5 things I’ve learnt from reading Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit. An extremely interesting book about why and how we form habits, their effects, and what we can do to change them.

1. Habits exist to save our brain from using mental effort

We all have habits. We have habits that we carry out every day, and although sometimes we try to change and control them, some habits are kind of essential. They exist because it is a way for our brain to save energy. Think about how many habits we do automatically every day: brushing our teeth every morning and before we go to bed, patting our jackets to check we have our keys and wallet before we leave the house, drinking water often, working out. The list goes on.  

Most of our daily habits are habits because our brain needs us to carry out these actions automatically. Think about how much mental effort it would require if we had to consciously decide which shoe to tie up first, or what road we have to cross to get to the bus stop. Hence, habits turn our daily routines into automatic routines, saving us from using more mental effort: “This effort-saving instinct is a huge advantage” (Duhigg, Habits, 18).  

2. Habits are formed by the Habit Loop

Habits are not just formed automatically from the beginning. We make the first conscious decision to do an action, and over time, this action becomes automatic. This is done by a process with three main components: the cue, routine and reward.   

  • Cue: something that triggers the automatic habit. This can be an emotion, a feeling, a location, a time, a person. 
  • Routine: the action of the habit. 
  • Reward: the feeling, emotion, or thing that makes the routine worthwhile. This is what essentially makes the routine into a habit.  

(Duhigg, Habits, 19) 


3. How businesses make use of our habits

Behavioural psychology has always been super interesting to me because it provides an insight into what influences the things we do. Such insight is particularly valuable to businesses. Duhigg provides an example of how the architecture of McDonald’s restaurants and the standard sales process of the food-chain are basically the same for all stores (Duhigg, Habits 27). This makes it easier for customers to respond to the cues that trigger their McDonald’s food cravings. What’s even more unfortunate, is that a lot of unhealthy fast-food food is “specifically engineered to deliver immediate rewards”.  The immediate gratification of tasting the salty fries provides obvious reasons to keep having more and more, reinforcing the habit loop. 

Important in building successful habits: preparing yourself for the worst.

Businesses are also able to use the knowledge of habits to ensure that their employees are trained to deliver successful customer service. A very interesting thing I learned is that when trying to change or build a habit, one of the most important things is to prepare yourself for inflection points. Inflection points are points that you might not have anticipated. If you prepare yourself for the worst that could happen, you are able to respond to it when it does, and more importantly, not let that de-motivate you from trying to build a successful habit.

Starbucks, for example, trains its employees on how to respond to the worst customer scenarios. If there are angry customers complaining about getting the wrong drink, Starbucks employees are aware of how to deal with these situations. From my experience in retail, I feel like this is a very important habit for employees to harness because although it is not often taught, it does happen. When it does happen, the worst thing is not knowing what to do in front of an angry customer.

Preparing for inflection points goes beyond being a succesful business, and it is something that is essential in building up your will-power and self-discipline.

4. Small habits and small wins make a big difference

Duhigg talks about how certain habits- often referred to as keystone habits– can trigger the development of other habits. This provides a very optimistic view and is something that I completely agree with.  Put simply, when you start to develop small but good habits, the beneficial awards influence more good habits. Such habits might be small in the sense that they seem to only focus on one specific routine, but keystone habits are actually highly influential and inevitably affect other aspects of your life. Waking up early every day, for example, is one simple- but physically arduous- habit that has an impact on your productivity and your well-being. Duhigg writes that “somehow those initial shifts start chain reactions that help other good habits take hold.” (Duhigg, Habits, 109) 

An inspiring example that Duhigg gives is how former CEO of industrial giant Alcoa, Paul O’Neil, transformed the company. When O’Neil became CEO, his main mission was to improve work safety and made it a priority for every employee to focus on this particular habit. As more and more employees implemented the work safety philosophy into their routine, “costs came down, quality went up, and productivity skyrocketed.” (Duhigg, Habits, 108). It’s not difficult to see how small but effective habits, if consistently carried out- such as ensuring that all tasks are work are done with great caution and care- can improve the quality of work.  

