Review: Book examines how habits take root
"The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business" (Random House), by Charles Duhigg
Tuesday, February 28, 2012
Some of us begin the day with a workout in the gym or a 5-mile run, others with coffee and a doughnut, perhaps topped off with a cigarette. It's all a matter of habit.
Habits govern our lives more than we might acknowledge, raising questions about how many of our daily actions are the result of actual decision-making. A research study published in 2006 found that more than 40 percent of our actions are habits, not real decisions.
Most of us seldom think about how habits develop and what we can do to nurture the good ones and rid ourselves of the bad. Charles Duhigg has thought about it a lot, detailing his conclusions in a book that may lead readers to a fresh examination of how routine behaviors take hold and whether they are susceptible to change.
The author starts by describing the three-step process by which habits develop: cue, routine and reward. For Claude Hopkins, the legendary adman for Pepsodent who helped create a craving that made toothbrushing a habit, the cue was tooth film, the routine was brushing and the promised reward was beautiful teeth.
In "The Power of Habit," Duhigg presents a series of case studies that examines the role of habit formation among individuals, businesses and society. His aim is to show that an understanding of how habits work enables us to change them.
One example is Bill Wilson, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, which the author characterizes as the world's largest, best-known and most successful habit-changing organization. The key to its success was to change the habit loop by replacing the drinking routine with meetings and companionship.
Habit changes also loomed large for Tony Dungy, the NFL coach who transformed two losing teams into winners. His strategy was to get his players to react automatically to opponents' visual cues, eliminating the need for decision-making and the momentary hesitation it entailed.
The book goes on to look at how Alcoa's CEO revitalized the aluminum producer by emphasizing safety above everything else; how visualizing the perfect race helped make swimmer Michael Phelps an Olympic champion; and how Starbucks instills in its baristas the self-discipline to deal with difficult customers.
Sometimes it takes a crisis to bring about change, as in a series of medical errors at a Rhode Island hospital or a disastrous fire in the London subway. Another catalyst can be social habits, which Duhigg says helped drive the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott during the civil-rights era. The role of habit also comes under scrutiny in the case of a compulsive gambler and a man who murdered his wife while sleepwalking.
The stories that Duhigg has knitted together are all fascinating in their own right, but take on an added dimension when wedded to his examination of habits. Readers may come away from the book with fresh ideas about their own behaviors and their susceptibility to change.
"If you believe you can change — if you make it a habit — the change becomes real," the author concludes. "This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you choose them to be."
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