The Power of Habit Summary + #14 Life Changing Lessons

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg – Book Summary and Key Takeaways

Power of Habits

My fascination with habits and how they influence our daily lives started with this book. An interview with the author, Charles Duhigg to be precise. Almost two years  later, I thought it was time I actually read the book.

I had already been applying many of the principles Duhigg describes in the Power of Habit in my habit tweaking experiments and they worked wonders: I gave up smoking (2 months in yeah :) and switched to a healthier diet. But most of all, I’ve developed and awareness of my habits and consequently, a capacity to change them. To make a long story short, the stuff works, so it was time I got the full picture.

I wrote this summary primarily for myself, so that I’d remember the key lessons, but it may help you to get the gist of the book and then I hope you’ll read it yourself.

Still within the prologue, the author tells the story of how US soldiers found a smart way to disperse angry crowds in the streets without violence. Apparently they discovered that people get hungry after a while, which is when kebab sellers appear and keep them going. Once kebab sellers were removed, people left when they got hungry and the demonstration didn’t escalate. There is probably more to stopping a revolution, but this principle – make a small change to get massive results – has proven to work in many walks of life and paves the way for what’s left to come.

Part One – The habits of Individuals

1. The Habit Loop – How Habits Work

In the first chapter, we learn about the story of Eugene Pauly, whose brain was severely damaged by a virus. E. P. was never able to remember any recent events for more than a minute or so after the damage was done. Despite that, he was able to navigate his way around his house and even in the outside world to some extent, which was only possible, because the part of his brain responsible for habits, remained intact. What supports this theory is that whenever something changed – cues have been removed -, his behaviour fell apart: he’d get lost, unable to complete the simplest of actions, agitated etc.

Researchers also backed this up with experiments. They monitored the brain activity of rats and found that their brain powered down whenever a habit kicked in.

„The basal ganglia, in other words, stored habits even while the rest of the brain went to sleep.”

Even though habits are automatic, and to some extent unconscious series of actions, they are not impossible to change.

„And once someone creates a new pattern, studies have demonstrated, going for a jog or ignoring the doughnuts becomes as automatic as any other habit.”

Further experiments with E. P. demonstrated the same:

„Habits are powerful, but delicate. They can emerge outside our consciousness, or can be deliberately designed.”

The difficulty of (especially bad) habits is they emerge gradually, over time, without our permission. „What happens is that a once a month pattern slowly becomes once a week, and then twice a week—as the cues and rewards create a habit—until the kids are consuming an unhealthy amount of hamburgers and fries.”

„Even small shifts can end the pattern. But since we often don’t recognize these habit loops as they grow, we are blind to our ability to control them.”

The habit loop starts with a cue, which is then followed by an almost automatic action or routine, which is reinforced by a reward and the cycle is ready begin again.

2. The Craving Brain – How to Create New Habits

The second chapter reveals how Claude Hopkins got America hooked on his toothpaste, Pepsodent, and incidentally, on brushing teeth. Before Pepsodent, 7% of the populace brushed their teeth, after  it 65%. Hopkins achieved this miraculous change by pointing out a cue that everyone experienced all the time: film on teeth. Once the association was created, the cue lead to automatic tooth brushing with the majority of the population. Hopkins said it worked because he identified the cue and the reward.

As the story of Febreze, an odour remover, showed in the 90’s, there was one more element that Hopkins did without knowing. He created a craving (for filmless teeth in his case), without which his new habit of tooth brushing would not have been adopted.

Febreze was a wonder product. It didn’t mask, but actually removed odours. And yet it was a huge failure. People who bought it used it once and then forgot about it altogether. It wasn’t until the designers of the product studied the few people who used it regularly, that they discovered the missing link. People, who needed to get rid of bad smells the most, didn’t know about their problem – they were so used to the bad smell, it didn’t really register – so they stopped using Febreze. But pedantic housewives loved spraying the stuff around their homes every time they’d finished cleaning – for them, cleaning wasn’t done with, until the nice and fresh smell of Febreze was around. There is the craving: an anticipation of the satisfied feeling of a job well done.

“There is nothing programmed into our brains that makes us see a box of doughnuts and automatically want a sugary treat,” “But once our brain learns that a doughnut box contains yummy sugar and other carbohydrates, it will start anticipating the sugar high. Our brains will push us toward the box. Then, if we don’t eat the doughnut, we’ll feel disappointed.”

