Review of Charles Duhiggs ‘right balance of intellectual seriousness [and] practical advice on how to break our bad habits’.
I bought this book when I visited Freiburg in the end of June. I’ve heard about this book before, and just finished reading The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People a few days prior. While the described habits could not be more different, I was looking for a way to be more conscious about what I do, day in and out. I had only heard praise for this book, and I certainly don’t regret reading it.
If we know how habits work, we have a chance of actually changing them - but the first step is noticing them.
Part One: The Habits of Individuals
Habits are processed independently of memories. When chunking together multiple actions, they can be ‘seen’ as one activity. The basic habit loop consists of a cue, a routine, and a reward, whereas the cue and routine meld together.
Habits never fully go away after forming, but they can be overpowered by others. Habits don’t help when attempting transfer learning. They are devoid of the contextual meaning. Slightly modifying cues does not trigger the habit.
While simple and obvious cues and rewards improve habit-forming, a craving is required to keep driving the habit loop. Anticipation of a reward from recognizing the cue will result in frustration and craving if the reward does not follow.
Keeping cue and reward, it is possible to change habits by adapting the routine. But, you need to be aware of the cues, triggers and rewards. The first step is noticing the habit triggering, when that happens consistently you can attempt to change it. It does take effort.
Something else is required however, to not fall back to old habits: a belief that things will get better with the new habit. Studies show that you will fall back when under pressure otherwise.
Belief can emerge during hard times or with the help of communities. Seeing someone else changing can enable belief in someone else. Belief is necessary to ultimately make the new behavior stick.
Part Two: The Habits of Successful Organisations
There are habits that act like dominoes: They enable and facilitate change in other habits. Keystone habits tend to have only small immediate wins, but since they propagate, bigger wins follow eventually - when they are followed through with.
Willpower is a muscle, not a skill. Training it in one area will be noticeable in others. Writing down anticipated challenges and how to deal with them tremendously increases chances of executing, and it requires less willpower. Willpower thus becomes a habit by choosing certain behaviors ahead of time, and following the routine. Knowing the reason why and keeping autonomy improves willpower reserves of subordinates.
Organisations always have institutional habits, it’s just a question if they have been formed deliberately or through rivalries. Rivalries often result in balanced truces, allowing everyone to get their work done. But keeping these truces can result in spectacular failures when something goes only slightly wrong (Just read any technical postmortem analysis). Organizational habits are more malleable during times of crisis.
Shopping, among other things, is immensely habit-driven. But: They are different for everyone. People essentially only change their habits in life-changing events such as moving, job changes, divorce or marriage, etc.. And a pregnancy is among the biggest changes possible, which is why predicting them is among the most lucrative.
Part Three: The Habits of Societies
Movements start with strong ties between close acquaintances, they grow with the weak ties of neighborhoods and communities, and endure with a fresh sense of identity and ownership due to newly created habits. Weak ties and peer pressure in general are the main reason people stay committed, as they would otherwise lose their social standing.
We tend to do still have choices when sleepwalking, but not in sleep terrors, which are generated by central pattern generators and look closely similar to following a habit (in an fMRI). Since they are usually unexpected, we have no fault in their resulting damage. It is different for habits we are actively aware of: we are responsible for their results, since we could have changed them.
There is no single formula for changing habits (there are thousands), but here is a general framework:
- Identify the routine: figure out cue, routine and reward, track them
- Experiment with Rewards: Figure out the craving beneath the habit by testing if a different reward fulfills the craving
- Isolate the Cue. Most cues are based on one or a combination of: Location, Time, Emotional State, other People, or prior actions
- Plan for the cue and modify the routine
What an entertaining book to read. I’m certainly glad I did.
There are many things I took away from reading this book, but here are the biggest ones:
Habits in Depth
As is mentioned in the book, just being aware of habits and noticing them is half the change. Reading this book allowed me to understand habits at a fundamental level, though they are obviously different from the habits in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
Understanding them helped me to start noticing a lot of my own habits, and others acting on theirs. We truly are surrounded by habits like fish in water. The next step is to change them, I’m excited to see how that will go.
Cues as Schelling-Points
While reading the book, it reminded me about Schelling Points. Once we start with a habit (following the cue, anticipating reward), it’s hard to stop acting on it. So the sensible Schelling point for stopping a habit is to avoid having it triggered in the first place, or changing the habit to something less harmful.
I noticed that multiple times, particularly when hungry: I knew that if I were not to eat something within the next few minutes, I would crave sugar later, making it impossible to avoid the cookies later. In short: if I were not to eat something right now, I will eat cookies later.
The shelling point is the situation right now - if I eat something or not. I knew that I could stop myself from eating for at least another hour, but I would not be able to stop myself from eating cookies fifteen more minutes if I were to do so.
The options were to eat something immediately, or to eat cookies later and regret it. That, right there, is a Schelling point, a point which will decide the ultimate result, even though it might not seem like it. Because what would follow is an unhealthy habit, and I know that I would be unable to stop it. I tried and failed before, after all.
Responsibility for Habits
What I found interesting was how responsibility relates to habits. Since habits themselves are ‘impulsive’ and close to impossible to interrupt, how can we be responsible for following them? The solution is surprisingly simple: We are responsible for it in the times between following these impulses, as soon as we become aware that this behavior exists and is damaging to us.
While it has been described this way, I noticed as well that noticing the activation of habits is the hardest part to changing them. Noticing the cue, and not acting on it is hard, doing something else instead (which also satisfies the craving) helps alleviate the situation.
Of course, the best way would be to not encounter the cue again, but consistently avoiding certain emotional states can be even harder than not acting on a cue.
I learned something meta as well: I did not realize that stories had that amount of explanatory power. The author is a NYT journalist, and that truly shines through. The book is absolutely easy to read and understand. The stories especially are concise to the point, with no bit of unnecessary information, with every sentence providing new or useful information. The book is better than most others I’ve read recently from a literary perspective. It’s just so much more comfortable, easy, and fast to read. I did not know that this was possible.
This book is absolutely well written. Not only that, the examples are always concise and precise. They help the explanations tremendously. It’s always clear what it is currently about. It’s generally a pleasure to read, and I learned a lot. I wish the book would have been longer.
I would recommend everyone interested in improving their life overall to read this book. Most habits are harmless, but there are a few, such as gambling, that can completely control your life. Being aware of habits and their power increases our chances of creating new useful habits and especially not getting enslaved to detrimental ones.
When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision-making.
That’s why signing kids up for piano lessons or sports is so important. It has nothing to do with creating a good musician or a five-year-old soccer star. […] When you learn to force yourself to practice for an hour or run fifteen laps, you start building self-regulatory strength.
Starbucks has dozens of routines that employees are taught to use during stressful inflection points. […] Then they practice those plans, again and again, until they become automatic.
For an organisation to work, leaders must cultivate habits that both create a real and balanced peace and, paradoxically, make it absolutely clear who’s in charge.
You never want a serious crisis to go to waste - Rahm Emanuel
A movement starts because of the social habits of friendship and the strong ties between close acquaintances. It grows because of the habits of a community, and the weak ties that hold neighborhoods and clans together. And it endures because a movement’s leaders give participants new habits that create a fresh sense of identity and a feeling of ownership.
Once you know a habit exists, you have responsibility to change it.