Book Summary: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
Do you feel like life is constantly pulling you in different directions, and you are struggling to stay focused on achieving your goals? If so, the Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg can be a great book for improving productivity.
In this The Power of Habit summary, I’ll explore the book’s key highlights, including its key concepts, stories related to habit formation, and actionable steps to build better habits.
In this summary, I’ll explain what keystone habits are based on groundbreaking research from neuroscience and psychology, this book outlines the science of habit formation that has been used for centuries.
The Power of Habit reveals the processes behind why we do what we do and how even small changes can have lasting effects. Let us get started with this summary:
The Habit Loop
In the early 1990s, the MIT researchers conducted experiments with a maze and a mouse. They employed new microtechnology in the head of the rat that allowed them to observe which part of the brain was active while the rat ran the maze.
The maze was structured so that each rat was positioned behind a door that opened when a loud click sounded. On the other side of the labyrinth was a bar of chocolate.
When the rat heard the click sound, they went ahead, sniffing the way through the labyrinth to the chocolate.
As the rat wanders through the maze, its basal ganglia, a part of our brains, worked furiously. Each time a rat sniffed the air or scratched a wall, its brain exploded with activity as if analyzing each new scent, sight, and sound.
As the rat went through the labyrinth repeatedly, they stopped sniffing corners and making wrong turns. Instead, they zipped through the maze faster and faster.
As the rat learned how to navigate the maze, its mental activity decreased. The rat started thinking less as the way became more and more automatic.
Within a week, the rat had internalized how to sprint through the maze to such a degree that it hardly needed to think at all. The internalization relied upon the basal ganglia. This part of the brain, the basal ganglia, stored habits even while the rest of the brain went to sleep.
Scientists say new habits emerge because the brain constantly seeks ways to both save energy and effort. An efficient brain allows us to stop constantly thinking about basic behavior like walking, choosing what to eat, etc.
Without habit loops, our brains would shut down, overwhelmed by everything going on in the world and all the decisions we have to make. Even opening a door would be overwhelming.
Saving energy for trivial things is a good thing; however, this can be dangerous too. Suppose we repeat the same pattern repeatedly on autopilot. In that case, we may miss important information, such as a predator hiding in the bushes or a speeding car as they pull onto the street.
When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision-making. The pattern will unfold automatically unless we fight the habit loop and find new routines. This automatic mode is because habits are deeply anchored in our brains.
Habits never really disappear, and that’s a huge advantage for us. It would be awful if we had to learn how to drive after every vacation.
The problem is that our brains can’t differentiate between good and bad habits.
Habits shape our lives far more than we realize. They are so strong that they cause our brains to climb to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense.
And habits emerged without our permission. They just happen if you repeat certain activities regularly. For example, studies indicate that families usually don’t intend to eat fast food on a regular basis. Instead, fast food once per month becomes once a week and then twice a week.
Every McDonald’s, for example, looks the same. The company intentionally tries to standardize the store’s architecture and what employers say to customers. So everything is a constant cue trigger eating routines.
How To Create New Habits
In the 1980s, Schultz was part of a group of scientists studying monkeys’ brains as they learned to perform specific tasks such as pulling on levers or opening clasps. They wanted to know which parts of the brain were responsible for new actions.
They inserted thin electrodes into the monkey’s brain to observe neural activity.
The monkey’s job was to touch a lever whenever colored shapes – small yellow spirals, red squiggles, and blue lines – appeared on the screen.
Then as the monkey touched the lever, a drop of black juice would run down a tube hanging from the ceiling and onto the monkey slips.
Whenever the monkey was rewarded by pulling the lever, his brain activity would spike, suggesting he experienced happiness. This was predicted so far.
However, as the monkey became more practiced at the behavior and the habit became stronger, the brain began anticipating the blackberry juice. As a result, the probes started recording the “I got the reward!” pattern BEFORE the monkey pulled the lever; before the juice arrived.
If the juice didn’t arrive or was late, the monkey would get angry and make unhappy noises. When the monkey didn’t get the juice, a neurological pattern associated with desire and frustration erupted inside his skull.
The joy of blackberry juice became a craving that, if unsatisfied, drove the monkey to anger or depression. This explains why habits are so powerful: they create neurological cravings.
New habits get created by putting together a cue, a routine and a reward. This is the habit loop:
- The cue in this example would be the shapes that pop up on the display.
- The routine was to pull the lever.
- And the reward was a drop of blackberry juice.
However, countless studies have shown that a cue and a reward aren’t enough for the new habit to stick. Only when our brain starts expecting the reward, in the form of endorphins or a sense of accomplishment, will it become automatic to lace up our jogging shoes each morning.
So if you want to exercise more, choose a cue, such as going to the gym as soon as you wake up, and a reward, like a smoothie after each workout. Then think about that smoothie or about the endorphin rush you will feel. Allow yourself to anticipate the reward. Eventually, this craving will make it easier to push through the gym doors every day.