Duhigg juxtaposes applying sunscreen with brushing teeth and comes to the conclusion that the reason why the former never became a widely adopted habit is because there is no craving attached to it. Brushing our teeth leaves our mouths with a nice „tingling” feeling and our teeth with a sense of smoothness, which, in essence „prove” to us that the product works even though this has nothing to do with its real efficacy. Sunscreen doesn’t make us feel like that. There is no sensation that we can interpret as signal of accomplishment.

This craving, or the anticipation of the reward, is what keeps the habit loop rolling.

3. The Golden Rule of Habit Change – Why Transformation Occurs

For a book of an academic character (at least in a sense that most of it is backed up by research), chapter three is made up of several intertwined plotlines which keep interrupting one another. Probably applied to make people more likely to get through the chapter, I think too much of this defies the purpose in case of a book like this.

The first important point this chapter makes is:

„…once you’re aware of how your habit works, once you recognize the cues and rewards, you’re halfway to changing it,”

This is illustrated by the story of a girl with a severe nail biting habit. The cure involved making her aware of the cues, making her note when the cues emerged and the times she managed to overcome the bad routine. Eventually, her nail biting was replaced with rubbing her hands together. The cues stayed, the behaviour changed.

Through the stories of alcoholics and their attendance of AA meetings, Duhigg demonstrates that belief is a critical component of successful habit change. Many recovering alcoholics who attended the meetings were able to stay abstinent for long periods of time, but the majority of them would drink again once some major stress struck their lives. What made the difference is their belief in a higher power, or rather admitting that they are helpless, and surrendering completely.

„It wasn’t God that mattered, the researchers figured out. It was belief itself that made a difference.” „Belief was the ingredient that made a reworked habit loop into a permanent behavior.”

Further on we also learn that another critical ingredient to successful habit change is a support group and that:

„Belief is essential, and it grows out of a communal experience, even if that community is only as large as two people.”

The importance of belief is further supported by Tony Dungy’s story, the football coach, who turned his losing teams into champions by taking thinking out of the game and inserting habits in its place. His tactic of replacing time consuming thinking with thoughtless routines worked well, but his teams would fall apart when it really mattered. What brought breakthrough was when the team came to believe in the coach 100% – they surrendered.

The author makes two important remarks at the end of the chapter. One is that it’s difficult to draw the line between habits and addictions, but he doesn’t really take stance or offer a way to approach this problem. (As I’ve pointed out in a previous post related to habits, I believe that the potential damage that habits or addictions to new technologies may inflict is largely underestimated.)

The second remark is to say that „…though the process of habit change is easily described, it does not necessarily follow that it is easily accomplished.” At the same time, becoming aware of our habits and their cues is a great leap towards gaining control over them.

PART TWO The Habits of Successful Organizations

4. Keystone Habits or the Ballad of Paul O’neill – Which Habits Matter Most

Chapter four is about why some habits matter more than others. Keystone habits prepare the ground for major habit change through

a) small wins and

b) „by creating structures that help other habits to flourish”.

The story of Alcoa, the Aluminium manufacturing giant brought back from the edge of collapse and taken to unseen levels of profitability by Paul O’neill, illustrates both principles in action.

The company was in a bad shape all-around when O’neill took over. Instead of focusing on profitability, efficiency and other fancy stuff that make shareholders happy, he made worker safety the single most important goal and was determined to make the company one of the safest in the US, which he did. By focusing on worker safety, he brought unions/workers together with management and created a brand new company culture in which everyone was important and could get their ideas to the highest level of leadership.

The story of Michael Phelps, and how his pre-race routines made extraordinary performance and winning just another part of the routine, also illustrates the principles well. By doing everything exactly as planned and practiced in the few hours prior to race, he got a sense of small wins (everything goes to plan), which eventually lead to winning the race most of the time.

„When the race arrives, he’s more than halfway through his plan and he’s been victorious at every step.”

“Small wins are a steady application of a small advantage,” “Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favour another small win.” „Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach”

The second principle, creating structures that help other habits to flourish, is backed by a study, in which people who kept a food journal lost twice as much weight as those who didn’t.  Even though there was no other difference between the two groups, the journaling group identified patterns in their behaviours, which were unknown to them previously. By being aware of these, they had a chance to change them too, unlike the group who didn’t journal and didn’t become aware of such patterns.

„Typically, people who exercise start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. It’s not completely clear why. But for many people, exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change.”

„…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 every morning is correlated with better productivity, a greater sense of well-being, and stronger skills at sticking with a budget.”

