The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Book Summary

Habits underlie everything we do. With real-world stories and scientific research, Charles Duhigg explains in this book how habits drive our behaviors. After reading The Power of Habit, I came away with a deeper awareness of how habits work. I also came to understand how habits can help us achieve massive change.

If you’d like to read The Power of Habit, you can grab a copy at Amazon. For the sake of transparency, please note that I get a small commission if you decide to buy it.

Notes and Quotes

The Power of Habit Summary (Credit: Amazon)

The Structure of Human Brain

  • Picture it like an onion that’s made up of many different layers.
    • The outside layers, closest to the scalp, are the “most recent additions from an evolutionary perspective.”
    • Deeper inside and closer to the stem are the brain’s “older” structures. These control automatic behaviors like breathing, swallowing, and our reflexes.
  • What is the Basal Ganglia?
    • Located toward the center of a skull and is a lump that’s the size of a golf ball.
    • Similar to what you might find in the head of a fish, reptile, or mammal.
    • “Central to recalling patterns and acting on them. The basal ganglia, in other words, stored habits even while the rest of the brain went to sleep.”

Chunking: a process “in which the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine..” It’s the root of how all habits form.

Why do habits emerge?

  • Brain is always looking for ways to save effort. Habits allow our minds to ramp down more often.
    • “An efficient brain also allows us to stop thinking constantly about basic behaviors…”
  • Physical Benefits
    • “An efficient brain requires less room, which makes for a smaller head, which makes childbirth easier and therefore causes fewer infant and mother deaths.”
  • The downside of habits
    • “if our brains power down at the wrong moment, we might fail to notice something important…”

When dealing with uncertainty, “the brain spends a lot of effort at the beginning of a habit looking for something – a cue – that offers a hint as to which pattern to use.”

“Habits never really disappear. They’re encoded into the structures of our brain, and that’s a huge advantage for us…”

  • Means that we don’t have to relearn things over and over again.
  • The brain can’t tell the difference between good and bad habits.
  • It is possible to develop new habits to replace old ones. To do this, we must take control of the habit loop.

Why do habit loops matter?

  • Without them, our brains would shut down, overwhelmed by the minutiae of daily life. People whose basal ganglia are damaged by injury or disease often become mentally paralyzed.

Habits are surprisingly delicate.

  • If you change the cues the slightest bit, then the habit will fall apart.

The elements of the habit loop: cues, routines, and rewards.

  • The cue: the trigger that activates the habit
    • “Researches have learned that cues can be almost anything…”
  • The routine: the action that ensues in the presence of the cue.
    • “Routines can be incredibly complex or fantastically simple…”
  • The reward: the payoff following the execution of the routine
    • “Rewards can range from food or drugs that cause physical sensations, to emotional payoffs…”
  • Further details on cues, routines, and rewards
    • “By learning to observe the cues and rewards, though, we can change the routines.”
    • “But to change an old habit, you must address an old craving. You have to keep the same cues and rewards as before, and feed the craving by inserting a new routine.”

The qualities of habits

  • Can emerge outside our consciousness or be deliberately designed.
  • Often occur without our permission, but can be reshaped by fiddling with their parts.
  • Common sense is sometimes no match for habits.

Awareness Training: asking people to describe what triggers their habitual behavior.

  • This is the first step in habit reversal.

Competing Response: A prescribed action to do in place of your usual routine that’s activated by your cue.

“It seems ridiculously simple, but once you’re aware of how your habit works, once you recognize the cues and rewards, you’re halfway to changing it” – Nathan Azrin, one of the developers of habit reversal training.

  • “The truth is, the brain can be reprogrammed. You just have to be deliberate about it.”

Belief is also necessary when trying to transform habits.

  • “When people join groups where change seems possible, the potential for that change to occur becomes more real. For most people who overhaul their lives, there are no seminal moments or life-altering disasters. There are simply communities – sometimes of just one other person – who make change believable.”
  • “Belief is easier when it occurs within a community.”

Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything.”

  • Doesn’t depend on getting everything right, but focuses on relying on “a few key priorities and fashioning them into powerful levers.”
  • Keystone habits: the foundation for other habits to built on and flourish from.

Examples of Behaviors that are Keystone Habits

  • Exercise: 
    • “When people start habitually exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, they start changing other, unrelated patterns in their lives, often unknowingly.”
      • They start eating better, become more productive at work, smoke less, show more patience with coworkers and family. They feel less stressed too. No explanation why.
  • Eating With Your Family
    •  “Studies have documented that families who habitually eat dinner together seem to raise children with better homework skills, higher grades, greater emotional control, and more confidence.”
  • Making Your Bed
    •  “Making your bed every morning is correlated with better productivity, a greater sense of well-being, and stronger skills at sticking with a budget.”

What are the qualities of keystone habits?

  • Quality 1: They create small wins.
    • “Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach.”
    •  Small wins don’t come in “neat, linear, serial form, with each step being a demonstrable step closer to some predetermined goal.” – Karl Weick, organizational psychologist.
  • Quality 2: Create structures that help other habits to develop.
  • Quality 3: Create cultures where new values become ingrained.
    • “Keystone habits transform us by creating cultures that make clear the values that, in the heat of a difficult decision or moment of uncertainty, we might otherwise forget.”

Willpower: an important keystone habit to develop

  • Learning self-discipline and focus are critical habits worth developing.
  • “When you learn to focus yourself to go to the gym or start your homework or eat a salad instead of a hamburger, part of what’s happening is that you’re changing how you think. People get better at regulating their impulses. They learn how to distract themselves from temptations. And once you’ve gotten into that willpower groove, your brain is practiced at helping you focus on a goal.” – Todd Heatherton, Dartmouth Researcher.
  • How to make willpower a habit: “by choosing a certain behavior ahead of time, and then following that routine when an inflection point arrives.”
  • “When people are asked to do something that takes self-control, if they think they are doing it for personal reasons – if they feel like it’s a choice or something they enjoy because it helps someone else – it’s much less taxing. If they feel like they have no autonomy, if they’re just following orders, their willpower muscles get tired much faster…” –  Mark Muraven, researcher at the University of Albany

Social habits

  • The “behaviors that occur” without thinking “across dozens or hundreds or thousands of people which are often hard to see as they emerge, but which contain a power that can change the world.”
  • They are “why some initiatives become world-changing movements, while others fail to ignite.”
  • Why social habits have such influence?
    • “A movement starts because of the social habits of friendship and the strong ties between close acquaintances.”
    • “It grows because of the habits of a community, and the weak ties that hold neighborhoods and clans together.”
    • “And it endures because a movement’s leaders give participants new habits that create a fresh sense of identity and a feeling of ownership.”
    • When all three parts of this process are fulfilled, that’s when a movement can reach critical mass.
    • They’re self propelling. People can figure out how to implement social habits in their own way.

“If you believe you can change – if you make it a habit – the change becomes real. This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be. Once that choice occurs – and becomes automatic – it’s not only real, it starts to seem inevitable…”

Looking to learn from more great books?

Then sign up to my newsletter The Dime. I share big ideas and knowledge from books I’ve read, experiences I’ve had, and people I admire.

    I won’t send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time.