Sue's Reviews > The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
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Jul 10, 2012

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The title of this book may be misleading if you want to lose weight, stop procrastinating, or get to appointments on time. It would be easy to think you’d found a self-help book. Okay, maybe it could help a reader break an unwanted habit. Duhigg does try to analyze those behaviors. There are a few good stories of people who quit smoking or started exercising.

But it is more accurately about patterns of behavior in groups as well as individuals: in corporations, the military, and the marketplace. I had never thought of corporations instilling habits, but we hear all the time about corporate culture, and that is an amalgam of habitual behaviors. This book is broadly organized around the concept of habits (with a number of fun stories) and around the endlessly entertaining custom (habit?) of observing human nature.

Duhigg told the following story, which he claims hooked him on the subject of habits. An army officer in Iraq observed that violence in the small town where he was stationed occurred in a particular plaza. People gathered, food vendors arrived, then someone would throw a rock or bottle. He asked the town’s mayor one evening to keep the food vendors away. The crowd showed up, got restless and hungry, and eventually left – defused – because the street vendors were absent. Duhigg, then a reporter in Baghdad, asked the officer how he had analyzed this situation. The US military, the officer said, is an experiment in habit formation. “Understanding habits is the most important thing I’ve learned in the army.”

This story did not initially meet my usual understanding of what constitutes a habit. But the habit of a kebab dinner supported the assembling of a large and restless crowd. At least for the duration of this book, I broadened my definition of a habit.

But in case you really crave the self-help part of this book, here is Duhigg’s description of personal habit formation: A cue triggers a routine, which is the behavior you may want to change. There’s a reward inherent in that routine. Figure out what reward you really want, then change the routine to get it. The cue (an emotion, a time of day) will still be present, but you’ll respond with a different routine.

Corporations make appearances in a couple of ways. The story of Paul O’Neill at Alcoa is one in which he sought to transform a poorly performing company by instilling a culture of safety. Employees were led to respond to dangerous situations with ingrained safety procedures. In other words, they learned new habits of response. Altering one important habit of all employees, in a highly disciplined manner, changed the culture of the corporation.

But corporations also want to know about customer habits. If you shop at Target, consider yourself warned. The store knows more about you than you can possibly imagine. Uncomfortable territory. Your habits are known!
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Linda S (new)

Linda S I liked your review very much and I learned quite a bit about habit formation. I always enjoy your reviews. Well written and informative.

Thanks,

Linda


message 2: by Caroline (last edited Oct 14, 2015 03:05AM) (new) - added it

Caroline An excellent review!

But perhaps I would argue with this...

"But in case you really crave the self-help part of this book, here is Duhigg’s description of personal habit formation: A cue triggers a routine, which is the behavior you may want to change. There’s a reward inherent in that routine. Figure out what reward you really want, then change the routine to get it. The cue (an emotion, a time of day) will still be present, but you’ll respond with a different routine."

Like with the food vendors example that you gave - surely it is best, if possible, to remove the cue? One of my worst habits at the moment is reading a newspaper about three times a week, from start to finish. This wastes my precious time. I have tried disciplining myself to just reading fresh news, or news appropriate to my interests - but no - I find myself ploughing through the papers from start to finish, regardless of my good intentions. It is horribly time-consuming, and leaves me no time for reading books - my real love. I have decided to get rid of the cues, and will now only get a newspaper on Saturdays.

I have read nothing about corporate culture, but I have seen it in practice, in the various organisations I have worked in over the years. The effects of corporate changes can be dramatic - now you have made me want to read something on the subject!


message 3: by Sue (new) - rated it 3 stars

Sue Caroline wrote: "An excellent review!

But perhaps I would argue with this...

"But in case you really crave the self-help part of this book, here is Duhigg’s description of personal habit formation: A cue triggers..."


You are absolutely right that removing the cue is the best approach. That's why I do not buy snack foods like potato chips (or crisps, depending upon where you are!). It's best that they not be in the house!

I think the alternative approach is for those situations which you can't change. If you crave a snack at work from the vending machine at 4:00 because your energy is flagging, you can't remove the vending machine!


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