„Keystone habits transform us by creating cultures that make clear the values that, in the heat of a difficult decision or a moment of uncertainty, we might otherwise forget.”

5. Starbucks and the Habit of Success – When Willpower Becomes Automatic

Chapter five explores willpower and how it can be turned into a habit. The starting premise:

„Self-discipline has a bigger effect on academic performance than does intellectual talent.”

„…the best way to strengthen willpower and give students a leg up, studies indicate, is to make it into a habit.”

„Willpower is a learnable skill, something that can be taught…”

Follow ups to the great marshmallow experiment seem to suggest that kids at the age of 4 with a higher level of self-control did better as adults in all areas of life.

Other studies indicate that „Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like the muscles in your arms or legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there’s less power left for other things.”

And then there is the spill over effect: „As people strengthened their willpower muscles in one part of their lives—in the gym, or a money management program—that strength spilled over into what they ate or how hard they worked. Once willpower became stronger, it touched everything.”

The main case study to demonstrate all of these is that of Starbuck’s. The company employed people of all sorts of backgrounds and yet wanted to make sure they provide outstanding customer service and don’t snap whenever they get yelled at. To achieve that, they had to turn willpower into a habit at an organizational level, which they did “by choosing a certain behaviour ahead of time, and then following that routine when an inflection point arrives.”

In addition to clever training programs and preparing employees to all sorts of eventualities, they also gave people a sense of agency: “a feeling that they are in control, that they have genuine decision-making authority”. That dramatically increased how much energy and focus people brought into their jobs as well as their abilities to stay cool when they most needed it.

6. The Power of a Crisis – How Leaders Create Habits Through Accident and Design

Chapter six makes some good points about organizational habits or routines through the case study of Rhode Island Hospital in the US and the London Underground fire of 1987.

The common thread is that both institutions were governed not by procedures carefully developed by leaders, but by truces that were the results of “turf wars” between division leaders. These unpronounced and yet prevalent rules made people behave in certain ways. Notably, everyone would mind their own business and not intervene when the signs of a potential crisis arose.

In the underground, the employee, who first saw a burning tissue, didn’t call the fire brigade, because it wasn’t his job and in case of a false alarm he would have had to face retribution.

In the hospital, when the nurse saw that the doctor might be operating on the wrong side of the patient’s head, she objected, but gave in to the doctor’s orders, because that was the only way she learnt to survive.

In both cases the results were catastrophic, which lead to a fully blown organizational crisis. Terrible as it is, such crisis create opportunities for unprecedented change argues the author. Managements get fired, divisions are reorganized, new procedures are implemented, the voices of the people at the bottom of the organization are heard, and most of all, the shady truces that used to govern the organization are replaced by transparent procedures. As a result, individuals are empowered and dare to say when something is wrong and their innovative ideas are rewarded.

The author goes as far as suggesting that these organizational changes are not possible unless such a crisis makes way for them. Smart leaders will wait with their plans to revamp organizational habits until something like this happens (provided they still have their jobs), because crises are special moments in the life of organizations, which make change possible in the first place.

7. How Target Knows What You Want Before You Do – When Companies Predict (and Manipulate) Habits

Chapter seven uses three case studies to make the following points:

  • “Whether selling a new song, a new food, or a new crib, the lesson is the same: If you dress a new something in old habits, it’s easier for the public to accept it.
  • To market a new habit—be it groceries or aerobics—you must understand how to make the novel seem familiar.

The first story is that of Target, a company that can tell whether a woman is pregnant or not with a very small margin for error just by analysing their buying habits. The analysis became so sophisticated that it can distinguish between women who buy stuff for a friend who is pregnant and pregnant women who buy stuff for themselves. Based on that information Target will send out coupons for baby products to pregnant women, which will freak them out, unless the coupons are in between many others so it feels like they get them randomly and the company doesn’t actually know they are pregnant (which they may not have told anyone at that stage).

One important lesson for marketers: apparently people are more likely to change brands when they undergo big changes in their lives, such as a marriage, divorce, having a baby, moving, switching jobs etc. Not surprising, but not obvious either.

The story of the pop song “Hey Ya” reveals why almost everything in popular radio sounds the same: that’s the way we like it. Whether a new song is great or bad, makes less of a difference than whether it’s familiar or not. We’re hard wired to prefer the known to the unknown, and as the story of “Hey Ya” shows, a brilliant song will only succeed in today’s world once it’s put into a “costume” that makes it sound familiar.

