The Power of Habit

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg

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This book explains the psychology of habit formation and habit change, using lots of stories and examples. The writing style reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell, especially in the way each chapter seemed to use two very different examples to prove the same point, switching between them in narration.

I wouldn’t categorize the book as self-help or how-to. Instead of explicitly telling readers what to do to change their habits, it describes the principles behind habit formation so that an intelligent reader could apply them to any situation. Generally, what I took away from it is this. For any bad habit you might want to change, first identify the craving driving it. Then identify the cue or trigger. Then, when that cue or trigger occurs next, try to substitute different things that might satisfy that craving instead of the bad habit. It might take some experimentation to find a suitable substitute. Reinforce it with a reward. This general pattern could apply to almost any habit.

After describing habit change on an individual level, the book goes a step further to discuss the habits of organizations and communities. The information on “keystone habits” seemed particularly powerful. These are habits that impact an entire lifestyle or cause a chain reaction or a shift of focus. The main example here was a CEO who focused first on making his aluminum processing company as safe as possible. His focus on safety led him to improve the company’s communicatons and culture, so that it actually became much more efficient while dramatically  decreasing the number of accidents. These ideas apply pretty readily to schools, I think. A quick example might be the emphasis on beginning every class with a “bellringer” activity that ensures that students arrive on time and focus on work as soon as they walk in the door. It’s easy to see how a habit like that could lead to a more productive class.

Some of the stories are bound to be more interesting than others, based on the reader’s interests. There are tales about how an NFL coach, Alcoholics Anonymous, Starbucks, Target, and the civil rights movement all changed the habits of others, as well as case studies from medicine and law that make points about habit formation and the ethical questions raised by the power our habits have over us. The book was an interesting, engaging way to learn concepts that apply to everyone’s lives and have the power to improve them drastically.

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