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Summary: The Power of Habit


Charles Duhigg is a Pulitzer Prize winner and has been featured in the New York Times Bestseller, The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. Charles Duhigg also works for the New York Times and has written another book, called 'Smarter Faster Better' that focuses on productivity.

The Power Of Habit reviews the importance of habits in life and business. The book is broken up into 3 parts, the habits of individuals, the habits of successful organization and the habits of societies. In the first part, Duhigg convinces us that most patterns in our life are habits. From how we eat and sleep and talk to people to how we carelessly spend our time, attention and money. These are all habits.

Then Duhigg explains how habits work and guide us on how they can be changed. He uses examples that can resonate with clear and easy to understand. Including people who struggle with weight loss, cigarettes, drinking too much wine, or even drinking too much coffee, and people who just want too many breaks. It is possible for everyone to resonate. Duhigg gives us case studies in the second part of the book on how companies use the power of habits to drive profits by implementing organizational habits as well as studying patterns of expenditure for their customers. In the third part, Duhigg talks about the habits of society on how a movement happens and what murderers and gamblers teach us about being responsible for our own habits.

The Habit Loop

Duhigg teaches us that most things we do are habits. Think of a habit as your body running you. Sometimes without your permission.

For example, you might be reading this not because you want to, but because you're in the habit of reading stuff online when you procrastinate (by the way I hope this is not true!). Or, it's not that you need to take breaks after every half an hour of work, but its because it's a habit. Also, it's not a coincidence that you 'feel like' eating junk food when you do work, it's because you're in the habit of eating junk when you're stressed. Now you might be thinking, 'That can't be right!'. But just stay with me for a second.

In the early 1990s, MIT researchers were experimenting with rats passing through a labyrinth. They put rats behind a partition that would open whenever a major click sound was heard. Then the rats will find their way through the maze to finish the piece of chocolate. This method was replicated again and again by the scientists, each time analyzing the brain activity of the rat. We found that there was a drop in brain activity each time the rat would go through the labyrinth. Each rat simply sprinted through the labyrinth after a week without even thought at all. The method was automatic.

This process where our brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine is called “chunking”. The chunking process is a 3-step loop:

Cue: the cue is the trigger that tells our brain to go into automatic mode. It also tells our brain which habits to use

Routine: the activity that is carried out. It can be physical, mental or emotional

Reward: finally there's the reward, which helps our brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.

So in the rat experiment, the cue was the loud click noise. The routine was the rats going through the maze and the reward was the piece of chocolate at the end. Over time, when this loop cue, routine, the reward is repeated over and over again, it becomes more and more automatic and eventually, a habit is born.

And here's the thing. Remember how the rats didn't even need to think much anymore? That's the aim of our brain. Our brain wants to save thinking energy. That is, it's constantly looking for ways to save effort. Hence when it chunks a sequence of our actions into automatic routines, it doesn't need to think about them anymore. That's exactly why our brain has stopped thinking about basic behaviors like walking, choosing what to eat and how to drive. The more habits we build, the more our brain can rest. It can then be used for other things like thinking of ideas, creating, inventing, etc.

Therefore, most things have to be an effective activity for our brains. Otherwise, with all the thoughts it has to do, our minds will implode. For example, you see a message pop up (cue) on your mobile, you read the message (routine) and you are fulfilled with your desire to know what your friend said (reward). Perhaps your friend will hear you say something wrong (cue), they will correct you immediately (routine) and they will prove their point (reward). Or you can see the McDonald's sign on your way home from work (cue), pull in the driveway and buy a meal (routine) and enjoy a good-looking cheap meal. You are no longer hungry (reward) either.

If you're not in the habit of doing something, you're in the habit of not doing it.

Martin Cao

How To Change Your Habit

Duhigg teaches us how we can change any habit. The number one thing to understand is that once the cue happens, our brain craves the reward. Not the routine. In fact, a smoker doesn't want to smoke. He craves the impression that after cigarettes he is less depressed. And a person who's on their phone all the time doesn't want to send texts. We enjoy the feeling of being associated or desired by other people with their friends. Whatever it is, for everyone, the reward might be different. But everyone still craves the reward, not the routine. Hence to change a habit, all we have to do is replace the routine part and keep the cue and the reward. For example, if you have the habit of smoking:

You feel stressed and overwhelmed (cue), you start smoking (routine), and you feel relaxed (reward).

