The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg: Summary and Notes

the power of habit summary

“Change might not be fast and it isn’t always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped.”

Rating: 8/10

Related: Atomic Habits, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Switch, Smarter Faster Better, The Willpower Instinct

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The Power of Habit Short Summary

The Power of Habits by Charles Duhigg is a book that explores the nature of habits. Topics covered include the origins of habits, why some habits stick and others don’t. The habits of organizations, consumers, and society. Duhigg also offers a framework for changing habits at all of these levels. A must-read book on the power of habits and their enormous influence on our lives.

What Is A Habit?

Humans are creatures of habits. Who we are and what we do can be nailed down to habits that were formed long ago. Such habits include brushing our teeth, socialization, making our beds, and so on.

Because habits guide most of our actions, they are very influential. They determine our success or failure in life. They even determine how organizations and entire societies react to different situations.

In recent years, scientists have spent considerable time and energy understanding habits.  Insights from findings are now used by marketers, psychologists, politicians, priests, CEOs, and anyone else interested in harnessing the power of habits.

Part 1: The Habits of Individuals

The Habit Loop: How Habits Work 

Habits are guided by a three-step loop that comprises a cue, a routine, and a reward. 

The cue is the trigger that tells the brain when to go to automatic mode. The routine is a set of actions that are physical, mental, or emotional and the reward is what you get by performing the habit i.e. completing the routine.

the power of habit summary the habit loop

All habits whether good or bad follow this loop and there is no other way to change a habit except by interrupting this routine. 

Breaking a habit into its various components makes it easier to control it. But even if we are able to change a habit, the neurological pathways that made it exist in the first place still remain.

For a habit to stick, the brain must start craving the reward even before it receives it. Without the craving, people are likely to abandon their habits before they are fully formed.

“This is how new habits are created: by putting together a cue, a routine, and a reward, and then cultivating a craving that drives the loop.”

The Golden Rule of Habit Change: Why Transformations Occur

The Golden Rule: The way to change a habit is to interrupt the routine. Keep the old cue and the reward but use a different routine.

“The Golden Rule has influenced treatments for alcoholism, obesity, obsessive compulsive disorders, and hundreds of other destructive behaviors, and understanding it can help anyone change their own habits.”

For example:

Smokers are not necessarily addicted to nicotine. They could be smoking to ward off anxiety or to socialize. Understanding the reason why they smoke is key to breaking the habit. So, whenever a smoker feels the urge to light a cigarette, they could start a conversation instead.

Habit replacement needs to feed off the belief that you are in control of your own actions. That no matter what everything will be okay. Being part of a community or believing in a higher power can help cement new habits.

Part 2: The Habits of Successful Organizations 

Keystone Habits 

Keystone habit: Keystone habits are habits that are small changes that people introduce to their routines, but which spill over to other areas of their lives. 

For example:

Exercising is a keystone habit because people who choose to exercise daily find it that they start spending less money, they eat healthy foods, and some even stop vices such as alcoholism and gambling.

Here is another example:

When O’Neill the former CEO of Alcoa prioritized worker safety, costs came down, quality went up, and productivity skyrocketed. Because worker safety was a keystone habit that changed many other routines within the company.

“Some habits have the power to start a chain reaction, changing other habits as they move through an organization. Some habits in other words, matter more in remaking businesses and lives.”  

Keystone habits exploit the power of small wins.

“A huge body of studies has shown that small wins have enormous power, an influence disproportionate to the accomplishments of the victories themselves. “Small wins are a steady application of a small advantage,”

When Willpower Becomes Automatic 

Willpower is a strong indicator of success. A 2005 study by the University of Pennsylvania, for instance, found that having higher levels of will power is correlated to higher levels of academic achievement than IQ.

Self-discipline also indicated which students would improve their grades while IQ did not.  

Willpower can be turned into a habit. Companies like Starbucks know this and they teach their employees to automatically use their willpower in high-stress situations.

Willpower acts like a muscle. It can be strengthened. Children who demonstrate willpower early on perform better than their peers throughout their lives. 

One way to build willpower to set detailed plans on how to deal with inflection points or situations where you are likely to give up. 

