The Power of Habit: Takeaways and Key Points Book Summary

New York Times business reporter, Charles Duhigg examines what habits are, their importance and how to change them so anyone can change their life or business. He explains why some people and companies are able to change their habits, when others cannot. He marries science and storytelling to demonstrate how in every aspect of society around the world-from parenting, to product design, to leading successful social movements the ability to change everyday behaviors is the bedrock of success.

My key Takeaways from “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business" by Charles Duhigg

Takeaway #1 How Habits Are Formed

Our brain turns a sequence of actions into an automatic return through 'chunking' this allows our brain to save energy and perform common, reoccurring tasks easily and efficiently without having to think about it. It all happens in the basal ganglia, a small neurological structure that's embedded in our brain.

It's a 3 step process:

1. An external cue creates a spike of brain activity as it finds the appropriate action for the occasion.

2. When you're used to performing this habit when faced with the cue (I.e when your alarm goes off you jump up and brush your teeth or put the coffee on) you have a routine in place and do the task pretty much on autopilot.

3. Your brain acknowledges the successful completion of the task (connecting the cue with the habit) with a reward. You might not associate the task with a treat as such but your brain knows that the reward for brushing your teeth is the minty clean feeling.

Takeaway #2 Why do some habits stick but others don't?

Habits are so resilient that even if you have brain damage, so long as the basal ganglia is undamaged, your habits remain. However, the brain doesn't know the difference between good habits and bad habits which is why it can be so difficult to kick smoking or eating sugary food due to the brain kicking in with the cue and old behavior as it seeks that reward.

The trick to changing a bad habit to a good one is not just to change or remove the cue and the action that follows but to manipulate the craving - Don't ignore it or resist it, change it. If you're trying to lose weight but got into the habit of stopping off at the bakery on the way home from work you might alter your behavior by going to the gym straight after instead. Your brain will still get the feel-good reward of endorphins but it'll be through exercise rather than a sweet treat.

Takeaway #3 Creating Keystone Habits

Keystone habits are the ones that are most important as they create a positive knock-on effect in other areas of your life and must be instilled if you want to make a broad change in your lifestyle. Basic keystone habits such as always walking up stairs rather than taking the elevator or keeping a food diary both create small habits which lead on to big life-changing habits of being fit and eating healthily.

How do you make sure you stick to the keystone habits? Willpower. But willpower comes and goes as we all know... Some days you'll be all fired up to get to the gym, other days you can't get enough energy or motivation to get up off the sofa and say 'I'll go tomorrow and workout longer and harder'.

Work on your willpower and you'll be able to successfully create all the other habits you want to have.

Being told or forced to do something will weaken your willpower so make it a choice, can you do the action before being asked? Or bend it to suit your needs? If you know you have a trying situation coming up when your willpower will be low, plan for it – Go to the birthday party having eaten a healthy meal before and take along healthy snacks to add to the buffet. Take responsibility for your willpower and habits, don't slip back to old ways because you blame the host for only provided unhealthy options at the party!

Takeaway #4 The Power To Change

Surround yourself with people who are trying to form the same habit you are, get a friend or work colleague plus a family member to join you in losing weight so that you have support at work and at home and make friends at the gym who already have those healthy habits happening automatically. Finally, take responsibility – Don't blame your actions on the habit saying it's not your fault.

Key Points From The Power of Habit

  • Generally, habits can be broken down into a 3 part loop: First, you sense an external cue. Next comes the routine. Finally, you get a reward.
  • The habit formation framework is: Identify the routine, Experiment with rewards, Isolate the cue, Have a plan.
  • Stopping an unhealthy habit can be difficult because of the craving you get, this craving leading you through the habit loop to the reward. The good news is that we can use cravings and rewards in order to form healthy habits.
  • The Golden Rule of Habit Change: You can't extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it. Therefore, the key for quitting a strong habit or an addiction is not to resist the craving but to redirect it, meaning substitute it for another.
  • To change an unhealthy habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.
  • You first have to believe you can break a habit. If you believe you can change, then the change becomes real.
  • Not all habits are equal. Keystone habits are more important than others as when you stick to them, their positive effects spill over into other areas of your life.
  • Once willpower became stronger, it touched everything. When you actively engage in habits that demand resolution, you can strengthen your willpower. Willpower is like a muscle and therefore must be rested before it becomes totally overworked and exhausted
  • Crises offer the chance to reform habits. Good leaders sense crises before they happen.
  • Your habits are what you choose them to be. Change might not be fast and easy, but with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped. The key is ongoing small wins.