In this case, all you have to do is replace the routine with something else, for example, going for a walk. Your loop would then look like this:

You feel stressed and overwhelmed (cue), go for a walk (routine), and you feel relaxed (reward).

The most important thing about routine switching is that the new routine still has to give you what you want, which is the reward. And since you want to feel relaxed (reward), walking (a new routine) will make you feel relaxed. If walking doesn't make you feel relaxed and you're still under stress, you'll go back to smoking. That is, the routine has to give you the same reward.

This is where we should experiment with Duhigg. Your real reward is one of the trickiest things to figure out. Who are you really looking for? Were you worried about sweets? Or are you just wanting something crunchy to bit? Or would you just like to mix something, whatever it maybe? Through changing the habits and seeing if your craving is fulfilled, you can work this out. When you go back to your old routine, you know when you're not happy.

Remember that the cue, routine and reward is different for everyone. For example, people go on their phones to satisfy the craving of knowing what their friends said. It's like watching an episode of their favorite TV show with a cliff hanger. Or they crave the feeling of importance when they check their following. Whatever it is, you have to experiment with the routine to understand what your unique reward is.

Will Power Is The Most Important Habit

Many experiments in the past have shown the enormous benefits of the force of will. In reality, Pennsylvania University studies found that children with higher self-discipline outperformed those with intellectual ability. But, it's more than just intellect.

You might have heard of the famous marshmallow experiment where 4-year-old kids were given the choice to either eat one marshmallow right away or if they waited a few minutes, they could have two marshmallows. This experimented tested each kid's will power. Years later the researchers tracked down these kids and found that those who could delay gratification the longest ended up with the best grades and with SAT scores 210 points higher, on average than everyone else. They were more popular and also did fewer drugs.

One of the best things they discovered was that will power is a skill. We can learn and strengthen it like a muscle. And the best way to strengthen willpower is to turn it into a habit. They also found that once you strengthen your will power muscle, good habits would spill over into other parts of your life.

If willpower, however, was an ability, why does it not stay constant from day today? You know about what I'm talking about. There are days when it's so much easier to do your job than others. It's because, during the day, power is going to deplete. It's not infinite, it's endless. So you've got to be careful about what you're going to spend power on. When you wake up and spend your time checking emails and doing admin stuff all morning, you won't be able to do the most important tasks at the end of the day. Think of your willpower as you get mad. If you are annoyed by one person in the morning, it's all right. You'll still be able to keep your cool and be calm. But by the 5th or even 10th person, you'll probably lose your shit.

The Power Of Habit In Business

In order to better predict our spending habits, companies continue to collect customer data. We know that while we go to the shops with the intention of buying other products, the moment we see an item, our decision to buy actually happens. Our shopping list goes out of the window at that point. That's why you see retailers at the end of the store strategically positioning those goods as necessary, so you might be tempted to buy certain things as soon as you reach them. That's one of the book's oldest tricks.

In reality, companies like Target have such a sophisticated algorithm that with a slight margin of error they can tell if you are pregnant or not. By analyzing a huge amount of data about your spending habits, they do this. Target will send out coupons for baby products on the basis of this information. Of course, they would have to send it out to your neighbors to make it less obvious that they know about you. So they can determine what kind of person you are by observing your spending habits and making suggestions for your next purchases.

Duhigg also tells us a case study about the pop song 'Hey Ya'. Even though we complain about how most pop songs sound the same, the actual fact is – that's how our brains like it. Our brains prefer familiarity. once we're in the habit of listening to a type of tune, we'll prefer that song over any other song not because it's better but because it's familiar. When the pop song 'Hey Ya' just came out, people weren't used to its tunes so they didn't like it. So what the producers had to do was, they positioned the song between two already popular pop songs and played them all in one go. Overtime listeners were anchored to the song and all three songs sounded familiar. That's how 'Hey Ya' became popular.

