Book review: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Book review: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

This is the first book review I’ve posted in a while. Like many people these days I’m not reading as many books as I once did. Distractions of Netflix, podcasts and social media seem to suck up what used to be time spent reading books. But I’m actively trying to get into better habits and one of the books I read recently was all about habits. If you’re interested in why we do what we do again and again even when we know it’s not good for us, then this is the book for you. 

Duhigg’s book is divided into three parts looking at the habits of individuals, organisations and societies. His definition of habits is “the choices that all of us deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about but continue doing, often everyday.” Extensively researched, he draws from academic research studies from fields such as neurology, psychology, sociology and marketing. He interviewed scientists and executives as well as people who have changed their habits.

Habits are “the choices that all of us deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about but continue doing”

In spite of what could potentially be dry subject matter this is a fascinating and even inspiring book. There are plenty of interesting nuggets of information for example “40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits” – that’s according to a 2006 paper from Duke University. But habits are not destiny, as the case studies in the book demonstrate. The key to changing habits is understanding the habit loop that reinforces them. Duhigg provides some additional resources on his website including flowcharts to change bad habits and reinforce good ones.

Habit formation and the ripple effect

One of the things that I discovered was the unintended consequences that developing good habits can have on other areas of life. By developing the willpower to deal with one aspect of lifestyle it has a ripple effect elsewhere. A four-month study of financial habits carried out by two researchers in Australia, Oaten and Cheng, found that participants who tracked their spending ended up smoking fewer cigarettes, exercising more, consuming less alcohol, coffee and junk food. Participants reported improved productivity at work and college. The researchers ran another study to improve study habits among 45 students. Alongside improving study skills, students drank and smoked less, exercised more, ate healthier and watched less television. None of these other lifestyle changes was mentioned in the study skills course. But “as their willpower muscles strengthened, good habits seemed to spill over into other parts of their lives.”

This also held up in the section on habits in organisations. Duhigg looks at how some organisations choose to support good habits in their organisations and the transformative effect this can have on their staff, customers and profitability. One of his case studies is Paul O’Neill’s time as CEO of Alcoa (Aluminium Company of America). O’Neill made improving worker safety the number one priority when he became CEO, saying “I intend to make Alcoa the safest company in America. I intend to go for zero injuries.” In spite of scepticism from brokers and investors, within a year the company’s profits were at a record high. By focussing on one keystone habit O’Neill created a ripple effect throughout the organisation which resulted in improved relationships between staff and management and increased innovation.

Keystone Habits

This has been my key takeaway from the book, that you don’t need to change everything instead you should focus on “keystone habits.” “Keystone habits start a process that, over time, transforms everything.” The keystone habit that I’ve chosen to work on has been getting more sleep. This has led me to delete Twitter from my phone and start reading actual books again. Focussing on improving my sleep has also meant I’m reducing my caffeine intake and getting more exercise. It has become my motivation for exercising because it has a tangible short-term benefit. I know that on the days when I make the effort to exercise I will sleep better. I know that I need to get fit for the Debra Ireland Arctic Survival Challenge but that’s not for six months. It’s much easier for me to think about how what I do today will impact how I will sleep tonight than to think about my ability to cross-country ski early next year. And when I sleep better everything else comes a little easier during the day too. On Monday my circuits class started again after a break over the summer. I slept for 10 hours that night!


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