Review: “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg

Benjamin Franklin once said, “Your net worth to the world is usually determined by what remains after your bad habits are subtracted from your good ones.” Many of us trying to get a positive net worth are wondering just how to do that. How do we break bad habits and develop good ones?

Fortunately, in his book The Power of Habit, New York Times business journalist Charles Duhigg shows the way. Or, at least, some of the way. Even he concedes that there are “no specific set of steps guaranteed to work for every person.” Yet what scientists have discovered is that habits emerge because the brain is looking for ways to be efficient and will try to habituate every routine. That’s why repetition is so important.

But our habits are also composed of three primary elements: the cue, the routine, and the reward. Together they comprise a habit loop. And it’s in understanding how the habit loop works that we can replace bad habits with good ones.

The cue is the trigger that “tells your brain to go into automatic mode.” According to Duhigg, almost all cues fall into one of five types: location, time, emotional state, other people, or an immediately preceding action. For instance, if you’ve noticed that you are habitually nibbling from the refrigerator, it may be that you’ve developed a habit to opening the door each time you walk by. That would be a location cue. Or, perhaps you graze when you’re feeling down. That would be an emotional cue.

The routine, of course, is what we generally think of as the habit. It’s the behavior we might want to change if it’s bad or adopt if it’s good. In this example it’s opening the refrigerator and eating something.

The reward is what satisfies an underlying craving. This is the tricky part, because it may not be evident what reward you’re seeking. Because of that, Duhigg suggests conducting some experiments on your habit to see if altering the routine affects the reward. In the example, for instance, you might try taking a walk instead to see if it satisfies your underlying craving. If so, it might suggest that you merely visited the kitchen because you were bored or needed a break. Those calories you consumed were just in the path of another craving you were seeking to fill.

Duhigg packs The Power of Habit with anecdotal illustrations of both personal and organizational transformation through habit engineering. You’ll read how the power of habit shaped Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, transformed the Buccaneers and Colts seasons under coach Tony Dungy, contributed to the civil rights movement with Martin Luther King, and influenced Rick Warren’s explosive church growth.

Most of the principles and examples in The Power of Habit are about how to transform bad habits rather than instilling new ones. In fact, he provides an excellent four-step framework for experimenting on your habits in the book’s appendix. Whether you’re looking to instill new habits or break old ones, you’ll likely find something in Duhigg’s book to improve your net worth to the world.

What other books about habits would you recommend?

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