The Golden Rule of Habit Change
The golden rule of habit change states that almost any behavior can be transformed if the cue and reward stay the same.
However, the problem is that most people’s habits have occurred for so long they don’t pay attention to what causes them anymore.
Charles Duhigg includes an example from Mandy, who bites her nails.
Mandy went to the therapist, and it became clear that she bit her nails when she was bored.
The therapist sent Mandy home with an assignment: She has to carry around an index card, and every time she feels the same cue again – a tension in her fingertips – she makes a checkmark on the card.
A week later, she came back with 28 marks. By then, she was aware of the sensations preceding her habit.
The therapist told her for her next step, that whenever she feels a tension in her fingertips, she should immediately put her hands in her pockets or under her legs. So that is impossible to put her fingers in her mouth.
After a month the nailbiting habit was gone. One habit had replaced another.
The cue (a tension in the fingers) and the reward (no longer bored) stayed the same. Only the routine has changed. Instead of biting, Mandy puts her hands into her pockets.
Only if you identify the cue and rewards can you change the routine.
Radical changes also occur when individuals are embedded in social groups. When people join groups where change seems possible, the potential for this change to occur becomes more real.
For a habit to stay changed, people must believe change is possible. Most often, that believe arises with the help of a group.
Keystone habits trigger widespread changes. For example, for many people exercising is a keystone habit.
Researchers have found that when people start exercising, even only once a week, they start changing other unrelated patterns in their lives, often unknowingly.
Typically people who exercise start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit card less frequently and say they feel less stressed.
Or here another example of a keystone habit: Making your bed every morning correlates with better productivity, a greater sense of well-being, and better skills at sticking with a budget.
Keystone habits are also indicated as “small wins.”
Dozens of research have shown that small wins have enormous power. Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win.
These small wins convince people that bigger achievements are within reach.
Here is another example of a 2009 study funded by the National Institutes of Health on weight loss and keystone habits:
They asked 1600 obese people to write down everything they ate at least one day per week. It was hard at first. Many forgot to carry their food journals or would snack and not note it.
Slowly, however, many participants started keeping a daily food log. And eventually, it became a habit. Then something unexpected happened. The participants started looking at their entries and finding patterns they didn’t know existed. So, for example, they noticed they snacked at 10:00 AM. And they began keeping an apple or banana on their desks for snacks instead of cookies.
The most exciting part, however, is that the researchers hadn’t suggested any of these behaviors. They simply asked everyone to write down what they eat once a week. This is the power of a keystone habit.
But this keystone habit, this small win of food journaling, created a structure that helped other habits to flourish.
People who kept daily food records had lost twice as much weight as everyone else.
When Willpower Becomes Automatic
In 2006, two Australian researchers, Megan Oaten and Ken Cheng, did a study about willpower.
They wanted to find out if increased willpower at the gym resulted in greater willpower at home. Before the experiment began, most of the subjects were couch potatoes. Now there are in better physical shape.
However, not only that, but they were also healthier in other parts of their lives.
The more time they spent at the gym, the fewer cigarettes they smoked and the less alcohol, caffeine, and junk food they consumed. They spend fewer hours watching TV and spending more hours on homework. And they were less depressed in general.
What if exercising makes people happier and less hungry for fast food? And it has nothing to do with willpower?
To prove that these results have something to do with willpower, they conducted another experiment:
They signed up 29 people for a four-month money management program.
Participants had to keep detailed logs of everything they bought. This was annoying initially, but eventually, people worked up the self-discipline to write down every purchase.
People’s finances improved as they progressed through the program. More surprisingly, they smoked fewer cigarettes and drank less alcohol and caffeine. In addition, they ate less junk food and were more productive at work and school.
This study proved that people who strengthen their willpower muscles in one part of their lives, their willpower strength also affects what they eat or how productive they are.
Once willpower becomes stronger, it touches everything.
“That’s why signing kids up for a piano lesson or sports is so important. It has nothing to do with creating a good musician or a 5-year-old soccer star.” said Heatherton.
“When you learn to force yourself to practice for an hour or run 15 laps, you start building self-regulatory strength. A 5 year old who can follow the ball for 10 minutes becomes a 6th grader who starts his homework on time.“
How Gratitude Changes Your Mental Health
Researchers at Indiana University published a study in 2016 examined 293 people who went to counseling because of their mental health.
They divided the people into three groups, each of them with a different instruction:
- The first group had to write one letter of gratitude to another person each week, for three weeks.
- The second group had to write introspectively about their deepest thoughts and experiences.
- The third group was not assigned any writing task. They only received therapy.
They found that the grateful letter writers reported significantly better mental health on tests of well-being. They had improved twice as much at the pace of the other groups.
They began to use the words “we” more often, positive emotion words more often, and they used negative emotion words less often.
