The Power of Habit

I always loved the quote by Will Durant – “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit”.

Another good one is that by John Wooden; “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” “The true test of a man's character is what he does when no one is watching.”

Would you consider yourself being a person who nurtures good habits? At 43, I still bite my nails and crack my knuckles. Almost ashamed to say, but I used to smoke back at University, and still get the craving for a cigarette to this day when in certain circumstances; 23 years on.

Why is this? I would hate to believe that ‘once a smoker, always a smoker’. Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit, first published in 2012, goes a long way to explain why.

The three most powerful points I took from the book were;

  1. Any habit can be broken down into a three-part loop – cue, routine and reward

  2. The golden rule of changing any habit is to not resist the craving but to redirect it

  3. The differentiating component between relapses and changing your habits is, belief

Duhigg explains that our brains are constantly looking for ways to save energy. Research shows that one way they do this is by turning activities into habits. Hence, even a complicated act that demands concentration at first, like backing out of the driveway, eventually becomes an effortless habit. He goes on to state that research has indicated that as many as 40 percents of the actions you perform each day are based on habit and not on conscious decisions.

Duhigg explains that in general, any habit can be broken down into a three-part loop: First, you sense an external cue, say, your alarm clock ringing. This creates an overall spike in your brain activity as your brain decides which habit is appropriate for the situation. Next comes the routine, meaning the activity you’re used to performing when faced with this particular cue. You march into the bathroom and brush your teeth with your brain virtually on autopilot. Finally, you get a reward: a feeling of success and, in this case, a minty-fresh tingling sensation in your mouth. Your overall brain activity increases again as your brain registers the successful completion of the activity and reinforces the link between the cue and routine.

Habits are incredibly resilient; he says. In some cases, people with extensive brain damage who could not even remember where they lived could still adhere to their old habits and pick up new ones. This is because learning and maintaining habits happen in the basal ganglia (I had to look it up), a part of your brain that can function normally even if the rest of your brain is damaged.

Unfortunately, this resilience means that even if you kick a bad habit, like smoking, you will always be at risk of relapsing. Ouch.

Habits create cravings.

Kicking a bad habit is hard because you develop a craving for the reward at the end of the habit loop. Studies on animals have shown that once they become used to a simple cue-routine-reward habit, their brains begin anticipating the reward even before they get it. And once they anticipate it, denying them the actual reward makes them frustrated and jittery. This is the neurological basis of craving. Craving works for good habits as well, says Duhigg. Research indicates that people who manage to exercise habitually crave something from the exercise, be it the endorphin rush in their brain, the sense of accomplishment or the treat they allow themselves afterwards.

Companies and advertisers work hard to understand and create such cravings in consumers. Duhigg gives the example of Claude Hopkins, the man who popularised Pepsodent toothpaste when countless other toothpaste had failed. He provided a reward that created craving: namely, the cool, tingling sensation that today is a staple of all toothpaste. That sensation not only “proved” that the product worked in consumers’ minds; it also became a tangible reward that they began to crave. But in reality, the toothpaste does its job without the theatre of current foamy toothpaste.

How to change a habit.

Ask any smoker looking to quit: when the craving for nicotine hits, it’s hard to ignore, says Duhigg. Hence, the trick is to still respond to the craving, but with something other than smoking. This is the golden rule of changing any habit: don’t resist the craving, redirect it, says Duhigg. Keep the same cues and rewards, but change the routine that occurs as a result of that craving.

Duhigg gives an example of the AA asking participants to list what exactly they crave from drinking. Usually, factors like relaxation and companionship are far more important than the actual intoxication. AA then provides new routines that address those cravings, such as going to meetings and talking to sponsors for companionship, effectively substituting drinking with something less harmful. Research indicates that one of the best-known habit-changing organisations in the world uses this method to great effectiveness. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) may have helped as many as ten million alcoholics achieve sobriety.

Though this works well in general, stressful circumstances can cause relapses. Duhigg mentions an example of a recovering alcoholic who had been sober for years when his mother called to say she had cancer. After hanging up, he left work and went directly to a bar, and then, in his own words, was “pretty much drunk for the next two years.”