Dozens of studies show that willpower is the single most important keystone habit for individual success… students who exerted high levels of willpower were more likely to earn higher grades in their classes and gain admission into more selective schools.

Duhigg, Habits, 131.

Willpower, self-control and self-discipline have always been well-known measures of success. And if you continuously try to exercise such habits, there is not much doubt that you have a great future ahead of you. It leads to much more productivity and deters you from bad habits. It is a super important keystone habit to have, but of course, not an easy one to adopt consistently. It is something that I am definitely trying to master! 

Other small habits (that I try my best to have) that make a big difference: 

  • Making your bed first thing in the morning.  
  • Having a healthy and filling breakfast.  
  • Doing a minor task/chore as soon as it comes to your mind.  
  • Avoiding impulsive purchases.  
Photo by Nirzar Pangarkar on Unsplash

5. The golden rule of habit change: how to change bad habits 

I want to focus on the positive nuggets we can learn and implement from the understanding of habits from Duhigg’s book. One of the most encouraging things I learned is that once we are equipped with the knowledge and motivation, we are able to manipulate a certain habit loop to change a bad habit. 

I have broken the Golden Rule of Habit Change into two simplified steps:   

First step: “you need the capacity to believe that things will get better.” (Duhigg, Habits, 85)  

First, you need to have the motivation and belief that you really want to change a habit, and you believe that you can. This is super important.   

Second step: “Keep the cue, provide the same reward, insert a new routine.” (Duhigg, Habits, 72) 

As difficult as it may seem, changing a habit does not necessarily mean removing all components of a habit. That is why understanding the habit loop is so interesting and useful. It is usually the routine that you want to change, not the reward. If I wanted to stop my awful habit of snacking, I need to change my routine of grabbing biscuits (routine) and find another way to satisfy my sugar craving (reward).  I can do that by eating a banana or blueberries.  

Another personal example is when I went on the Scroll-free September challenge and replaced scrolling through Instagram with scrolling through Depop. I knew that it would be difficult to completely stop my craving for something to mindlessly scroll through on my phone, so I decided to find a different app- one that is not social media- that could provide a similar reward. And it honestly did help!

The cue stays the same and the reward should be very similar. The routine is the habit that you want to change.

Of course, it is important that you find an alternative routine that would provide the most similar reward. It might never be the exact same, but sometimes it is enough to help you resist the bad routine. Duhigg provides a much more detailed explanation of how habits can change for the better. I’m sure that most of us know how difficult it is to actually change a bad habit. But if we are aware of how a habit works, and if we can identify the components of our habit loops, we are more likely to change it.

Bonus nugget! Prepare for inflection points

One of the most useful and insightful things I learned from this book is that it is important to anticipate and plan for inflection points. An inflection point is basically an unexpected change in a course- a turning point.

In the case of changing habits, it’s when a certain cue or event occurs that can discourage you from reaching your goal, and/or revert you back to old habits. These inflection points can be as general as losing motivation to reach a goal, or as specific as getting tired 5 minutes into your exercise routine.

Duhigg uses Starbucks employees as an example. The reason why Starbucks employees (in America in particular) have great customer services is that they are taught how to handle stressful situations with difficult customers. They are given manuals where they can plan how they will “surmount” such inflection points.

This is how willpower becomes a habit: by choosing a certain behaviour ahead of time, and then following the routine when an inflection point arrives.

Dihigg, Habits, 146.

Anticipating and planning steps to overcome potential inflection points is absolutely key in forming good habits. It can make or break you reaching your goals. I think that one of the main reasons- probably the main reason for me- that we fail to reach a goal is because we encounter inflection points and we just give up.

Losing motivation is a big inflection point for me, especially since I’m initially super motivated and invested in the beginning. So, eventually, when the honeymoon phase passes, I lose motivation and eventually stop working towards my goal.

Therefore, it’s paramount to learn about your own inflection points and the inflection points that the world might throw at you. Once you plan them, it’s easier to also plan solutions on how you can overcome obstacles. That way, when you encounter an obstacle, you know how to handle it and continue with your journey in exercising good habits.

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