In-Depth Lessons

Lesson #1. Habits Are Loops That Were Created To Save Us Effort

During a 1990’s research experiment on mice in which researchers from MIT had a mouse move through a maze in search of a piece of chocolate, they discovered, through monitoring brain activity, that when the mice were first placed into the maze, the creature’s brain activity spiked - they could smell the chocolate and would begin searching for it. But as the experiment was repeated, the mice would learn where the chocolate was located and memorize directions for how to reach it which resulted in their brain activity decreasing.

Essentially, the mice had started to form a habit. The process of turning a sequence of actions, in this case directions, had become an automatic routine for the mice. This process is known as chunking and forms the basis of all habit formation which allows the brain to save itself energy and perform common tasks such as driving a car, making a sandwich, and brushing our teeth.

Generally, habits can be broken down into a 3 part loop.

First, you sense an external cue, this might be the alarm on your phone going off. This cue creates a spike in your brain activity as the brain decides which habit is appropriate for the cue.
Next comes the routine - The activity that you’re used to performing when faced with the cue i.e getting out of bed as soon as the alarm goes off to get showered.
Finally, you get a reward, a feeling of success. In the case of the alarm going off, the person who gets out of bed will have the reward of a refreshing shower that wakes them up. Your brain activity increases again when it registers the successful completion of the activity (showering) and reinforces the link between cue and routine.
Our habits have so much power over us that it has been known for people with extensive brain damage to still abide by their old habits! To the lesser extreme, they’re so resilient that you always run the risk of relapsing, even after successfully kicking a bad habit years ago, but thankfully, with the understanding you’ll gain here, you can catch the bad habit before it takes hold again and l learn how to create new, better, habits in their place.

Lesson #2. Habits Create Craving’s Which Is Why They’re So Hard To Kick

What habits have you picked up? Do you always stop for a coffee and pastry on the way to work? How about rewarding yourself with something sweet midday or after work? If you decide to kick this habit because you’re piling on the pounds or trying to save money odds are that you’re either going to decide today isn’t the day and that you’ll quit tomorrow or, you’ll manage to resist temptation but end up grumpy because of it.

Stopping a bad habit is so difficult because of the craving you get, this craving leading you through the habit loop to the reward - that sweet treat in this example. When you stop at that coffee shop or bakery enough times, your brain begins anticipating the reward ahead of time as was shown in a research project conducted by neuroscientist Wolfram Schults in the 1990’s on a macaque monkey called Julio who was being taught to pull a lever when colored shapes appeared on a screen.

Julio was rewarded with blackberry juice, his favorite, when he got the task right. To begin with, the monkey didn’t pay much attention to the screen but there was a spike in his brain activity when he happened to pull the lever at the right time thus triggering the juice reward. Gradually understanding the connection between seeing the shapes, pulling the lever, and getting the juice, it transpires that the monkey began getting brain activity spikes as soon as the shapes appeared on screen as if he’d already received the juice - his brain had started to anticipate the reward.

Deciding to adapt the experiment to see what would happen, it was decided to either stop the juice reward altogether or give a diluted juice to the monkey when he pulled the lever. The neurological patterns associated with frustration and desire could now be seen - the monkey becoming dispirited when he was deprived of his ‘proper’ reward.

Thankfully it’s not all doom and gloom regarding craving the reward as it is possible to use cravings to form good habits! People who exercise regularly gain an endorphin rush either through a sense of accomplishment or through the treat they allow themselves after their workout session. So start curbing your habits by noticing your cravings.

Lesson #3. Change A Habit By Substituting One Routine For Another

Anyone who’s ever tried to give up smoking knows that when the craving for nicotine hits, it hits hard and is extremely difficult to ignore. Hence the golden rule for quitting anything that you want to give up is not to resist the craving but to redirect it. For smokers, this might mean eating some gum, doing some push-ups, or doing some breathing exercises every time they feel the craving for a cigarette.

Alcoholics Anonymous also uses this redirect method by getting participants to list what they crave from drinking i.e relaxation or companionship and replacing that routine with a less harmful activity. Many participants noted that the habit-replacement method worked very well for them, that is until a stressful or upsetting event would arise which would have them reaching for the bottle once more, the old habit too strong to resist no matter how long they’d been in the program nor how successful they’d been at quitting alcohol. Research showed that people who remained sober, resisting a relapse no matter what they were faced with, didn’t use the redirect method alone but also had an unbreakable belief in themselves that their days of drinking alcohol were in the past so remember, you’ve gotta believe you can break the habit!