Detailed plans reaffirm the rewards you get by completing a difficult task.  When people feel like they are in control, they show greater willpower. 

The Power of A Crisis: How Leaders Create Habits Through Accidents And Design

Institutional habits can be dysfunctional but leaders with the right insight can seize the initiative and transform organizations. 

In the heat of a crisis, the right habits can emerge.

For example:

After a fire killed about 31 people in Kings Cross Station in 1987, there was an overhaul of many dysfunctional habits that made the accident worse.

Companies and many organizations work under a system of truces between different parties.  

Companies aren’t big happy families where everyone plays together nicely. Rather, most workplaces are made up of fiefdoms where executives compete for power and credit, often in hidden skirmishes that make their own performances appear superior and their rivals’ seem worse. Divisions compete for resources and sabotage each other to steal glory. Bosses pit their subordinates against one another so that no one can mount a coup.”

When rivalries within organizations get out of hand, they can become dysfunctional. But when individuals work under truces, the rivalries within the company don’t destroy the company and profits can still be earned.

When Companies Predict and Manipulate Habits

Habits have powerful influences on our purchase decisions. Marketers use computer models to study consumer habits and recommend products that we are most likely to buy.

They can do this because they have tons of data on consumer purchasing behavior. It also helps that over the short term, human habits are fairly predictable. 

When a big life event happens in a consumer’s life, they are more vulnerable to intervention by marketers.  Big life events include pregnancy, childbirth, divorce, wedding, and so on.

To mask their targeted marketing, marketers rely on a technique called sandwiching. 

For example: 

To market diapers to a woman that a company like Target suspects to be pregnant, Target would send coupons of random products alongside diapers and other baby products.

“So how do DJs convince listeners to stick with songs such as “Hey Ya!” long enough for them to become familiar? How does Target convince pregnant women to use diaper coupons without creeping them out? By dressing something new in old clothes, and making the unfamiliar seem familiar.”

Part 3: The Habits of Societies

How Movements Happen

Movements start because of the social habits of friendships and strong ties between acquaintances. 

For example:

Before the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955, a dozen other people of color had been previously arrested for refusing to give up their seats. But it was the arrest of Rosa Parks that sparked the boycott because she had more social connections than previous offenders.

Friends stand up for their friends.  Most people cannot stand an insult directed at their friend. They react with outrage.

“The Montgomery bus boycott became a society-wide action because the sense of obligation that held the black community together was activated soon after Parks’s friends started spreading the word.

The Power of weak ties and peer pressure made it easier for people to join in the protest movement. 

“The power of weak ties helps explain how a protest can expand from a group of friends into a broad social movement.”

Movements are later sustained by leaders developing new habits in their followers.

For example:

The Montgomery bus boycott was able to last so long (383 days) because Martin Luther King cast the bus boycott as a movement of love and justice. The people developed new identities and habits as a result.

“Movements don’t emerge because everyone suddenly decides to face the same direction at once. They rely on social patterns that begin as the habits of friendship, grow through the habits of communities, and are sustained by new habits that change participants’ sense of self.”

The Neurology of Free Will: Are We Responsible for Our Habits?

Sleepwalkers have no control over their sleep habits because their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for higher thinking, is switched off. They can engage in violent acts and have no control over what they are doing. 

But compulsive gamblers despite showing the same brain patterns as sleepwalkers can engage their prefrontal cortex and choose to quit their compulsive behaviors. 

Casinos prey on their victims with free slots, near misses, and cash handouts. They know compulsive gamblers have a hard time resisting their urges to gamble.

How to Change Your Habits

There is no one size fits all solution to changing habits. But there are general ways to go about it. 

How to change a habit:

  1. Identify the routine. Describe the habit that you are trying to change in as much detail as possible. Ask yourself “what does it involve?”
  2. Find the cue. Find the thing that makes you initiate the routine. Is it hunger? Is it boredom? Is it the need to socialize? Once you find the cue, it is easier to plan your next steps.
  3. Experiment with rewards. Every habit has a reward and to disrupt it, you need to find the reward and change it. If you smoke cigarettes because of boredom, you could find something else to do when bored like watching a movie or exercise.

Find out more on how to change a habit: