We like to think that the things we do every day (in actions big and small) are the result of our conscious choices and the exercise of our free will, but scientists who study the human brain are questioning that assumption. Based on abundant research data, it’s becoming increasingly clear that we rely on subconscious habits more than we realize (or care to admit).
Are we then creatures of habit, rather than creatures of choice?
If we even suspect that the answer to that question might be “yes”, then it behooves us to understand what habits are. How do they work? How can we change bad habits and install new and better ones—habits that pull us closer to what we really want?
Answering those questions was Charles Duhigg’s precise purpose for writing, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.
Explained in Duhigg’s highly entertaining and rich story-telling style, habits are thoroughly demystified allowing readers to visualize how they might apply the ideas in their own life.
In fact, using the insights I picked up in this book, I was able to finally lose 40 lbs and get back into shape. It had a real impact on the quality of my life and I can’t think of a higher tribute that anyone can pay to an author’s work.
For this reason, I’m very confident that you too can apply the ideas presented in this book, to improve the quality of your personal and professional life.
Here are 5 powerful ideas that I took away from the book (among many, many others):
1. Change your habits, change your life
The Power of Habit is not one of those books you simply read once and move on. The material demands continued study and practice. That’s because the deeper you dig into your own experience, the more you realize that in some ways your life resembles a complex web of entangled habits, where many habits are interlocked with others.
In a certain sense, your brain and your life might be described as a network or system of habits.
Does that surprise you? If so, think about it for a moment. Practically everything you do every day revolves around habits:
- Your bed time
- The time you get out of bed each morning
- How you take your coffee
- Whether you exercise or not
- The route you take to work
- The things you do all day, at work
- How you communicate with others
- What you do when you get home
- and so much more!
Habits are such a pervasive part of our lives because it would be very difficult and expensive (energy-wise) for your brain to go around consciously thinking about everything you do. Habits are incredibly useful because they allow us to put certain things on a sort of auto-pilot. In this way, decisions can be made and actions can be executed without much conscious “thinking”, and even without much willpower.
Habits even influence how we make complex decisions, solve problems or deal with difficult life events because we never enter into such situations with a clean slate. Instead, we bring to bear clumps of thinking habits (or shortcuts) that scientists call heuristics.
Understanding the pervasive nature of habits is an important insight and a paradigm shift for most of us. It’s not just about a couple of bad or good habits, that you may want to discard or adopt, it’s the realization that the quality of your life is dictated by the quality of your habits. Only upon realizing the true power of habits can you mobilize to change the quality of your life.
Or think of it this way: if you’re not happy with the results you’re generating in any part of your life, it’s because you haven’t gotten all the habits right.
2. To change your habits, map the Habit Loop
According to Duhigg habits have a very simple structure consisting of a three step loop. First there is the “cue”, or the trigger, that sets the habit loop in motion. This can be a particular occurrence, place, time of day, or even another person. The habit is not initiated without the cue.
After the cue comes the “routine”. These are the specific steps you take to carry out the habit. These are the action items of the habit and as such are the most obvious and recognizable part of the habit loop. The routine’s methodical and stepwise nature gives it away. And while pinponting the cue of a habit can be challenging, the routine is all too easy to spot.
Last but not least comes the “reward”, or the big payoff, of a habit. This is usually obvious to spot, but not always. The reward of binging on a tub of ice cream is easy to understand but some behaviors can be difficult to decipher. Take, for example, the curious habit of some athletes who catastrophically “choke” at the last minute of an otherwise impeccably played game or tournament? Where’s the payoff in such situations? Sometimes more investigation is required.
Understanding and mapping the habit loop for each of the habits you want to change—identifying your cue, routine and reward— is a vitally important first step in making significant changes in your life. Keep the cue, keep the reward, but change the routine. It’s deceptively simple but with time and effort you can map the habit loop and re-shape any habit you want.
3. Create cravings to drive your new habits
Understanding and mapping all the steps in the habit loop is great but its often not enough to change habits or adopt new ones. In order to manipulate most habits you must understand that your habits are based on cravings and these cravings, in turn, drive the habit loop.