Lesson #4. Keystone Habits and Small Wins Lead To Positive Change

It’s all very well saying you’re going to quit a bad habit or make a positive change in your life but in reality, words mean nothing unless you’re prepared to change your habits. The problem is that not all habits are equal. Some habits are more important than others as when you stick to them, their positive effects spill over into other areas of your life. These are known as keystone habits. Doctors found that it was difficult for obese patients to make a broad lifestyle change but when they focused on developing just 1 keystone habit, in this case keeping a food journal, other positive habits developed.

Keystone habits are essential as they provide us with small wins quickly and relatively easily so that we can see that success is happening, this leading us to understand that it’s possible to make other positive changes in our life too.

Lesson #5. The Most Important Keystone Habit Is Willpower

Stanford researchers discovered in the 1960’s that if 4 year old’s were asked whether they would like to eat 1 marshmallow now, this being placed in front of them, or wait a little while so as to be able to have 2 marshmallows, only 30% of the kids managed not to eat the marshmallow in front of them before the researcher came back to give them 2 marshmallows.

Years later the research participants, now adults, were located. It was discovered that the kids who had the most willpower, those who had managed to wait 15 minutes without devouring the first marshmallow that had been placed in front of them, had received better grades, were more popular, and had fewer drug addictions compared with those who had lacked willpower and gobbled up the one marshmallow unable to hold out for two.

Similar studies have been done more recently on different age groups showing that willpower is a keystone habit that can be applied to many areas of life however, as you’ve probably noticed, willpower isn’t always consistent. Some days it’s easy to write that report, go to the gym, or eat healthily, other days it’s a struggle and all you want to do is lay on the sofa and eat snacks!

This is because willpower is like a muscle and therefore must be rested before it becomes totally overworked and exhausted. If you use up all your willpower to get you through a hard day at work, it’s likely that you won’t have enough willpower left at the end of the day to go to the gym and eat a healthy supper. You also have less willpower when you are ordered to do something you don’t want to do and when faced with stressful situations such as an angry client - unless you’re mentally prepared your willpower will be zapped and you’ll likely snap back, or binge eat your way through all the cookies! The good news is that there’s something called a willpower workout whereby when you actively engage in habits that demand resolution i.e sticking to a strict calorie controlled diet, you can strengthen your willpower.

The LATTE method was developed by Starbucks after they realized that staff could lose the willpower to smile and be polite and helpful in the face of an angry customer. They outlined some steps to take in the event of a stressful situation those being:

Listening to the customer
Acknowledging the complaint
Taking action
Thanking the customer
Explaining why the issue came up.
By repeating this method Starbucks staff knew exactly what to do in a stressful situation and could therefore remain calm and retain their willpower.

Lesson #6. Beware of Dangerous Organizational Habits and the Crisis That Can Change Them

One day, a London commuter passing through King’s Cross station noticed a piece of burning paper by one of the escalators. He notified a ticket collector but rather than investigating the problem or notifying someone in the fire safety department, the ticket collector did nothing deeming it not his responsibility since the station was divided into clear-cut areas with staff habitually staying within their tight departmental bounds.

Not long after the ticket collector was informed about the piece of burning paper, a massive fireball erupted into the ticket hall. No member of staff in this area knew how to use the fire extinguishers nor did they have the authority to activate the sprinkler system. After a series of failures resulting in 31 people dying and many others being severely burnt, the fire brigade were eventually called.

The problem at the heart of the tragedy was that, despite the complicated hierarchy of managers and sub-managers, no one was responsible for passenger safety despite changes to the system, which would have saved lives, having been proposed years earlier.

Most companies operate like this, people learning which habits to develop in order not to rock the boat and tread on someone else’s toes which might lose them their job. But crises offer the chance to reform habits. Ideally, good leaders sense crises before they happen and when they meet resistance, they don’t give up, creating a media frenzy or similar that makes people sit up, take notice, and make the necessary habitual changes.

Lesson #7. Companies Know How To Influence Your Habits

Why do supermarkets place easily bruised fresh fruit and veg at the front of the store so that it’s the first thing you encounter? Why do they place high-end items or discounted items (the things they want you to buy) to the right of the entrance? It’s all down to willpower and subtle marketing ploys - if we shop for fresh, healthy foods first, we’re more likely to pick up unhealthy snacks as we continue making our way around the store whilst, for entrance placement, it’s well known that most shoppers will enter a store and turn right, therefore, walking straight through the desirable products. Add to this the act of data-collection and other sophisticated methods that have popped up in the last few decades and you’ll realize that really, whether you’re shopping offline or online, your willpower doesn’t stand a chance. Most of us are wise to the supermarket product placement ploys now but, have you realized that they’re still outwitting you by presenting you with highly targeted offers for items you buy regularly or are likely to buy in the future, mixed in with unrelated items to make it seem more natural? Likewise, in the radio industry, DJ’s can guarantee a newly released song will become popular by playing it between 2 existing hit songs.

