The Power of Habit

We all do things without thinking about them. We swallow our food after putting it in our mouths without too much thought and it’s not too much trouble to put one foot in front of the other without having to remember how. The reason is that our brains have evolved to make it easier for us to not to have to bother to consciously think about some things — we’ve developed a neurological response which we more popularly call ‘habits’. The premise of Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit is that if you can teach the deep parts of your brain habits that are useful, you’ll do them more often and without the pain of having to motivate yourself. It’s a very simple loop — a cue leads to an action which gives a reward. If you can set up that loop and practice, your brain will gradually learn to spend less effort thinking about it.

Once you’ve mastered that you can apply it to the things you want to improve in your life — whether that’s eating healthily, sleeping better or exercising more. There’s also pretty good evidence that some habits can become ‘keystone habits’. Exercise is the most obvious one — it turns out people who exercise regularly are also more likely to have good habits and although it sounds strange, people who make their beds are also more productive. I certainly found the whole of the first section of the book — which charts the emerging science of habit formation — pretty interesting.

The second two thirds of the book are about organisational habits and social habits. They include the harrowing story of the Kings Cross underground fire and the organisational dysfunction that caused it. It tells the story of Paul O’Neill’s reign as CEO of Alcoa which is a really interesting positive story which also has lessons about CEOs who by focusing on ‘shareholder value’ are probably getting things wrong. There’s also the story of how organisations can take advantage of the science of habits to make more money — something ‘big data’ has made much more possible. The example in the book was used to trail it — how Target knows whether you’re pregnant based on your shopping habits, sometimes before you do.

The final section looks at the habits of societies. It tells the story of how Rosa Parks personal protest became something much larger and changed the habits of a nation towards a whole section of its population — in part it’s a story of her habits and the way that religions at their best are a set of habits and routines and often have a hugely positive impact on the lives of their followers. It also draws in the science of social networks (which I know much better) to show how change spreads when the conditions are right.

It’s a fantastic book and well worth a read. As you might expect of a New York Times journalist it’s incredibly well written with a lyricism and attention to character that firmly pull you along. I don’t know whether it’s an accident but I’ve managed to get into the habit of running every day since I finished the book last week and it certainly made me want to get back into the habit of reading great books more regularly.