The Power of Habit

Why habits exist

In The Power of Habit, award-winning New York Times business reporter Charles Duhigg takes us to the edge of scientific discoveries that explain why habits exist and how they can be changed.
He takes us to visit laboratories where neuroscientists explore how habits work and where, exactly, they reside in our brains.

At its core, The Power of Habit contains a key argument:
The key to exercising regularly, losing weight, raising exceptional children, becoming more productive, building revolutionary companies and social movements, and achieving success is understanding how habits work.

Habits aren’t destiny.

The author says that “by harnessing this new science, we can transform our businesses, our communities, and our lives.”

Psychological tactics to sell more product

Psychology, habitual behaviour, marketing, and the whys are all present. Duhigg breaks down a few marketing successes from: Starbucks, McDonald’s, Pepsodent, and Febreeze. All of these companies exploited (or used) psychological tactics to sell more product.

“We develop habits because we only have a limited strip of deep thinking neocortex wrapped around the outer edges of our brains and if this was constantly used for every response we would very soon run out of gigabytes to think with.”

Habits are small sub-routines downloaded into the deeper, more primitive parts of our brain when we have mastered a skill or process.
They are initiated virtually automatically by a cue,
Involve a repeat behaviour – routine –
And always finish up with a reward, which serves to reinforce them.
Without habits, brushing your teeth or tying your shoelaces would absorb your attention fully and there’d be no thinking space left to plan the day ahead.

Automatic thinking routines
So, knowing that these automatic thinking routines stick in our brains like those barnacles on a ship, we need to attend very carefully to the ones we let stick around. Most habits are about simple efficiency, taking learnt things and clearing our mind space so new things can be taken on board and some are overwhelming good, like the habit of exercise or reading daily.

A keystone habit
By focussing on one habit – a keystone habit – you can teach yourself how to reprogramme the other routines in your life.
Duhigg analyses habits into cue, routine and reward.
You can never extinguish bad habits but you can insert a new routine. Use the same cue, provide the same reward but change the routine.

The habit loop includes the: cue, routine, and reward.
If you’re tired (cue),
A cup of coffee can be your routine,
Followed by the reward of energy.
But no matter how strong your changed routine is, Duhigg stresses that belief in one’s possibility for change is key.

A case study about Target ( 2nd largest US retailer)is featured, and it’s identical to the one featured in: Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy reviewed by Ron last year.

This idea that you can change your habits draws on recent research in experimental psychology, neurology, and applied psychology.

He looks at the habits of individuals, how habits operate in the brain, how companies use them, and how retailers use habits to manipulate buying habits. This provides some fascinating research and stories, such as the fact that grocery stores put fruits and vegetables at the front of the store “Switch” from Chip and Dan Heath. Switch: How to change things when change is hard

Organisations, as well as individuals, can develop bad habits or allow them to develop. For example,
• Tolerating incivility and thus condoning it,
• Conducting performance evaluations unfairly and/or inconsistently,
• And under-valuing employees and/or customers.
However, in that event, only individuals can break those organisational bad habits and only if their habits are equal to that challenge

“I had a bad Habit Judge –sorry!”
Some habits are so strong that courts and justices have agreed that they overwhelm our capacity to make choices and thus we are not responsible for what we do. Murderers have been acquitted because they were not responsible for overcoming their habits.

Habits are not destiny.
They can be ignored, changed or replaced. But when a habit emerges the brain stops fully participating in decision making and so it can focus on other tasks. Therefore if you want to change a habit unless you find new routines the pattern will unfold automatically.

Willpower is an expendable resource.
But giving employees in companies and organisations a sense of agency – a feeling that they are in control, that they have genuine decision-making authority – can radically increase how much energy and focus they bring to their jobs.

There are no organisations without institutional habits.
There are places where they are absolutely designed – Starbucks is a prime example- and places where they are created without forethought. They often grow from rivalry or fear.

Firms are often guided by long-held organisational habits patterns that emerge from thousands of employee’s independent decisions. But even destructive habits can be transformed by leaders who know how to seize the right opportunities, sometimes in the height of a crisis.
“Sometimes damaging, habits turn out to be the ones we often focus on, the bad ones. They are simply a particular species of simple cue-routine-reward cycles that means we can get from one complex task to the next without blowing a mental gasket.”

Which means, basically, much of our daily experience is constructed from habits, or, as the more-quoted business aphorism goes, we are indeed, ‘…what we repeatedly do.’

Habits are all around us.
By consciously choosing to adapt your habits and look at your behaviours in a new way is where this book is the most helpful.
Select any habit, good or bad, and you can begin to decipher it, examine it, understand it and ultimately change it.

They can be fought and beaten. If we explore the cues and the rewards that drive them, replacing the unwanted routines they set us unthinkingly on a new path of better less destructive habits. And like most things, from reading a book you gain new insight into your worst habits and that awareness presents you with the opportunity to control them through your will.

The way to do this is to break the cycle, using the cue, delivering the reward, but change the routine in the middle. It can be trial and error and you need to use an experimental approach to your own psychological reactions and trying out different solutions that seek to move you in the right direction.

His books are gateway drugs
Duhigg is a bit like Malcolm Gladwell he’s a journalist, he writes in an entertaining way “his books are gateway drugs – they lead you to the hard stuff.” A book full of powerful insights into how our minds work with sections on the organisational habits of large businesses and how these can be maximised for the benefit of the company.

sensemaking cover


Sense making; morality, humanity, leadership and slow flow. A book about the 14 books about the impact and implications of technology on business and humanity.

Ron Immink

I help companies by developing an inspiring and clear future perspective, which creates better business models, higher productivity, more profit and a higher valuation. Best-selling author, speaker, writer.

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