This habit of writing grateful notes had put the letter writers into positive mindsets. They got reminded of how many friends and supporters surrounded them.
Additionally, they activated the parts of the brain that made it easier to make decisions and act. And as a result of this, they generated other mental habits that made it easier to do things like put the dishes in the dishwater or forgive an incompetent barista.
The Neurology of Free Will
Habits are not as simple as they appear. We have to understand how our habits work and function, what triggers them, what we do, and why we do it.
Each of our habits has a different cue and offers a unique reward. But every habit, no matter its complexity, is shapeable. The most addicted alcoholics can become sober.
But to modify a habit, we must decide to change it. This means we must identify the cues and rewards that drive the old habits and routines and find alternatives.
How we eat, sleep, talk to our kids, and unthinkingly spend our time, attention, and money are habits that we know exist. And once we understand that habits can change, we have the freedom to remake them. Once we understand that habits can rebuild, the power of habit becomes easier to grasp, and the only option left is to get to work.
And the change becomes real when you believe you can change.
Step By Step Guide To Change Habits
Unfortunately, not all habits can be changed the same way. Existing habits, old habits, and new habits offer a unique reward and have a unique cue.
Charles Duhigg provides a step-by-step example to change bad habits and replace them with a new routine. The bad habit example is: You go to the cafeteria and buy a chocolate chip cookie every afternoon.
To change this behavior, you have to start your diagnosis by figuring out the habit loop.
The first step is to identify the routine. This is the behavior you want to change.
Now you have to find out what’s the cue for this routine. Is it hunger? Boredom? Low blood sugar?
And what’s the reward? The cookie itself? The change of scenery? The temporary distraction? Or socializing with colleagues?
The best thing is to experiment with different rewards. This may take a few days or weeks. You shouldn’t feel any pressure to make a real change during the period. Think of yourself as a scientist in the data collection stage.
Here are different examples of how you can play around with the reward:
- Instead of walking to the cafeteria, walk around the block and then return to your desk without eating anything.
- Go to the cafeteria, buy a donut or candy bar, and eat it at your desk. Don’t stay there.
- Go to the cafeteria, buy an apple, and eat it while chatting with your friends.
The point is to test different rewards to determine which craving drives your automatic habit. Do you crave the cookie itself or a break from work?
And then, look for patterns: After each activity, write down on a piece of paper the first three things that come to mind when you return to your desk.
Then set an alarm on your watch or computer for 15 minutes. Do you still feel the urge for the cookie after 15 minutes?
Writing these words is important because it forces a moment of attention. It makes you aware of the current situation.
By experimenting with different rewards, you can isolate what you’re actually craving, which is essential in redesigning the habit. Because cravings drive habits.
We can start by changing the cue when we know why we are doing it.
All habitual cues fit into one of five categories:
- Emotional State
- Other People
- Immediately preceding action
As so as soon as the craving for the chocolate chip cookie arises, write down these five things the moment the urge appears:
- Where are you? (sitting at my desk)
- What time is it? (3:36 PM)
- What’s your emotional state? (bored)
- Who else is around? (no one)
- What action preceded the urge? ( answered an email)
Repeat this for the next few days. By doing this, you will find a pattern that is always the same. In the example of Charles, it was the time. Every day, he bought the cookie between 3:00 and 4:00 PM.
To re-engineer the habit formula, we have to make new plans. They are called implementation intentions.
When I see CUE, I will do ROUTINE in order to get REWARD.
And ultimately, to change his habit, he set the alarm to 3:30 PM. When the alarm goes off, he walks to a friend’s desk and talks for 10 minutes. Charles new habit with the implementation intention was:
At 3:30 every day, I will walk to a friend’s desk and talk for 10 minutes.
The Power of Habit Summary Key Takeaways
Here are the key takeaways from this The Power of Habit summary:
- The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg is a book that explores the science behind habit formation and how changes can lead to lasting effects.
- The basis of habit formation lies in the cue, routine, and reward loop, know as the habit loop. A cue triggers a routine and is then followed by the same reward which leads to the same cycle again.
- Habits are deeply rooted in our brains, so they can be difficult to change, but it’s possible with the Golden Rule of Habit Change – as long as it’s the same cue and same reward.
- Certain habits can act as ‘keystone habits’ that trigger further changes in different areas of our lives, leading to small wins which convince us bigger achievements are within reach.
- Willpower muscles increase when we engage in activities such as money management or sports, ultimately having an effect on other areas like eating habits or productivity.
It’s clear that the Power of Habit offers helpful advice on how to form good habits and break bad ones. Being aware of the science of habit formation can be a powerful way to understand our behavior and create lasting positive changes in our lives.
Read inspiring The Power of Habit quotes: 38 The Power of Habit Quotes To Change Your Life
Thanks to this book, you now have the tools to start building better organizational habits and improving your productivity. Having a few good new habits in place can make an incredible difference in your life.
Wish you the best! Fabian
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