Think about it. People go for runs because they crave the feeling of accomplishment and the rush of neurochemicals such as norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine that are released in the brain. You endulge your sweet tooth because you crave the feeling of fullness and the sugar rush that follows any post-meal dessert. Cravings, explains Duhigg, are what fuel habits.
Therefore, to change or adopt new habits you must create and reinforce a craving for the reward. If you want to adopt the habit of working out each morning, create a powerful reward and focus on it, almost obsessively. Duhigg suggests that if you want to stick to a gym-going habit then reward yourself with a smoothie at the end of your workout and focus on acquiring that reward every day. With practice and focus, you will begin to create a powerful craving for that reward, which will fuel your new, healthier habit.
4. Believe that change is possible
With an understanding of the habit loop and the role of cravings in driving our behavior, you’re ready to create a lot of positive change in your life. However, some habits are so deeply ingrained that they require an additional element: faith.
Alcoholism, gambling and other addictions are examples of these types of pernicious habits. Duhigg points out that it’s not enough to want to change, you have to have faith and believe that change is indeed possible.
Duhigg explains that this is the driving force behind Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12-step program. Faith in a higher power, and the faith and support of a group are the keys to changing these types of habits. You can’t do it alone.
Sometimes people create change after difficult, maybe even tragic, life-changing events because new circumstances provide a new perspective, and open up space for the belief that change is possible. But just as often, Duhigg points out, people don’t suffer through these types of events but still manage to turn their lives around. In these cases, they manage powerful changes because they have found the support and belief system of a group. By tapping into the strength of a network of people trying to create the same type of change in their life, you can muster the belief that change is possible and the courage to stick with it, even when things feel hopeless.
If there are habits that you’ve been trying to change for years, maybe even decades, it’s important to remember this insight. Don’t try to do it alone. Can you recruit a buddy with whom to share the journey? Can you tap into the support and faith that is generated by a group?
5. Focus on keystone habits
One of the problems I’ve encountered in personal and organizational change involves trying to change too many habits all at once. This approach tends to creates huge pressure, stress, and unnecessary conflict that often leads to poor or mediocre results.
Fortunately, there are keystone habits that, when changed, positively impact other closely-connected habits. Because of this, keystone habits can have an outsized positive impact in our lives.
Duhigg illustrates this by telling us the story of “Lisa” in the prologue of the book. Lisa was in a state of desperation. Recently divorced by her husband (who left her for a younger woman) she was overweight, out of shape, unemployed, penniless and deeply depressed. She decided she needed an audacious goal to work towards, so she resolved to make a trek across the dessert in North Africa. She gave herself 1 year to get ready. But she realized that to accomplish such a feat she would have to get in shape and quit smoking.
So she vowed to do just that.
Four years later, when she was part of research study of people who had re-made their lives, Lisa was unrecognizable. She looked 10 years younger than others her age, she was fit, toned, debt-free, successful and happy!
How had she done it?
The researchers concluded that it was due to Keystone habits.
Making the decision to quit smoking, led to other positive changes like running and adhering to healthier eating habits. This in turn gave her energy and facilitated a more positive outlook on life, which helped her stay focused and engaged at work. And so on and so forth…
Her decision and resolve to change just one habit, had spiraled into a virtuous cycle of habits.
That’s the power of changing keystone habits.
The lesson? Don’t try to change multiple habits at once. Focus instead on a keystone habit that will have a positive impact on other areas of your life. Such habits may include:
- eating healthier
- getting out of debt
- continued education and learning
- giving up addictive substances, etc
By focusing on a single habit, beneficial effects can cascade into other areas of your life and, in just a brief period of time, the results you’re able to generate may astound you.
After reading this great book, the bottom line is clear: dramatic change is possible in your life. And while you can’t delete your old habits, you do have the power to shape them into whatever you please. You have the power to forge new habits that bring you closer to what you truly want in life.
Are you ready to get started?