Research indicates that the differentiating component between relapses and continued sobriety is belief. Spirituality and God feature prominently in AA philosophy, but it’s not necessarily the religious component itself that helps people stay sober. Believing in God helps participants to also believe in the possibility of change for themselves, which makes them stronger in the face of stressful life events.

Its all about small wins.

Not all habits are equal. Some habits, known as keystone habits, are more important than others because adhering to them creates positive effects that spill over into other areas. Duhigg explains - research indicates that doctors have a hard time getting obese people to make a broad change in their lifestyle, but when patients focus on developing one keystone habit, such as keeping a meticulous food journal, other positive habits start to take root as well.

The reason a keystone habit works is that it provides small wins, meaning early successes that are fairly easy to attain. Achieving the keystone habit helps you believe that change in other spheres of life is possible, too, starting a cascade of positive changes.

You must have willpower.

Duhigg lists a famous Stanford University study which showed that four-year-old's with more willpower (as demonstrated by their ability to resist the temptation of a tasty marshmallow) went on to do better in life academically and socially than their less determined peers. Willpower, it seemed, was a keystone habit that could be applied to other parts of life, too. Further research revealed that willpower is, in fact, a skill that can be learned.

But why then is our willpower so inconsistent? Some days hitting the gym is no problem, whereas, on others, leaving the sofa is impossible. It turns out, willpower is actually like a muscle: it can tire. If you exhaust it concentrating on, say, a tedious spreadsheet at work, you might have no willpower left when you get home. But the analogy goes even further: by engaging in habits that demand resolution – say, adhering to a strict diet – you can actually strengthen your willpower. A willpower workout, if you will.

Organisational habits can be dangerous, but a crisis can change them, says Duhigg. Research shows that many organisations are driven by the unofficial organisational habits that have emerged over time, rather than any deliberate decision-making processes. Duhigg gives an example of the London Underground in 1987. Responsibilities in running the underground were divided into several clear-cut areas, and, as a result, staff formed an organisational habit of not overstepping their departmental bounds.

Under the surface, most organisations are like this, he says. It’s a battleground in which individuals push for power and rewards. Habits such as minding one’s own business form as ways to keep the


Unfortunately, some habits are dangerous. In 1987, at the King’s Cross underground station, a ticket collector saw signs of a fire but didn’t raise the alarm. It wasn’t his responsibility. The fire escalated, but no one present knew how to use the sprinkler system or had the authority to use the fire extinguishers. They were someone else’s responsibility.

Within minutes, a huge fireball erupted into the ticket hall and in the end, 31 people died. But even such tragedies can have a silver lining, says Duhigg – a crises offer a unique chance to remake organisational habits by providing a sense of emergency. This is why good leaders often actively prolong the sense of crisis or even exacerbate it.

Habits and Marketing.

Duhigg mentions that retailers have long known more about the habits of shoppers than shoppers themselves do. Retailers trawl through masses of data on customer behaviour and then adapt their operations to maximise sales. He gives an example - most people habitually turn right when entering a store; therefore, retailers put their most profitable products on the right side of the entrance.

One of the masters of this method is Target, the American retailer that serves millions of shoppers annually and collects terabytes of data on them. Their data analysis became so sophisticated they could even tell when customers were pregnant and predict their due date because their shopping patterns changed and they started buying things like prenatal vitamins. By sending them baby-related coupons, Target could effectively lure them into their stores.

The analysis worked so well that Target actually knew a teenage girl was pregnant before she had told her family. Target sent her baby-related coupons, prompting her father to pay the local Target manager an angry visit: “She’s still in high school… Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?!” When the truth came out, it was the abashed father’s turn to apologise.

But Target soon realised that people resented being spied on. For its baby coupons to work, it needed to bury them amid random unrelated offers for things like lawnmowers; the offers had to seem like the familiar, un-targeted ones.

When trying to sell anything new, companies will dress it up in something familiar; for example, radio DJ's can guarantee a new song becomes popular by playing it sandwiched between two existing hit songs. This way, new habits or products are far more likely to be accepted.


What I took from it.

Following habits is not only a key part of our lives but also a key part of organisations and companies. All habits comprise a cue-routine-reward loop, and the easiest way to change this is to substitute the routine with something else while keeping the cue and reward the same. Achieving lasting change in life is difficult, but it can be done by focusing on important keystone habits such as willpower.

My Rating