Friday, April 1, 2016

Book Review of Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit

How much of what we do every day is habit? Usually, more than we realize. You might also be surprised by the value of habits. Since brewing your morning coffee chugs along on autopilot, your brain has more energy to make more important decisions like preparing for a business meeting. If your brain had to think through every action, its effectiveness would be compromised. Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit presents scientific research illustrated by real-life stories on the importance of good or neutral habits and of keys to changing bad habits.

Duhigg divides the book into three sections: The Habits of Individuals, The Habits of Successful Organizations, and The Habits of Society. Supporting Notes and an Index follow. Although the book is not meant as a how-to-change chronic destructive habits, Duhigg includes a practical Reader’s Guide to Using These Ideas. I think this last item is helpful, because I cannot imagine anyone reading this book and not thinking about at least one habit of his own he’d like to change. Duhigg gives suggestions simplified into a formula, but success will depend on the reader’s self-perceptions (What am I really craving here?) and self-control.

Most people know self-control is required to form a healthier habit. But what research shows is that “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.” [p. 137] Duhigg presents further research on the questions these study results engendered. And he gives examples of how companies harness these study results to build self-discipline in their employees.

Other corporate uses of habit research are fascinating from a marketing perspective. How did Target increase revenues $22 billion just by tracking their shoppers’ habits? How did a song no one liked at first sell 5.5 million albums and win a Grammy? Why do certain cleaning products contain nonessential ingredients?

Duhigg also mentions the power of a crisis to change an organization such as Rhode Island Hospital, Starbucks, Alcoa, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the London Underground. After a crisis, people are more open to stop digging in their heels on their own turf in order to function as a customer-focused communication machine.

I found Duhigg’s reasons for the success of the Civil Rights Movement and Saddleback Church enlightening. They involved being part of a community (or multiple communities) where change seems possible.

The Power of Habit may not offer the most earth-shattering revelations. But the types of habit studies being done are eye-opening, and Duhigg’s stories are interesting. I was hoping this book might be more like Malcolm Gladwell’s writings, full of surprise, switcheroo perspectives. Other than the story about preventing riots by removing food vendors, and the general exhortation to shift one’s perceptions, this book’s WOW surprises are minimal. But The Power of Habits success stories are encouraging and motivating. When you finish the book, you will be confident of your potential for transformation and more aware of the “small wins” your new keystone habit gives you.

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