Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

We may convince ourselves that we are decisive beings, making choices and reasoning our way through problems. Duke University researchers found that 40 percent of our daily activities are habits. Psychologist William James put it more starkly: “All of life, so far as its definite form, is but a mass of habits.” These are just a couple of the sources Charles Duhigg draws from in The Power of Habit.

Habit formation is built into the structure of our brain, as Duhigg describes in the early chapters of the book. It is a matter of efficiency. Thinking and deciding are demanding mental tasks. The brain gains efficiency through automation, chunking together even complex activities into routines we can perform with very little mental effort or attention.

The difficulty with this biological economy is that we form many habits without consciously choosing. Some of those habits may have negative consequences. This is the central point of the book. Habits can make or break us, so it is important to understand habits, how they are formed, and how they can be changed.

There is good news and bad news about habits. The bad news is that the encoding of habits in the brain seems to be permanent. The good news is that they can be overwritten with new, more powerful habits.

Duhigg breaks habits down into parts. A cue triggers the habit. We perform routine. Finally, that routine produces or acquires a reward. Eventually, we conflate the cue a reward, having a strong anticipation of the reward that creates a craving. This craving gives the habit its power. Changing habits involves inserting a new routine between the cue and reward that satisfies the craving (and hopefully producing a more positive result than the bad habit you’re hoping to change).

Changing a habit is difficult. Some habits can only change with much time, effort, and support. There is not one-size-fits-all approach to changing habits, but Duhigg presents a general framework.
·         -First, identify the routine you want to change.
·         -Next, experiment with rewards. By substituting different rewards, and tracking how you feel about it, you can isolate what you are really craving.
·         -Isolate the cue to see what is triggering the habit. Duhigg offers a simple handful of questions that can narrow down your search. Figure out what is happening just before you feel the craving.
·         -Finally, develop plan to implement a new routine that satisfies the craving. It will also be good to plan how you are going to handle the inevitable setbacks you’ll experience as you change your habits.

I was surprised by the moral stand on habits Duhigg took in the latter chapters of the book. He argues that if you know you have a habit that is dangerous or destructive, you have an obligation to do something about it. Fortunately, awareness of a habit puts you on the path to being able to do something about it. Unfortunately, that may be a rocky, uncomfortable, and difficult path.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business. New York: Random House, 2012.