describes “the power of weak ties” of social networks, and claims that it helps understand the rise of social movements —which it clearly does. But in his explanation, networks are rebranded as “the habit of peer pressure”. Networks —as well as peer pressure, or culture— can be powerful forces for change, undoubtedly. But networks are not habits —as per his own definition. Different phenomena are conflated into the concept of habits, and in doing so the concept loses elegance and consistency.
Intellectually, the book is revealing. On a personal level, it is incredibly useful —and I’m thankful to the author for writing it. I would have limited the book claims to the phenomena it can explain beyond any reasonable doubt. By taking the concept of habits beyond what it can solidly explain, parts 2 & 3 detract a bit of value and credibility from the book. Were it not for that, I would have given 5 stars to the book. In balance, this is still a great book that --with the caveat expressed-- I strongly recommend.
Based on studies of animal behavior and human behavior, we (that is rats, monkeys and humans) form habits the same way. There is a cue of some kind that triggers a habit, followed by some form of routine that has been completed memorized and operates more or less automatically, followed by some form of reward that reinforces the habit. Whether it is buckling our seat belt, brushing out teeth, smoking a cigarette or using heroin, this same habit loop operates in all of us.
The brain creates habits because it simplifies our activities. If we had to consciously decide and think out everything we do every day throughout the day from scratch it would be overwhelming for the brain. Habits are little routines that automate aspects of our behavior. We are not usually conscious that the habit is being formed, and once it is in place we need not expend much thought to follow it. It is a very effective efficiency that our minds use to free us up to think about other things.
Since we now know how a habit is formed and how they function we can modify existing habits and create new ones. We must identify the right cue which leads to the desired routine which is then followed by the reward. We must know in advance, or expect, the reward to motivate us to engage in the routine. The reward generates endorphins in the brain which are powerful motivators. They motivate us to repeat the routine every time the cue occurs. It is a bit more complex than that, but that is the gist of it.
Duhigg goes on to explain in fascinating detail how studies have shown us how we can modify a habit and how to replace one habit with another. This is very important because we can learn from it how to replace a bad habit (smoking) with a good one (exercise).
Certain habits also develop in organizations and in societies and they come together to create a culture, whether it is the culture of a corporation or the culture of a society. Culture, it seems, is primarily driven by key habits.
What I found useful about this book:
This book helps us understand how habits are formed and how we can use them to our benefit, change them when we need to and replace them when necessary. Duhigg does warn the reader that although we understand the way habits are made and altered it is not always easy to do it. Determining the actual cue for example can take some experimentation and work.
The book is very well written. It is engaging. It contains lots of references to studies and science but not in a dry or boring way. It is a series of fascinating stories. It is very well organized.
Notes on Author:
Charles Duhigg is an award winning investigative reporter for the New York Times.
Other Books by This Author:
Smarter, Faster, Better
Three Great Ideas You Can Use:
1. Habits all function in the same basic way: a cue begins a behavior routine which ends in a reward. Once we understand this we can understand how habits work and how to change them or use them.
2. We are manipulated every day by business through habits. Marketing has become in many ways habit focused.
3. Once we know how to form and change a habit we can gain more real control over our own behaviors; we can replace bad habits and create good ones.
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business
The science is interesting, but shallowly covered. Basically the book is one big series of stories about how people changed habits to succeed in life.
If you are looking for help yourself in this area, look elsewhere. The author offers a small bit of useful advice:
Basically, you look for the cues/triggers that are starting the routine/habit that you are not happy with but cannot seem to stop. Then you determine what is the reward you are getting. Are you eating the candy because of low blood sugar or because you eat with friends and need a chat or because you are nervous and it calms you, etc.?
Discovering the triggers and rewards takes time and introspection--all left up to you. The book cannot help you there.
But once you do, you change the routine/habit by force of will every time you encounter the cue/trigger, making sure that the reward is the same. The cue and reward must be the same. So, instead of eating candy, you just go chat with friends on purpose, or you eat a better form of food to satisfy low blood sugar, or whatever.
When you feel like engaging in the "bad" habit, ask yourself what you get out of the habit beyond the superficial and obvious. Then replace that habit with a new one you desire to do that gives you the same type of reward/outcome/feeling. Do this over and over until it becomes . . . a habit.
So, there you go. Saved you money. Unless you enjoy random success stories. Then the book is a good read for you.
I wish I had not purchased this book, but you live and learn.