Just remember, you’re far more likely to accept new products and new habits if they don’t seem new to you.

Lesson #8. Peer Pressure, Strong Ties, and New Habits, Lead To Movements

Rosa Parks is the woman history remembers from 1955 when she refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white person, just because she was black. Arrested and charged, her action sparked a bus boycott lasting a year and resulting in making her a civil-rights icon however, she was not the first black person to refuse to give up a seat to a white person nor the first person to be arrested for refusing to do so.

What made people take notice of Rosa Parks and no one before her? She was popular. Well-liked in her community across different social segments, she had a broad range of friends and acquaintances from laborers to professors and belonged to many clubs and societies. In sociology, this is known as having ‘strong ties’, those ties helping to get Rosa out of jail and spreading her message. But good friends alone cannot sustain a lengthy boycott, you need weak ties aka acquaintances who can spread peer pressure. After all, when all of your friends and fellow classmates support a movement, it’s hard for you not to follow suit. The final component to the movement becoming a self-propelling force was Martin Luther King’s famous speech at which point people began forming new habits.

Lesson #9. You Are Responsible For Changing Your Habits

Can you blame your habits, making yourself excusable because of them?

In 2008 a man called Brian Thomas strangled his wife to death. He was suffering from night terrors, in which the brain essentially shuts down, and thought he was strangling a burglar who was attacking his wife. In court, the defense argued that the moment Brian thought someone was attacking his wife, an automatic response, aka a habit, was triggered within him - one to protect her. He was acquitted.

Meanwhile, gambler Angie Bachman, who had already gambled away her house and $1,000,000 inheritance, was sued by a casino company for $500,000 of outstanding gambling debts. In court, she argued that gambling was a habit that made her feel good so when the casino company sent her offers for free trips to the casino (despite knowing she was bankrupt), she was merely following through with a habit. Angie lost her case.

The difference between these 2 people’s habits is that one person knew they had a harmful habit and the other didn’t. As soon as you know you have a harmful habit, it’s your responsibility to change it.

The above is inspired from the bestselling book "The Power of Habit" by Charles Duhigg

The Power of Habit Chapters

Chapter One - The Habit Loop - How Habits Work
Chapter Two - The Craving Brain - How to Create New Habits
Chapter Three - The Golden Rule of Habit Change - Why Transformation Occurs
Chapter Four - Keystone Habits, or The Ballad of Paul O'Neill - Which Habits Matter Most
Chapter Five - Starbucks and the Habit of Success - When Willpower Becomes Automatic
Chapter Six - The Power of a Crisis - How Leaders Create Habits Through Accident and Design
Chapter Seven - How Target Knows What you want Before you do - When Companies Predict (and Manipulate) Habits
Chapter Eight - Saddleback Church and the Montgomery Bus Boycott - How Movements Happen
Chapter Nine - The Neurology of Free Will - Are We Responsible for Our Habits?

***

expert_advice

On average, 90% of what we read is forgotten within the first hours after reading... Which is why it’s so important to apply what you read.

Click Below to get a free workbook of one of my top recommended books of all times, filled with in-depth insights, action points and self exploration exercises.

***

Best Quotes from The Power of Habit

“Change might not be fast and it isn't always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped.”

“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. Exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change.”

“The Golden Rule of Habit Change: You can't extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it.”

“Champions don’t do extraordinary things. They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they’ve learned.”

“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 over for other things.”

“Rather, to change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.”

“If you believe you can change - if you make it a habit - the change becomes real.”

“This process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future: THE HABIT LOOP”

“This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be.”

“THE FRAMEWORK: • Identify the routine • Experiment with rewards • Isolate the cue • Have a plan”

“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.”

“Small wins are a steady application of a small advantage.”

― Charles Duhigg: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

***

Get my Start With Why Workbook For Free
Apply What You Read

Editor and Founder

Tal Gur is a location independent entrepreneur, author, and impact investor. After trading his daily grind for a life of his own daring design, he spent a decade pursuing 100 major life goals around the globe. His most recent book and bestseller, The Art of Fully Living - 1 Man, 10 Years, 100 Life Goals Around the World, has set the stage for his new mission: elevating the next generation of leaders to their true potential.

Like what you see? Please share with your friends ⇗
 

Read The Art of Fully Living

There's no going back-once you embark on the journey you're meant to live, it's impossible to settle for anything less than your dreams.

Click here to learn more

This book just may change your life

Guess what? I wrote another book. It's a 500-page roadmap for living life on your own terms and it just might change your life.

Click here to learn more
How Abundant Are You? How Abundant
Are You?