The third story is about getting Americans into the habit of eating organ meat. For better or worse, the government did succeed in doing that, but only after realizing that it had to be camouflaged and made look like other meat that people had been eating already.

Part Three – The Habit of Societies

8. Saddleback Church and the Montgomery Bus Boycott – How Movements Happen

Chapter eight offers us an insider’s view into how movement’s happen through the Montgomery bus boycott and the foundation and growth of the Saddleback Church.

Key takeaways:

  1. A movement starts because of the social habits of friendship and the strong ties between close acquaintances.
  2. It grows because of the habits of a community, and the weak ties that hold neighbourhoods and clans together.
  3. And it endures because a movement’s leaders give participants new habits that create a fresh sense of identity and a feeling of ownership.

While I’ve personally witnessed the start of social movements that had nothing to do with friendship and strong ties initially, it seems to make sense that eventually, at the stabilization or growth stage, these factors definitely come to play a role. What’s even more surprising is that factors such as peer pressure, avoiding public ridicule and maintaining one’s social stance can be a vital ingredient to the growth of a movement.

Many movements start spontaneously, without anyone deliberately or even unintentionally initiating them, without even building on the strong ties of friendships. For the movement to stay alive and grow though, members of a population need to feel like “everyone” is getting involved. That happens when a good friend of yours joins, then someone you vaguely know joins, and then you realize that most people in your social circle is getting involved, which makes you feel like “everyone” is, so why wouldn’t you?

At this stage movements often produce leaders who determine whether the movement will thrive or die. If the leader creates new habits for the movement that it embraces, then a new entity is born that has the potential to outlive its leaders and members. It’s the habits of the movement, or at this stage perhaps the organization, that defines it and holds it together.

9. The Neurology of Free Will – Are We Responsible for Our Habits?

The final chapter of the book discusses the moral questions related to habits and to what extent we’re responsible for them.

The author tells the story of a man, who killed his wife while he was asleep. The phenomena is called sleep terror, which is different from sleepwalking in the sense that people experiencing a sleep terror are not even dreaming, their brains are completely shut down except for the most primal part, which governs their behaviour. They have no chance for conscious intervention and will act and react according to what their primal brains tell them to do whether it be fleeing from a perceived danger or protecting a loved one by killing an imagined intruder. Which is what the man in question thought he had done, but in fact he killed his own wife. The jury let him off with the reasoning that he didn’t choose to kill and had no chance of preventing the murder. Apparently, more than 100 people who committed a similar crime have been let off for the same reason.

Then the author tells the story of a woman, who squandered her inheritance gambling, and raises the question why the gambler should be held responsible for her actions if the murderer is not.

The answers is: “Perhaps a sleepwalking murderer can plausibly argue he wasn’t aware of his habit, and so he doesn’t bear responsibility for his crime. But almost all the other patterns that exist in most people’s lives—how we eat and sleep and talk to our kids, how we unthinkingly 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 the responsibility—to remake them. Once you understand that habits can be rebuilt, the power of habit becomes easier to grasp, and the only option left is to get to work.”

Key Takeaways of The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg:

  1. Habits are powerful, but delicate. They can emerge outside our consciousness, or can be deliberately designed.
  2. Habits emerge gradually, over time, without our permission.
  3. The habit loop starts with a cue, which is followed by a routine, which is reinforced by a reward. The repetition of the loop builds up an anticipation or craving for the reward.
  4. Habits can be changed by removing cues that trigger the routine or by replacing the bad routine with a good one.
  5. Belief makes a reworked habit into a permanent behaviour.
  6. It’s difficult to draw the line between habits and addictions.
  7. Some habits are more important than others: Keystone habits prepare the ground for major habit change through small wins and by creating structures that help other habits to flourish.
  8. Willpower is a learnable skill, something that can be taught.
  9. By focusing on changing a single keystone habit of a company, a whole new company culture can be built.
  10. Crises make way for fundamental positive change in the lives of organizations.
  11. Great changes are accompanied by small changes: people are more likely to change brands when they undergo big changes in their lives.
  12. If you dress a new something in old habits, it’s easier for the public to accept it.
  13. 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 neighbourhoods 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.
  14. Once you’re aware of how your habits work, once you recognize the cues and rewards, you’re halfway to changing them.


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3 Comments The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg – Book Summary and Key Takeaways

  1. Thien says:

    Thanks for sharing your summary :)

  2. phil says:

    but how do you change ? the work is the hardest part. is motivation something that can be changed easily. people with depression usually cite just getting out of bed as a huge task. is medication only answer ?