In fact, this is exactly how the U.S. government got people into organ meat addiction. What he did was package organ meat to look like other meat already eaten by people. That is, organ meat, like non-organ meat, has been camouflaged. Because of the concept of familiarity, it worked for better or worse. That's what they prefer once they're in the habit of something. And McDonald's, Subway, and all fast-food chains look the same wherever we go. It's because we like familiarity because it understands. It is our excuse to get cheap comfort food every time we see the mark.

Being Responsible For Our Habits

Okay, this is a very intense component. Live with me that way. Duhigg introduces us to the story of Brian Thomas, who one day strangled his wife to death for a robber. Thomas has been a sleepwalker since he was young. When investigators studied his case and applied sensors throughout his body to measure his brain waves, they found that when he killed his wife, Thomas was unconscious. There are, in fact, many cases like Tom. There's the guy who kicked and stamped his 83-year-old father to death, the girl who put a pillow over the head of her aunt, and the guy who raped a girl while unconscious. More than 150 murderers and rapists escaped punishment because judges and juries argued that they didn't choose to commit the crime consciously.

That appears to be rational. So what's the difference between pathological gamblers and sleep terrors? Duhigg tells us about a lady who was a professional gambler named Angie Bachmann. Pathological gambling is classified as an addictive disorder which means that there are similarities between these gamblers and people with addictions to substances. There is a difference between gamblers and pathological gamblers in the habit loop. The difference is that gamblers realize that the loss of' almost winning' is still due to the loss of money. Yet pathological gamblers see 'almost winning' as nearly winning, their addiction loop kicks in, saying' the jackpot is coming! So they're going back again.

Angie Bachmann was a pathological gambler and had tried to quit before. But casinos would not leave her be. She would receive free limos, paid-for hotel accommodations and free trips to Las Vegas for her whole family and friends. Every time she lost she felt guilty and felt like she needed to win the money back to make it up to her family. But every time she lost, the casino would sign her free cheques of hundreds of thousands of dollars so she could continue playing. Even when she tried to refuse, casino workers would call her up saying 'They told me I'd lose my job if you don't come back. We paid for everything for you already'. It's a sad story. And it ends when she gambled her parent's entire life savings worth $1,000,000 which they left for her when they passed away. She ruined her family's life.

Now the thing is here. They appear to sympathize more with the murder of Brian Thomas than with the gambling addictions of Angie Bachmann, although both made variations of the same argument–that they behaved out of habit, that they had no control over their actions because they were running their patterns. This is the difference, however. Thomas didn't know about his patterns while Bachmann was fully aware of hers. That's the difference. So a sleepwalking murderer can be let off because he didn't know about his patterns. But almost all other patterns that we have – how we eat and sleep and talk to people, carelessly spend our time, attention and money – those are habits that we know exist. And once you understand that habits can change, you have the freedom and responsibility to remake them.

Your Power Of Habit Action plan

Choose the top 3 bad habits that you want to change. Identify the cue. Hypothesize what your reward is. Then experiment with different routines and check whether you were right (see if you still crave it). For example:

1. Hypothesis: You think the reward is you crave human interaction. So instead of checking your phone, you chat with your colleagues for a bit. Is the craving to check your phone still there? Yes. So that's not it.

2. Hypothesis: You think the reward is you crave a small break. So instead of checking your phone, you go for a quick walk. Is the craving to check your phone still there? Yes. So that's not it either

3. Hypothesis: You think the reward is the ease of knowing that everyone's okay and no one needs you. So instead of constantly checking your phone, you tell your family and friends that you'll be doing a focused study session ( Deep Work Session) with no interruptions for which you will turn your phone off on airplane mode for 2 hours straight. You turn the phone on airplane mode. Is the craving to check your phone still there? No. You've got it!

Do the same with your top 3 good habits you want to develop.

Make will power a habit. Delay your instant gratification by using the 30-second rule. That is, tell yourself you'll still get to have it or do it but only after you count until 30.

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